Politicians + Sport = Power, Patronage, Perks

Sport is one of the purest forms of combat. This world, which rewards toil and sweat, and deigns true devotion and discipline to a cause, is far removed from the murky labyrinth that is politics. If politics is flighty, sport is downright earthy, basic. However, our political heavyweights bound the chasm between the two fields with aplomb. Therein lies the mystery. After all, why would a high-flying politician choose to link himself with low-profile sports like kabaddi, hockey or table tennis? Turns out that there is far more to the sports administration pie than just influence.

By nudging Sharad Pawar off after he handed the ICC Champions Trophy in 2006 and before the shutterbugs went on overdrive, Ricky Ponting and his mates showed they didn’t want politicians or patrons intruding into a players’ moment.

That the situation could have been handled better is a no-brainer and Ponting subsequently apologised but politicians do have a tendency to seek their 15-second of ‘frame’ by being around successful sportspersons.

Sultan Ahmed, Union minister of state for tourism, believes sports events are a great platform to grab public attention.

 “Sport provides a huge opportunity for mass contact and is completely free of caste or religion,” he told HT. Speaking during the budget session, Ahmed said his association with Mohammedan Sporting (he is the club’s president) has helped raise his political profile.

Epitomising this notion is the curious case of Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi.

Dasmunsi was president of All India Football Federation (AIFF) for 20 years before he suffered a heart attack, in October 2008, which restricted him to the hospital bed. While Praful Patel, the aviation minister, took over the reigns from him, Dasmunsi is now designated honorary president.

Even while he was at the helm of affairs, India’s inability to break into the top-100 in the FIFA rankings didn’t impede on Dasmunsi’s upward mobility in football’s corridors of power and the perks such movement entails. He has been match commissioner at a World Cup, in charge of World Cup venues and also got FIFA boss Sepp Blatter to visit India in 2007. Football kept him in the public domain when politics did not.

The 2008 Beijing Games, which turned out to be India’s most successful Olympics, brought back the focus on the mofussil. The politicians and the rancour soon followed.

Even before the Bhiwani boxing trio — Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar — landed at New Delhi post their Olympics heroics, it was a priority for the Haryana government to be the first to receive and felicitate the Beijing heroes.

The state’s top government officials including the director general of police and the Bhiwani deputy commissioner were rushed to the airport. The chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, was waiting to have breakfast with the boxers at Haryana Bhavan.

But all their plans came to nought as former CM Om Prakash Chautala’s son — Abhay Singh, who is the president of Indian Boxing Federation, hijacked the situation. He whisked away the boxers from the airport and basked in their reflected glory for about five days.

The Congress government felicitated the trio a week later but by then the Chautalas had milked loads of publicity.

“If a politician is sincere about the sport, it helps, but if he does not work and associates only for publicity, it is not good. If the politician works well, both, his reputation and the sport gains,” says BJP’s Vijay Kumar Malhotra, who has headed the archery federation for the last 31 years.

Union Heavy Industries Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh says it plainly, “Because sports controls youth.” That’s a succinct summation of why politicians need to control sport.

Maharashtra has a tradition of kho-kho and kabaddi. Even the mighty BCCI power broker and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar started his ascent towards controlling cricket in India through these rural sports. When asked by Hindustan Times why he was interested in a cricket body at the time, he said, “You forget. I began by being president of the kho-kho and kabaddi associations. I have always been interested in sports.”

Pawar, say observers, gravitated towards cricket simply because it has a following that’s pan-religion and holds young minds like no other. Deshmukh, too, is vice president of the Mumbai Cricket Association.

The Shiv Sena took 30 years to gain the seat of government but the process sped up when they decided to route themselves through innumerable cricket clubs in Mumbai and Maharashtra by organising gully cricket competitions. After Pawar seized control of the Mumbai Cricket Association from former Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi, the NCP, too, got into the game. They took a leaf out of the Sena’s book and have built a nexus with cricket clubs through such competitions.

Support of the youth also has concrete electoral benefits, as young people are more energetic and aggressive as compared to their veteran supporters.

Association with sport also builds political goodwill, which can later be encashed as votes.

Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal knows that very well. The junior Badal heads the state’s kabaddi and hockey bodies. In 2009 he organised a four-nation hockey tournament while last month he spent about Rs. six crore organising the kabaddi World Cup. Both the events attracted sell-out crowds, generating tremendous publicity. Badal knows very well that both sports have an emotional connect with his Punjabi electorate.

National Sports Federations were budgeted for Rs. 41 crore last year. But while federations are quick to take the grants, they are not as forthcoming with the allocation of funds.

 One of the major reasons that Mani Shankar Aiyar was eased out of the sports ministry was that he insisted that the federations provide bills and an account of where the money was being used. His political cronies in various sports did not appreciate it.

 The National Sports Federations are given accommodation and office space inside the various stadia at highly subsidised rates, compared to those rented out to private and government undertakings. But they fail to pick up even the basic tabs. The federations, including the Indian Olympic Association, have a massive backlog of rent and electricity bills. A SAI official had, in 2006, given a list of rent and electricity bill defaulters to HT, which showed that the IOA’s bills ran into crores, closely followed by the Athletics Federation of India.

 Even while Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was being shut down for renovation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, there was huge reluctance from the federations and the IOA to shift out from their plush offices. They even sought an undertaking from the government that they would get back their office space once the Games were over.

 Congress’ Jagdish Tytler who controls the Judo federation, however feels that politicians can help bring in money into sports, using their clout.

“Involvement of politicians in sports helps in getting sponsors and finances for sports bodies many of which otherwise may not have found any takers at all. This, for instance, includes the judo federation that I head,” he says.

Almost all the Olympic sports are dependent on government funding. This also allows an opening for politicians to turn sports administrations and then aid in arranging funds.

The Commonwealth Youth Games were a classic example of political bosses using sport to reward their own. Pralhad Sawant, Maharashtra Olympic Association joint secretary, was not just involved as the joint convener of the Games’ technical committee but was also responsible for picking volunteers for the Games, giving accreditations etc.

Sawant’s appointment for the job was baffling since IOA has a dedicated public relations officer who could have been a better facilitator.

But then, IOA president Suresh Kalmadi openly admits that Sawant was the man who brought him into sports administration.

What better way to pay back then, even if it adversely affected the functioning of the Games.

This is not a one-off case. Politicians regularly involve their close associates in events organised by their association and provide them with a platform to get some publicity and at times earn revenues providing support services to an event.

 While the mood of the electorate can vary, a finger in the sports pie ensures that they are always able to take care of the supporters to some extent.

However, Digvijay Singh, who headed the shooting federation till some time back, feels that it’s the politician who actually aids a sport through his association. “A politician can certainly help the sport. My prestige is not enhanced by my involvement, but the federation’s prestige is enhanced by my contacts. A politician has the contacts to quickly help in case of need to the federation.”  

In a petition filed in the Delhi High Court a few months ago, a local lawyer, sought government intervention to withdraw lease on properties given to all sports associations for stadiums and offices. The same PIL also pointed out that politicians controlled a majority of the associations flouting government norms.

The intention behind seeking such an action was that these properties, given to sports associations at concession rates, are virtual goldmines as they are in prime localities. They are further exploited by renting the land for parties and functions.  Clubhouses have also become a regular source of income. The Cooperage ground, controlled by the Western India Football Association, and the Mahindra Stadium of the Bombay Hockey Association were at one time as famous for marriages as for sports. Union aviation minister Praful Patel heads football in western India, though hockey in Mumbai has no politicians involved.

The stadiums are also handy for political activities, meetings and rallies as the politician heading the association has it at his disposal at any time.

Many state federations have a strong network of offices extending through different districts. These all add to the leader’s infrastructure and ability to build up a political campaign.

(Reporting by Varghese K. George, Sujata Anandan, Dhiman Sarkar, Shrikant Bhagvatula,  Abhijeet Kulkarni, Ajai Masand, Saroj Nagi & Saurabh Duggal)


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