It was a near 2km walk to the Motera Stadium. The roads were lined with policemen, tasked with keeping in check a massive, loud and growing crowd. Someone was selling Rohit Sharma-style floppy hats, and there were the familiar chants of ‘Indiaaa-India’ – it might have been any India cricket match anywhere in the country. Except it wasn’t.

Cricket’s newest stadium is its biggest ever, but the sport was the last thing on the mind of the two powerful world leaders who inaugurated it. Manoj Narayan takes a broad look at the symbolism in play behind the new Motera Stadium.

The huge hoardings at the entry gate, with the grinning photos of US president Donald Trump and India prime minister Narendra Modi, was the first indication that this whole spectacle had little to do with cricket. Even if the message read: “Welcome to the world’s biggest cricket stadium.”

The Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in the west of India, is now officially the biggest cricket venue in the world, with a capacity of 110,000. The stadium, which was first opened in 1982, was torn down in 2015 as the Gujarat Cricket Association, reportedly on Modi’s request, decided to rebuild it into the behemoth that is now. It looks posh and modern, and if filled to capacity, it will be a sight to behold. But can a Test match, or even an ODI, attract crowds of that scale anymore?

[caption id=”attachment_138715″ align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]The roads in Ahmedabad were lined with posters on 'India-US Friendship' The roads in Ahmedabad were lined with posters on ‘India-US Friendship’ [/caption]

The second clue that the event had little to do with cricket was that the president of a country with minimal connection to the sport was supposed to inaugurate it during a 36-hour visit to India. The indicative word at the Namaste Trump event was ‘biggest’ – not ‘cricket’ – and it was in keeping with what has become a signature style for these two men: loud, larger than life and high on self-promotion.

The Rohit Sharma floppies weren’t selling. It was around noon, and the Ahmedabad sun was at its harshest, but a sizeable chunk of the crowd already wore the Trump caps that had been freely handed out – not the ‘MAGA’ variety, but white ones with ‘TRUMP’ printed across the front.

For all the talk of it being a historic moment for cricket, among the crowd, nobody seemed to be speaking of the sport. The clamour, instead, was for a sighting of Trump or Modi. It seemed the sport was just a tool, and the stadium a symbol for two powerful, divisive world leaders who remain obsessed with size, conflating it with prosperity.

Modi’s BJP government has a history of this. When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, his government, in 2013, announced the construction of the Statue of Unity – a 600ft figure of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister and an independent activist, into which approximately INR 3,000 crore was pumped in. Twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, it is the world’s tallest statue, and designed to be a symbol of pride. However, it came with still unanswered questions about its cost, monetary and environmental, who benefits from it, and its overall value.

[caption id=”attachment_138714″ align=”alignnone” width=”1024″]The Motera Stadium entrance, with photos of Trump and Modi book-ending the gates The Motera Stadium entrance, with photos of Trump and Modi book-ending the gates[/caption]

In Trump, so fixated on his border wall with Mexico, Modi finds a kindred soul. And so, as they congratulated each other on jobs well done, on their massive stage on one of the Motera stands, and with cricket getting only cursory mentions – Trump’s pronunciation of Sachin Tendulkar’s name was cringe-worthy, to say the least – it was evident how the sport had become the latest instrument Modi’s government was tapping into for its PR campaign.

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Yes, this isn’t the first time cricket is being used as a tool for wider politics. It has been used as a means of negotiation between India and Pakistan before, as in 2004, when India toured Pakistan, at the 2011 World Cup, and in 2012-13, when Pakistan visited India. India’s foreign policy with Afghanistan is linked to cricket. However, while in the past it has been used as a bridge between two countries, with the Motera inauguration, it was exploited to promote a positive image of the Indian government.

The BCCI has always been linked to politicians, across parties. In keeping with the tides, the strongest connections now are to the ruling BJP government: Jay Shah, its secretary, is the son of Amit Shah, the home minister and Modi’s right-hand man. The former BCCI president, Anurag Thakur, is a BJP minister now, and his younger brother, Arun Singh Dhumal, is the current BCCI treasurer. And these associations are now colouring the sport.

[caption id=”attachment_138736″ align=”alignnone” width=”800″]The Motera Stadium is now officially the world's biggest cricket stadium, with a capacity of 111,000 The Motera Stadium is now officially the world’s biggest cricket stadium, with a capacity of 111,000[/caption]

These are politically and socially troubled times for India. Earlier this week, there were riots in Delhi. The country has been tense since December, when the Modi government pushed a citizenship law and policy built on far-right ideology and described by constitutional experts as divisive along communal lines. The move was, and continues to be, met with widespread protests across the country.

Motera’s inauguration and Trump’s associated visit was set up to be a distraction from it all, a show of strength and popularity. Which is sad for Motera. The old ground has seen some of Indian cricket’s seminal moments: Sunil Gavaskar reached his landmark 10,000 Test runs here in 1986/87 against Pakistan, and in 1994 Kapil Dev went past Richard Hadlee as the leading Test wicket-taker with his 432nd scalp. In 2011, during the famous World Cup victory over Australia, it was here that Tendulkar crossed 18,000 runs in ODI cricket.

These are achievements the country can actually take pride in. The reopening of this famous venue was something a lot more hollow.