India’s stance on the WTO customs deal is just not cricket. Or maybe it is…?

There are no byes in global trade deals
There are no byes in global trade deals
Image: Reuters/Philip Brown
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With a huge and flourishing democracy, and an increasingly important economy, India and its leaders now bestride the global stage with increased confidence.

But this week the world got a glimpse of what it’s like when India starts throwing its weight around, something followers of cricket have become accustomed to in recent years. The planet’s second-most populous nation basically overruled the rest of the world—or at least the other 159 members of the World Trade Organization—by refusing to sign a new accord to standardize global customs rules. The so-called “Bali Agreement” was poised to become the most important trade pact in decades, and according to some economists, had the potential to boost global growth by as much as $1 trillion. The deal collapsed at the eleventh hour midweek after India demanded concessions allowing it to stockpile agricultural supplies (effectively subsidizing its domestic industry). Diplomats were “flabbergasted” by New Delhi’s stance, according to Reuters.

Perhaps they should have been paying closer attention to the Indian cricket team. The country’s intransigence at the WTO mirrors its recent attitude toward the administration of its favorite sport.

Thanks to its vast, cricket-mad population—and the resulting bonanza from broadcasting and advertising deals—India is the sport’s undisputed financial superpower.  As a result, the country has a stranglehold over cricket’s global governing body, the International Cricket Council, and it often exerts that power at the expense of smaller nations. (The traditional cricket powers, England and Australia, once chafed at this; now they seem only too happy to go along).

This also means India can blithely ignore a consensus among other cricket-playing nations. Most notably, it refuses to accept the decision review system (DRS), which uses ball-tracking technology and infrared imaging to adjudge contentious calls by umpires. Other countries think the technology is good for the game; India simply won’t have it.

Earlier this year, Indian cricketing administrators appeared to be softening their stance towards the DRS, but reports this week indicated that national team captain MS Dhoni remains steadfastly opposed. Which is confusing, because India could demonstrably have benefited from its use in its current series against England.

While India’s objections to the DRS are baffling, its stance on the Bali agreement may be the product of domestic politics. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has a pro-business reputation, apparently wants to be a champion of farmers, a massive vote-bank.

But if India’s cricket administrators are doing the national team a disservice, then its government, in opposing the WTO pact, is doing the same for the Indian people.  The country stands to be a huge beneficiary from freer trade. And the biggest losers from the possible collapse of the Bali agreement are the planet’s poorest people, including Indians, but also in other nations.

On DRS, other cricket-playing nations have basically decided to go ahead and use the technology, except when they play against India. But it doesn’t look like the country will get a bye on a global trade deal.