Azad: Hero or Zero?

My cricket memories of Kirti Azad are of him clean bowling Ian Botham with a ball that never left the ground during India's semi final triumph in the historic 1983 World Cup; the other is of him smacking the Pakistani bowling to all parts of the ground during a one day game at the Nehru stadium in 1983. It may have been only an exhibition match but it was the first day night game in the country and the opponents were Pakistan and we won a lost match thanks to Azad's belligerence.  He did little else of note in his international career, a failing against the short ball limiting his opportunities. He was, like so many others in that generation, a dada in domestic cricket, a struggler with the big boys.

As a politician, I have seen Azad as a pugnacious backbencher, someone who gives it back as good as he gets. During the Bihar elections, he was livid with me when I abruptly cut him off on a tv debate. "Why do you call me if you don't give me enough time to speak," he said angrily.I travelled to his constituency of Darbhanga this time, an area from where he is a three time MP. Most people I spoke to suggested that he hadnt done enough for an area which is falling off the map, describing him as a bit of an absentee landlord (his wife Poonam comes from Darbhanga). And yet, a number of people I met did admit that Azad had also built a solid reputation as someone who had not engaged in corruption. "Aate kum hai lekin Hera Pheri toh Nahi karte," was a common refrain.

It's that self-image of a "whistle-blower" (call me  a 'crusader' he told me on a show last night) that has perhaps propelled him into a big fight, first within the DDCA and now with the finance minister Arun Jaitley. That the DDCA was badly run for years is an open and shut case: any number of players will tell you in private about official arrogance, corruption and apathy, a deadly combination that has destroyed many a sporting body in India. The same players will also tell you that Mr Jaitley was seen as an exception, a true lover of the game who wanted to recast the image of Delhi cricket. Fact is, running the DDCA is even more difficult than managing a VIP gymkhana. Jaitley tried, but failed. Now, the immorality of the officials under him has come to haunt him.

Azad, Bishen Bedi and a few others raised a red flag; most of the rest chose to compromise rather than confront. For years, we in the media scarcely paid attention to Azad's lament: he was seen as a gadfly, a noisemaker with little support. Enter Arvind Kejriwal, a politician who likes nothing better than a joust, especially if it involves punching above his weight. Kejriwal is now riding on the back of Azad, or vice versa. Jaitley's other 'enemies' within and outside the BJP have also ganged up: Ram Jethmalani, Subramanium Swamy, Lalit Modi: this is open season for all of them (whispers abound about the role of a few senior BJP ministers too). Most of them have nothing to lose; Jaitley has his reputation as a politician with a commitment to probity in public life on the line. As far as Azad is concerned, he is playing a bit like he did against Pakistan that famous night: a man who believes the only way to bat in a tough match is to hit out or get out. He won in 1983, can he really become a hero again?

Post script: a friend of Azad told me last night, 'this is not just Kirti vs Jaitley, this is Stephens vs SRCC, a battle for honour!" It's a battle that has left the BJP looking once again like a house divided.

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