In the first week of August, a senior woman Congressman with a home in Shimla was elected President of the Indian Hockey Association (or Hockey India as it is now called). Her election was both surprising and backward-looking, for the person she successfully contested against was the great full-back Pargat Singh.
Vidya Stokes's elevation to the most powerful position in what — Sachin Tendulkar and the Indian Premier League notwithstanding — is still India's national sport, provoked me to dig out some notes I had made many years ago in the National Archives in New Delhi. In the papers of India's first Chief of Army Staff, General K.M. Cariappa, I found several letters from the Minister of Health in the Union Government, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. In so far as their political orientation went, the Minister and the General could not have been further apart — or opposed. One had been a loyal servant of the Raj; the other, a sacrificing patriot who gave up wealth and privilege at Gandhi's call. In 1942, when Cariappa was fighting to protect the British Empire, Amrit Kaur was in prison. Even now, after Independence, they affected very different lifestyles — whisky and braided uniform on the one side, and khadi and lime juice on the other.
What these two Indians had in common was a love of sport. Amrit Kaur was born into a family where women were encouraged to mix with men, in the home and on the playing field. As for Cariappa, as a Kodava and an army man, sport was in his blood and in his profession — he rode, shot, and played racquet games too.
In the summer of 1954, as a serving Cabinet minister, and a senior Congresswoman with (as it happens) a home in Shimla, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was elected president of the All India Lawn Tennis Association (AILTA). Soon afterwards, she wrote to General Cariappa that 'Like all other sports organisations I found it [the AILTA] completely bankrupt and full of intrigue.' She could be speaking of 2010, except that, unlike our current politicians-turned-sports administrators, Amrit Kaur was both a person of principle and a sportswoman herself. Vidya Stokes is not known to have ever raised a hockey stick; and who can remember when Sharad Pawar last or first raised a cricket bat, or Suresh Kalmadi first or last attempted the high hurdles?
On the other hand, Amrit Kaur had been an accomplished tennis player in her youth, retaining her love for the game even after she joined Gandhi and had, so to speak, to exchange an hour's hitting on the court for an hour's spinning on the charkha.
The historian of Indian tennis, P.K. Datta, informs me that Amrit Kaur served as president of the AILTA until 1958. The records of her tenure are scanty, but, given what's otherwise known about her, we can suggest that, as a good Gandhian, she would have combined integrity with pragmatism. Attempts would have been made to stem or stop corruption; attempts would also have been made to hold tournaments regularly. It can't be completely coincidental that it was in the late 1950s that Indian tennis first made its impact on the international scene, with Ramanathan Krishnan ranking as one of the top five players in the world. It was also Krishnan who, with Jaideep Mukherjee and Premjit Lall, came to constitute India's finest Davis Cup team.
In 1954, General Cariappa was India's ambassador to Australia. Amrit Kaur's letters to him speak of her interest in a fruitful exchange of ideas and individuals with that sporting nation. She had been instrumental in the establishment of the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala. Australians led the world in tennis; Amrit Kaur thus asked her friend to send a good tennis coach to work at the NIS. Meanwhile, two outstanding Indian cricketers had been appointed as coaches — one was Vinoo Mankad, a slow-bowling all-rounder; the other was C.K. Nayudu, a batsman who had also been a first-rate fielder. What India now needed from Australia, Amrit Kaur told the General, was a fast-bowling coach and a wicket-keeping coach.
These suggestions display a deep knowledge of sport. From J.M. Blackham to Adam Gilchrist, via Dennis Tallon and Wally Grout, Australia has produced the finest stumpers in cricket. The line of great Australian fast bowlers is as long, and as honourable; it runs from F.R. Spofforth to Glen McGrath via Ray Lindwall and Dennis Lillee. In the 1950s, when India had no foreign exchange, Amrit Kaur's proposals could not be implemented. However, they were prescient. Three decades later, Dennis Lillee arrived in Chennai to start a pace academy that has helped transform Indian cricket. Now Adam Gilchrist passes on tips to young keepers in Hyderabad.
Sadly, despite the manifest mismanagement of Indian sports by latter-day politicians, their march continues. There are newspaper reports that the Presidency of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association is being fought over between a BJP and a Congress politician respectively. Neither can be relied upon to reverse the steady decline of cricket in Madhya Pradesh. A state that once produced the likes of C.K. Nayudu and S. Mushtaq Ali now languishes in the Plate Division of the Ranji Trophy.
Here is a suggestion — every politician seeking to become a cricket or hockey or athletics or football administrator should present himself before a committee consisting of two respected Gandhians and two experienced sportswriters, and allowed to proceed with his ambition only on demonstrating that he equals Rajkumari Amrit Kaur in integrity, and surpasses her in his understanding of sport.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy
The views expressed by the author are personal