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BCCI may lift ban on Azhar
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<img style="float:left; margin:0px 10px 0px 0px;" src="http://i46.tinypic.com/2dlsp3k.jpg" />NEW DELHI: Mohammad Azharuddin may be cleansed of the match-fixing taint for good, with BCCI willing to reconsider the lifetime ban on the former India skipper, in a development which can potentially add to the lustre of Congress' new Muslim mascot.

The fresh bid to extricate the Moradabad MP from disgrace comes from a Congress eager to pitchfork the ex-cricketer as a key campaigner, having launched him politically with a massive win from the minority-dominated Moradabad constituency in Uttar Pradesh. The move is being facilitated by the dual roles of UPA members as politicians and cricket managers.

Hectic lobbying in this direction took a Congress delegation led by AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh - that included Congress MP and BCCI vice-president Rajiv Shukla - to NCP chief Sharad Pawar on Friday. Pawar, who is ICC vice-chairman, directed the delegation to BCCI chief and close associate Shashank Manohar who has succeeded Pawar in BCCI. Rajiv Shukla told TOI, "I spoke to the BCCI president. He said if Azhar files a petition, it would be taken up in the next AGM."

There is an all-round eagerness to bail out Azhar, be it the player himself or his political home or even the present cricketing setup. It was under Pawar's helmsmanship that the hallowed doors of the cricketing world were opened for him in 2006 after they were slammed in 2000, with the Punjab Cricket Association inviting him to witness the Champions Trophy semifinals in Mohali.

Congress's eagerness to lift the lifetime ban on Azhar stems from its strategy to unveil him as the new Muslim mascot. Its revival plans in UP require glamorous minority faces to take on "secular rivals" SP and BSP even though the party's own secular credentials and the leadership of the Gandhi family scion seems persuasive enough to woo the community.

The recent party win in Firozabad bypolls where it trounced Mulayam Singh Yadav's daughter-in-law has been attributed to largescale shift in Muslim votes from SP. Alive to the threat posed by shifting minorities and a resurgent Congress, SP was quick to act, snapping its relationship with once Hindutva mascot Kalyan Singh and raising the pitch on minority agenda.

For Congress, planning to use the favourable mood to rejuvenate itself in the fallen fort of UP, SP's vulnerability has heightened expectations. The unveiling of the onetime cricketing idol in identity politics seems an intoxicating prospect for strategists. It's not a coincidence that rival SP too brought in this week its Maharashtra legislator Abu Azmi as the new minority face to cash in on his "defiance" of Sena outfits. Azmi fills the void left by Azam Khan's expulsion following his high-voltage rebellion.

Congressmen feel the Hyderabadi's election victory in far-removed Moradabad has proved his appeal among the community.

While the ban is seen as academic in nature given that Azhar is past the age to make a comeback, it would still come in handy in buffering him from a future assault on the issue of "integrity". On the poll trail, the opposition targeted him for match-fixing, citing his excommunication from cricket, to question Congress's commitment to probity. The question of ban keeps popping up every time Azhar is mentioned in social circles. It is hoped that he would be free from embarrassing queries once BCCI overturns its order.

Digvijay Singh said, "We want the lifetime ban to go from the man who brought laurels to the country with his skills. There were many players in the match-fixing case but they are all free of the ban. Why should the one on Azhar continue?"

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