New Delhi: After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s praise of tennis star Sania Mirza last week, party leader K. Laxman, who had once courted controversy by calling her “Pakistan’s daughter in-law”, has now described her as India’s pride.
Modi had written to Mirza Thursday, calling her “one of India’s best tennis players” who “left an indelible mark on Indian sports”, following her announcing her retirement from professional tennis in January.
Laxman, national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Other Backward Class (OBC) morcha and former Telangana unit chief, had created a huge controversy in 2014 by calling Mirza “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law”.
Mirza, who is from Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, had been made the brand ambassador by the then Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS, now renamed Bharat Rashtra Samithi) government in the state, following Telangana’s creation in 2014. The move was criticised by Laxman, who had alleged that Mirza had never participated in the agitation for the separate state and the TRS government was honouring her with an eye on winning minority votes in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation polls.
According to Laxman, Mirza was a “non-local” who was born in Maharashtra and had settled in Hyderabad later. He had gone on to dub her the “daughter-in-law” of Pakistan, pointing out that she was married to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik.
Talking to ThePrint Saturday, Laxman said his statements then had been misconstrued.
“My statements were misconstrued, she is a great sports star and has made India proud. Her passion for the sport has made the nation proud several times and she has had a tremendous influence on people. The prime minister’s praise has amplified her effort,” he asserted.
Laxman and Modi’s praise for Mirza comes at a time when Telangana is preparing for assembly election and BRS chief and state Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao is battling with the BJP-led central government over several issues, including his daughter K. Kavitha’s name being brought up in connection with the Delhi liquor policy case being probed by the Enforcement Directorate.
A BJP source said the “prime minister’s praise for sports star Sania Mirza was aimed to smoothen the party’s relationship with the Telangana electorate”.
“Sports has the potential to connect youth. She comes from a Muslim family and the BJP is currently making efforts to reach out to the community in the state,” the source added.
Modi’s laudatory words for Mirza can also be seen as a snub to his own party leaders who have often criticised the tennis star.
Several BJP leaders from Telangana also asserted that the PM’s praise for her should not be seen in political terms. “The prime minister has high regard for sportspersons, it (his praise) should not be looked at only through the political prism. She is a big influence on young minds and the PM’s recognition is a way to reach young minds,” one of the leaders said.
Muslims make up 12.7 per cent of voters in Telangana, who are mostly divided between the BRS and AIMIM. Most of the community is concentrated in Hyderabad but Nizamabad, Karimnagar and Mahabubnagar also have significant Muslim population.
With 50 of 119 constituencies in Telangana reportedly having more than 10 per cent Muslim voters, the community is believed to be key to winning the state elections.
The Muslim votebank used to be a traditional supporter of the Congress but has switched allegiance over the years. After the BRS’ emergence, the Congress slowly lost connect with the voters. While the BRS is also aiming to consolidate Muslim votes, BJP efforts to win over the community may cause a further split in votes.
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In his 9 March letter to Mirza, which she shared on Twitter, the PM called her “India’s pride” who gave “the people of India much to cheer about”.
“When you announced a life update on 13 January, you wonderfully express your journey from a six-year-old who had to literally fight her way to tennis court to a world-class tennis player in the subsequent years. You wrote about how the biggest honour for you has been to win medals for India. I can say that you are India’s pride,” wrote Modi.
He further said that “in your excellence, the world saw a glimpse of India’s sporting prowess”, and congratulated her for her glorious career that has illustrated that “more women can pursue tennis and excel in it”.
“Your success also gave a string to several other women who wanted to pursue a career in sports but for same reason or other were hesitant to do so. They became motivated by your success,” the PM wrote.
“Tennis lovers will find it difficult to fathom that you will not be playing professionally now onwards,” he added.
Mirza, who won six Grand Slam titles in her 20-year career, played her final tournament in Dubai last month.
On Twitter Saturday, the tennis star thanked the PM for his letter.
“I would like to thank you honourable Prime Minister for such kind and inspiring words. I have always taken great pride in representing our country to the best of my ability and will continue to do whatever I can do to make India proud. Thank you for your support,” she wrote.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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