Prem Panicker


To me, the most interesting offshoot of the recent World Cup has been the re-emergence of Kapil Dev.

Never mind all those megabucks the likes of Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Dravid et al made out of endorsements during the period -- Kapil Dev matched them buck for buck. And the bandwagon shows no sign of slowing down, what's more.

It was curiosity that took me to the Regal Room of the Oberoi the other day, where clothing giants S Kumar's were slated to anoint Kapil as their brand ambassador. And what do you know, 15 minutes before the balloon is due to go up, there are over 300 mediapersons present at the venue. You've got to go to the average press conference to know what a rarity that is -- the announcement of an important new policy by the prime minister draws approximately that number.

The man walks in -- and there is, to quote the Carpenters, a kind of hush. The years haven't dimmed his charisma, that much is obvious from the way hardened media types fawn over him.

It's not too difficult to pin down the secret of his universal appeal -- Kapil Dev is unabashedly earthy. What you see is what you get -- and if his pronouncements aren't quite in keeping with the party line, then hey, tough, about sums up his attitude.

Like, there was this media guy who, during the question and answer session, asked Kapil what brand of suitings he himself preferred. Any celebrity worth his endorsement contract would have used that as the cue to hype the brand that had brought him to that platform -- in this case, S Kumar's. In fact, company M D Nitin Kasliwal, who was sharing the dais with Kapil, smiled expectantly at his brand ambassador, hoping perhaps to hear the obvious answer. However, the reply is not on anticipated lines: "I am not brand conscious, I don't mind what brand it is, the only thing I always insist on is good quality," goes the man.

After the official briefing, when I get a moment of his time I ask, "Kapil, wouldn't you be more useful in sports administration, rather than in commercially promoting some brand of suitings?"

Again, his reply is direct: "Cricket administration today is in the hands of incompetent people, and if I join them, I too will become as useless as they are. Some people spend hours doing commentary and writing columns, I would like to work on bringing corporates and sports together. Sports needs corporate sponsorship, and the corporates need sports."

Nitin Kasliwal appeared, in his turn, to have caught Kapil's disease of forthright speech. When I ask him how sport in general is going to benefit, Kasliwal is equally frank: "This is about S Kumar's, and how we can use the enormous public interest in sport to our advantage," he says. "We look at sports as providing us an enduring platform for promoting our products, with Kapil in the vanguard."

So Kapil will, here on in, appear in S Kumar's ads. And take part in marketing and promotional activities. And help with staff motivation. And hopefully, somewhere down the line, sports will benefit in its turn.

But it is when the talk turns to the ongoing Kargil conflict that Kapil Dev is at his best -- what shines through with unmistakable clarity is his sincerity. "It is after I went there and met the jawans that I really understood," says Kapil. "It touches your heart, to see those young people, lying there injured, and wanting to get better soon so they can go back there and fight."

Kapil's point of view is that India should sever all social and sporting contacts with Pakistan -- "Either we are friends, or we are fighting -- you can't do both at the same time," he says.

So should today's players be more forthcoming with their views? Should they take equally forthright stands? "No, this shouldn't be individual players talking, making statements on their own -- the Board should come up with a firm policy on the issue," he insists, then adds with his trademark grin, "But you know how the Board is, it will take them five years to decide what to do and by then the war will be over, so then they don't have to do anything at all!"

His best moment, though, comes earlier, during the press briefing itself, when an overenthusiastic mediaperson stands up and goes, "Kapil saab, aap aage badiye, hum sab aapke saath hain!"

Kapil cuts loose with that hearty laugh that is so characteristic of the man. "Nahin bhai saab," he says, "I am just an individual, it is the other way around, main tho aapke saath hoon, is desh ke saath hoon."

There is, in his words and his demeanour, the feel of a politician in the making. Which tempts me to ask him, later, if he is planning an entry into politics. What I get is a glare, and a clipped, "Never! Not me! I will not join politics, I will never join any political party."

Hmmmmmmmmmm.... come to think of it, Kapil would be a lot more use as a loose cannon, wouldn't he?

There is nothing, nobody, quite so naive as a new convert. A point that was driven home to me yesterday, while watching Karan Thapar do the desi version of Hard Talk, with Arundhati Roy.

The lady is now on the Narmada Bachao Andolan kick -- and for most of the interview, she sat there spouting the party line. "India," she says, with all the air of dropping some explosive bit of news on us, "has the fourth highest number of dams in the world."

Then comes more on similar lines: "Did you know that 250 million people have no water? That 350 million people live below the poverty line?"

And so on, and so forth.

I don't propose, here, to debate the whole Narmada question -- that'll take a book. However, I do have a problem with these glib recitations the activists come up with.

India has the fourth highest number of dams in the world, goes one statement. So? For that statistic to make sense, we need some more figures. For instance, which countries have more dams than India? Are those countries bigger, or smaller, in size than India? Arising from that, what would the proportion be, of dams to square miles of territory serviced? And finally, are those three countries more advanced, or less so, than India?

Let's get all those figures in place -- and I suspect that when we do, they will present a picture that is the antithesis of what the anti-dam activists want to paint.

As to the other bit, about the number of people without electricity -- a counter question would be this: India has so many dams, and still there are 250 million people lacking electricity. Happen we had a couple of hundred dams less, would there be more people, or less, living in darkness?

You tell me.

Meanwhile, thanks for responding in droves to the request, made in the previous edition of this diary, to people living in the US of A to write in to us. Now I have another request to make: Wherever in the world you are, if you play cricket -- or any other competitive sport -- at any kind of level, if you are a member of a cricket/sports club, do write in with the details. We have something in mind, for our sports section, for which we need your inputs. My email address is premp@rediff.co.in

Executive Editor Prem Panicker plans to learn driving soon.