Saturday, November 24, 2001

Sports a sport for politicians, bureaucrats
M.S. Unnikrishnan

SPORTS in India is in the stranglehold of the politician-bureaucrat nexus. Of late, even mafia dons have started taking a lot of interest in sports administration. The match-fixing scandal in cricket has exposed the ominous side of sports administration, particularly of cricket, and some recent happenings have only confirmed this belief.

No sports federation in India is free from the influence of the politician-bureaucrat combine as sports means power, pelf and free publicity. No wonder, more and more politicians and bureaucrats are clamouring to get into the area of sports administration.

The incompetence of established sportspersons as sports administrators has also encouraged politicians and bureaucrats with clout to get into sports administration. The soaring costs of running a sports federation has made it almost mandatory for a political heavyweight to head one.


On the face of it, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) does not have a politician as president now. But Jagmohan Dalmia owes his position to his political masters who did the spadework for his success from behind the scenes, to oust Dr A. C. Muthiah. Dalmia could not have ascended the BCCI throne, humbling the formidable incumbent A. C. Muthiah, who himself was backed by a political heavyweight like Sharad Pawar, in the BCCI elections in Chennai a few weeks ago, without strong political backing.

They say politicians at the helm of sports bodies are necessary to get things done. But once a politician tastes the spoils of the office of a sports federation, it is very difficult to dislodge him from his perch. The All-India Football Federation (AIFF) is a case in point. Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Member of Parliament, is one of the least popular sports heads, particularly among the soccer fraternity. But he could not be dislodged, despite top industrialists like liquor baron Vijay Mallaya, Mahindra and Sameer Thapar joining hands together with top clubs of the country.

Amazingly, even a professionally run federation like the All-India Tennis Association (AITA) has always felt the need to have a politician as the president to get things done, barring a brief spell, when long-serving secretary R. K. Khanna elevated himself to the top job. Otherwise, the AITA has always had political heavywieghts like C. Subramaniam, Brahmanand Reddy, Fakkuruddin Ali Ahmed, Natwar Singh, Satish Sharma, and now Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, as presidents.

Almost all the sports federtions are now headed by political heavyweights, including the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). To be fair to him, though, IOA president Suresh Kalmadi, who is also the president of the Amateur Athletic Federation of India and the Asian Athletic Association, is no novice to sports. He had his sporting moments when he was in the National Defence Academy before becoming an Air Force pilot. President of the Rowing Federation of India K. P. Singh Deo is also a sportsman-turned-politician.

The entry of the Chautala brothers — Abhay Singh and Ajay Singh — has heralded an era of total politicisation of the sports federations. Between them, the two brothers control the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation and the Table Tennis Federation of India. And their man is at the helm in the Wrestling Federation of India too. The brothers have also set their sights on various other federations and state units to consolidate their hold.

The sports setup in India being what it is, nothing moves without political will. The 1982 Asian Games in Delhi was one of the finest examples of a strong political will getting the bureaucratic machinery rolling at break-neck speed to achieve the desired results. When career sports administrators failed to make any headway in the preparation of the Asian Games, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi constituted a crack team, comprising Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Singh, Arun Nehru and Bhuta Singh, to oversee the Asiad preparation. They not only got things moving, but did a splendid job of making the Asian Games something to cherish and remember forever.

The National Capital received a massive facelift overnight, as it were. Without a strong political will, it would have been next to impossible to make the bureaucratic machinery move in the right direction.

This point was once again emphasised when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee intervened to bring peace between the squabbling Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Uma Bharti and IOA president Suresh Kalmadi, to get work on the inaugural Afro-Asian-Games front moving at a fast pace. Work begun, deadlines were set, and everything moved in clockwork precision.

Though the Afro-Asian Games have been postponed due to the US strikes in Afghanistan in retaliation to terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, the PM’s intervention helped quicken the pace of work on the infrastructure front. Stadiums have been spruced up, astro-turf hockey pitches, and synthetic athletic tracks have been laid out, and brand new scoreboards have been put in place in various stadia. All these works could not have been carried out without political pressure.

So, in India, a situation has emerged that only politicians and bureaucrats can manage sports affairs effectively, though how ‘effectively’ they manage the sports activity, is clearly evident from the bottom-ranked position of India in international events. Take any sport, barring perhaps cricket, and India does not figure in the top half of international rankings.

Former Indian sports stars have not contributed either to break the politician-bureaucrat hold. Other than issuing media statements, former sportspersons have proved to be utter failures in sports management. They lack the vision to take Indian sport to lofty heights.

A former India cricket captain was allotted a plot of land to setup an indoor cricket academy, but even after many years, there is no sign of the cricket academy project taking off.

Barring stray cases like some former cricketers and cricket coaches running cricket academies in Delhi and other parts of the country, and tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan and C. G. Krishna Bhupathi setting up tennis academies, top sportspersons have not contributed anything tangible in fostering sports.

Bureaucrats make it difficult for sports administrators to take their pound of flesh. How tricky it is to deal with them is evident from the experience of former sprint queen P T Usha, who has been making brave efforts to setup her ‘Usha School of Athletics’ at her home town in Payyoli in Kerala. The project has been delayed due to bureaucratic red tape. Had it been a venture initiated by a political personality, things would have smoothened out at a quicker pace.

Many of the federations are able to generate funds because of the fact that they are being headed either by a politician or a bureaucrat. Super Cop K. P. S. Gill supervises the affairs of the Indian Hockey Federation with a firm hand. Director-general of Haryana Police M. S. Malik is the president of the IABF, and the body is now flush with funds.

Tennis, hockey, football, table tennis, shooting, rowing, archery et al are headed by leading politicians. For a sportsman-turned sports administrator like Randhir Singh, the secretary-general of the IOA, it’s a herculean task to stay put in his position, as he has to always look over his shoulder to thwart that elusive political hand, which can snatch away the chair from his control, in one fell swoop.

How the politician-bureaucrat nexus operates became evident a few years ago when a special organising committee, headed by N. K. P. Salve and Indrajit Singh Bindra, was constituted to organise the 1987 World Cup cricket in India, over the heads of incumbent Srimaman and his team.

Ever since, it has become the rule, rather than an exception, to pack the organising committee of major sports events with politicians and bureaucrats. The organising committee of the postponed Afro-Asian Games was a recent example. It was packed with all sorts of people, but not many real sportspersons.

Of course, there are exceptions. Former Indian hockey captain M. P. Ganesh has proved to be a competent administrator and has now risen to the responsible position of Executive Director (Team’s Wing) of the Sports Authority of India.

If politicians and bureaucrats are the bane of Indian sports, there are also ‘career sports officials’ who have been clinging to various sports federations like limpets. Former All-England and World Champion Prakash Padukone made a brave attempt to clean up the Badminton Federation of India. But in the end, Prakash was forced to quit, unable to cope with the ways of the careerist sports officials.

Indian sport can see a ray of hope, only if it is extricated from the clutches of politicians and bureaucrats. For that, Indian sportspersons have to come forward, and show their mettle as administrators, instead of mouthing inanities. Hollow talk is deeply ingrained in the Indian mindset. It is time, we put some action into our words, to produce the desired results. Till that happens, Indian sport faces a bleak future.