A bunch of young collegians in Thiruvananthapuram, sipping the cuppa in an eatery, conducted an informal survey to identify the most admired living legend of India.
The range of answers they came up with was amazing; from the country's first citizen to business tycoons such as Anil Ambani, the survey covered practically every activity of human endeavour - politics, literature, arts, you name it. Entertainment industry claimed a fair share, so did sports.
The clear winner was Sachin Tendulkar. The self-appointed leader of the survey was prepared to bet 10 to one: the majority in any group of city youth, when asked this question, will come up with the name of the `little master'.
Fast forward to September 2003. The same bunch of collegians decides to repeat the exercise, with a shift in focus. What do they think of the letter Tendulkar wrote to Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh? Is it as clean as the straight drives he is famous for?
First, the facts. Formula One speedster Michael Schumacher presents a Ferrari car to Tendulkar. The cricketer writes to the Ministers seeking waiver of the import duty, varyingly estimated from Rs. 1.5 to Rs. 2.5 crores. Mahajan writes back to him saying that on the eve of his 100th test, as a `small gesture', the Government was waiving the duty. All that this waiver gets is a little print-space in the dailies.
But a veteran cartoonist lampoons the largesse. This sparks off a petition before the Delhi High Court, and the order is repealed. In a quick series of events, Fiat, the makers of Ferrari, decides to bear the duty. The story does not end there, but we have to get back to our young friends who conducted the survey. "By allowing the tax waiver, the nation is gratefully acknowledging the glory that the player brought," says Zareena, an ardent fan of Tendulkar. "After all, he is not the first to benefit from such generosity. Remember the `Champion of Champions' Audi that Ravi Shastri was awarded in 1985?"
"But you're forgetting that the Audi was a cricketing award and the Ferrari a gift from a business partner," reacts Ranjit, alluding to the fact that both the celebrities are brand ambassadors of the automobile giant. A pertinent question: "Was it really a gift from Schumi or was it merely presented by him on behalf of Fiat?"
Think hard, and you'll discover the pattern: this is perhaps another form of the fee paid to the batsman for endorsing the Palio. By having it presented by the world racer who endorses the dream car, Ferrari (also from the Fiat stable), a strong message is being signalled: Fiat India is part of the large group.
"A plausible argument," agrees automobile buff Murugan. Competition from new generation cars has nearly got the better of the Indian car manufacturer, badly in need of an image makeover. And this association would indeed help.
"An important issue we have to consider is whether Sachin needs the waiver," says another teenager. He is arguably the richest sportsperson in India today with a personal net estimated at Rs. 20 crores. He makes millions of dollars endorsing everything from soft drinks to credit cards. Compared with the humungous sum he earns through a landmark endorsement contract with WorldTel, what he rakes in from his classy eponymous restaurant in Mumbai is just pocket money!
"This is the limit," shrugs a disgusted Venky Aruna. "Is there no end to what a rich and famous cricketer could ask for and get from a poor country?" she asks, and with good reason. Look at how it treats other disciplines that desperately need support.
Aruna recalls a press report that said a consignment of toys sent to a Kolkata orphanage by an American donor was returned because the duty was not waived.
One who can have a Ferrari in his garage can well pay the import duty, which in turn would go to improve the roads he drives it on. The Government, keen on dishing out such largesse to Tendulkar, turns a blind eye towards other sports such as hockey, weightlifting or shooting; `Khel Ratna' awardees have to share the pittance due. The Government is tight-fisted when it comes to bringing succour to doyens in art, music or literature and does not grant duty exemption even on lifesaving drugs.
The wish in the hearts of the millions of cricket buffs on his 100th test bears testimony to Tendulkar's popularity. The prayers on the lips of his innumerable fans on hearing that he had torn a ligament on his finger were fervent. Many, however, feel that this practitioner of the gentleman's game has not exactly been gentlemanly in seeking exemption from the duty. "By writing that letter, the hero of the nation's youth has fallen," feels Anita.
There are people who still have a soft corner for Tendulkar. Why single him out for asking a favour, they ask. Have not special concessions such as income tax waiver and out-of-turn allotment of houses, land and other scarce economic goods been part of the patronage to heroes? If it was not merited, it should have been rejected. Be angry with the Government, not at Sachin, they say.
"We send out a flood of get-well messages when he is hurt and shout hoorays when he equals Donald Bradman because we adore Sachin. When such a darling seeks an undue favour, he falls in our esteem. Let's face it, being the object of a billion people's adoration is a tough job," a fan of Sachin says.
Tailpiece: When Zia ul-Haq was President, a member of the Pakistani cricket team who had won a car abroad, requested him to waive the duty. Zia's answer was: 'I won't waive the duty for you, but I'll pay it on your behalf.' -- A story whose authenticity is doubtful.