10/05/2019 4:41 PM IST | Updated 10/05/2019 4:51 PM IST

Gautam Gambhir: The Opener Who Became A Nightwatchman (Chowkidaar)

With his interest in and competence at cricket receding, and his jingoism on overdrive, it seemed inevitable that Gambhir would find his home within the BJP.

The India Today Group via Getty Images

In test cricket, a night-watchman is a lower-order batsman sent ahead of the more specialised batters to protect them as the day’s play draws to a close. An opener’s position, however, is immune to the night-watchmen. The opening batsman is expected to navigate the tough phase; openers derive much pride from their exalted status as the leader of the batting unit.

Ask Gautam Gambhir.

But if you were to translate nightwatchman into Hindi, you would end up with – chowkidar. On April 26 last week, the former opening batsman Gambhir prefixed chowkidar to his name on Twitter. In cricketing terms, it would mean a demotion but it was just another step for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) East Delhi Lok Sabha candidate to remodel himself as a politician.

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Coincidentally, Gambhir’s Twitter name was changed exactly two years after an incident where his nationalist turn became more pronounced. On April 26, 2017, the skipper ensured that his Kolkata Knight Riders team wore black armbands to condole the death of 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in a Maoist ambush days before the match. Even the foreign players, from the West Indies, New Zealand, and England, were part of the gesture – no other Indian Premier League (IPL) team followed KKR’s lead.

Gambhir recollected his thoughts on the decision in Pune for the franchise’s website. The piece carries a moment of existential dread. “My colleagues were fielding poorly. In normal course it would have infuriated me no end but at the back of my mind Chhattisgarh was shouting, ‘it is just a game’.”

The post arrived two weeks after Gambhir had redefined the colours of the Indian flag on Twitter.

With his interest in and competence at cricket receding, and his jingoism on overdrive, it seemed inevitable that Gambhir would find his home within the BJP. So it came to pass this March when Gambhir formally joined the party.

He is now the BJP’s candidate for East Delhi — and, as it turns out, the richest candidate in the national capital.

With his formal political career given a sudden fillip, Gambhir is keen to stress that he does not want to be someone who merely tweets. For a man whose political career finds its origins in his tweets, Gambhir harbours severe disdain for those who share their opinions on social media. Without his posts online, it is unlikely that Gambhir may have been able to position himself as an unapologetic nationalist figure.

Three Ds dominate Gambhir’s political message – Desh (the country), Delhi, and Development. The third of those is Gambhir’s safety valve. In every interview, he falls back to development whenever a challenging question is posed to him. With Delhi going to polls on Sunday, the chances of hearing an articulation of his vision for development are receding.

The 37-year-old Gambhir, a resident of the national capital since his birth and a Modern School product to boot, has little to say about East Delhi either. When pressed, the former cricketer’s agenda expands to clean air and water, and parking; he seems to prefer speaking for the city at large. 

Gambhir has jumped on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan bandwagon by identifying the ever-rising Ghazipur landfill as one of the issues he wishes to tackle, without acknowledging that it is the BJP that has been in charge of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and its East Delhi unit, since 2012.

Instead, the cricketer feels let down by the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) supposed “betrayal” of Delhi. Gambhir, who views himself as a sensitive, emotional person, feels affronted. In his eyes, he is someone who is still ‘learning’ politics.

Gambhir reckons his self-designed orientation programme will last two years, before he can take on the likes of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Responding to his opponent Atishi’s demand for a one-on-one debate in this election cycle, he said he is not scared but merely unprepared. “Dara toh main Pakistan se bhi nahi … (Even Pakistan could not scare me on the cricket field),” Gambhir asserted proudly in an interview to BBC Hindi.

During his time as a cricketer, Gambhir had a reputation for being excessively combative. Shahid Afridi, Shane Watson, and current Indian skipper Virat Kohli have all engaged in altercations with the former batsman at different points. Gambhir prides himself on his voluble ways; he is among a select breed of players in Indian cricket to have aired unfavourable opinions about the captains under whom he played – Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kohli.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

This proclivity for a shouting match is often seen on his Twitter feed nowadays, especially when it comes to Kashmir and Pakistan. Gambhir has engaged in shrill debates with Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti there; the latter blocked him on the site for a while. His arguments in these conversations are derived from the BJP playbook – blind faith in the armed forces is combined with persecution of those who he sees as ‘anti-Indians’. It is not entirely new. Gambhir has called for the boycott of Pakistan in the sporting arena since his playing days.

This is the brand of politics that Gambhir likes to describe as “positive”. And the nadir arrived on Thursday when a pamphlet that sought to denigrate the AAP candidate Atishi was distributed in public. While AAP has accused Gambhir of orchestrating this, the BJP’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, blaming the AAP for the despicable turn of events. Gambhir—not really the gold standard for restraint—chimed in with the claim that he would hang himself in public were it to be proved that he had a hand in this ‘conspiracy’.

There is no proof that the BJP is behind this pamphlet, but a condemnation of its contents is yet to be issued by Gambhir. It cadences, though, reflect the daily vocabulary of many a BJP worker.

But his character has already been vouched for by at least two former teammates in VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh, and a defamation suit is in motion.

During Gambhir and Laxman’s time in India’s colours, the team often relied on Harbhajan, an off-spinner, to pitch in with the bat. Harbhajan would have turned out to be a competent night-watchman, although he was never used. But now that the former opener Gambhir needs to be protected, the cricketing chowkidaars are eager to oblige.