Sachin Tendulkar is undoubtedly India's biggest national icon. Being the object of a billion people's adoration is a tough job.
Witness the hysterical outpouring of good wishes on his 100th Test, or the endless debate over his patchy performance in recent times. It is after all, another side of the unadulterated adulation that he commands.
He makes millions of dollars endorsing everything from sugared water, tyres, biscuits, credit cards and even a finance company which looted provident funds. But his personal image is unaffected because his diehard fans.
However, one fateful letter from Communications Minister Pramod Mahajan has finally caused a dent in the Sachin charisma. The issue? An expensive Ferrari sports car that was presented to him by the Formula One legend Michael Schumacher.
On the eve of Sachin's 100th Test, Mahajan wrote to him saying that as a 'small gesture' the government was waiving import duty on the Ferrari.
Apparently, Sachin had written to Mahajan and Finance Minister Jaswant Singh seeking such a waiver. The value of this largesse - anywhere between Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 2.5 crore (Rs 15-25 million) - (Anil Thakraney, columnist at Mid-Day clarifies that the exemption is Rs 25 million and not Rs 15 million as has been widely reported).
Does Sachin need the waiver? Certainly not. After all, he is India's richest sportsperson with a landmark endorsement contract with WorldTel and a personal net worth that is estimated at Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million).
But the issue here is that the Ferrari is a gift from a business partner and not a cricketing award.
Newspapers have published scores of letters saying that a waiver may have been justified if the Ferrari was a prize that he had won - like Ravi Shastri's 'Champion of Champions' Audi in 1985. But this is merely a gift from Fiat India, which pays Sachin a fat fee too to endorse its Palio brand.
Fiat India's commercial director has already admitted (to The Times of India) that media mileage was an important motivation behind the gift. Having Schumacher (another brand ambassador of Fiat) gift Sachin the Ferrari was its way of telling Indians that Fiat India was part of the same group that also makes dream cars like the Ferrari.
After all, Fiat in India is almost a generic name for the matchbox like cars produced under the Premier and Padmini labels and the company obviously feels the need to change its fuddy-duddy image.
Its decision to gift Sachin a Ferrari was all about cashing in on his celebrity status and not a reward for any cricketing performance. There is even some confusion about whether the gift was meant to mark his 100th Test match or for having equalled Sir Don Bradman's record.
And that is exactly what has upset Sachin's fans. There is a limit to blind adulation and there is a limit to what a rich and famous cricketer could ask and get from a poor country.
Remember how Germany went after its own tennis icon Steffi Graf, when her father 'forgot' to report some of her earnings? In fact, father Graf spent a long stint in jail as the manager of Steffi's money. Germany is also after another tennis icon Boris Becker for possible tax evasions
While the government is bending backwards for Sachin, look at how it treats other sports, which desperately need some support. A request for duty exemption for basketball flooring for the National Games at Hyderabad has not been cleared although the games are less than three months away, says The Indian Express.
It gets worse for other causes. Just a few days ago, a huge consignment of toys sent to a Kolkata orphanage by an American donor was returned because it attracted Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) duty.
Why, even lifesaving drugs in India are not exempt from customs duty.
If the government is prepared to waive Rs 2.5 crore for Sachin for something that was not even an award, will the same largesse be shown to other Indian icons? What if Amitabh Bachchan is gifted a Ferrari by Star TV or Lata Mangeshkar is gifted one by Sony? Will the government waive duty for them too? After all, Lata Mangeshkar is a Bharat Ratna.
Until now, we have had celebrities; singers and other artists demanding government help in the form of flats, petrol pumps and land for their gurukuls. We will now see them bringing in super expensive gifts and getting duty exemptions running into millions of rupees.
And next time, you can be sure that neither Pramod Mahajan nor any finance minister will make the mistake of releasing their exemption letters to the media to take dubious credit. The other gifts will simply walk through the duty exemption door that was opened for Sachin Tendulkar.
Incidentally, what if Sachin writes to Mahajan asking for a duty exemption on the two-toned cutlery he may want to import for the chain of classy restaurants - called Tendulkar's - he plans to open with Sanjay Narang? Will Mahajan and the finance minister oblige again?
Sorry, Sachin, old boy. Much as we admire your cricketing abilities one will have to fight the duty exemption given to you. The Times of India reports that Captain B K Subbarao, member, Citizens for Just Society, has opposed the duty exemption.
He says, "There is no provision of law under which the Union finance minister can act and cause such a waiver." Maybe he will go ahead and oppose it through a public interest litigation. After all, the issue is bigger than Sachin Tendulkar getting a duty exemption.
The number of letters to all leading newspapers expressing disappointment at the government's gesture suggest that Capt. Subbarao is on the right track and will receive public support if he initiates judicial action.
Sachin's diehard fans are also coming up with novel ways for him to have his Ferrari and not pay the duty. One of them suggested that each of Sachin's fans could donate a couple of rupees each and they would manage to collect enough of money to pay his duty. Those who insist that Sachin should be allowed to bring in his Ferrari should start such a collection.
One Vipul Shah, in a letter to The Times of India narrates this interesting incident. He says: 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 can't waive the duty for you, but I can pay it on your behalf.'
In Sachin's case too, it seems fair that Pramod Mahajan should offer to pay the duty. But then, poor Mahajan earns just Rs 5,000 p.m. (as per his disclosure to the prime minister and reported by The Indian Express).
He can't even afford a car, but for the big perks of his office.
The duty exemption has to be stopped. The issue is not Sachin and his Ferrari (which he can well afford), but the misuse of discretionary powers by our politicians, who have already ruined our economy.
Maybe it would be a good gesture if Sachin himself refuses the duty exemption. It will certainly help to restore the sheen in his halo.