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Endgame for the master tactician
For a man born on May Day and one who represents lakhs of Indians in Parliament, it was nothing but a twist of fate that he celebrated his 67th (for the superstitious, it ominously adds up to 13) birthday in police custody, hated by the millions of workingclass people for whom he is now a symbol of corruption and greed.
The wheels threatened to come off the Marratha warrior's chariot when the government removed him from the chair of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee on January 24. For the next few weeks, Suresh Kalmadi had an uneasy ride as his trusted lieutenants, including Lalit Bhanot, VK Verma and M Jeychandran, were grilled and then jailed for their suspected roles in deals that resulted in huge losses to the exchequer.
The end game was played on April 25 when Kalmadi, the former Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president who represents Pune in the Lok Sabha and ironically was a member of the ethics committee, walked into the CBI headquarters. He failed to come up with convincing answers when confronted with all the evidence the sleuths had gathered on dozens of murky deals related to the Commonwealth Games.
Ever since quitting the Indian Air Force and setting up a fast food joint in Pune, Kalmadi's life moved in the fast lane. Elected first to the Rajya Sabha in 1982, he was a visible face when Rajiv Gandhi supervised the conduct of the Asian Games, for which the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium (JLNS) was built.
Twenty-eight years later, he was the commander in chief - dressed in a safari decorated with all the eight medals won during his stint in the IAF - at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games as he welcomed President Pratibha Patil and Prince Charles at the refurbished JLNS. That was the height of Kalmadi's reign as India's top sports administrator, that began when he took charge of the Amateur Athletics Federation of India in 1987. Then came the Indian Olympic Association in 1996 and the Asian Athletics Association in 2000. He has also been a council member of the International Associations of Athletics Federations since 2001. absolute support to the point of a no-contest in the last few elections held to select IOA officials. He first tasted defeat at the hands of Sivanti Adityan, but trumped Adityan in 1996 to become the boss. Four years later, a group led by the Chautalas of Haryana raised the banner of revolt, but the Pune warrior swatted it away with contempt.
When the Athletics Federation of India, which he controlled together with Bhanot, got prominence, the IOA went all out to spike the rise of the likes of KPS Gill, who was getting more and more powerful as the chief of the Indian Hockey Federation.
In the next two IOA elections - held in 2004 and 2008 - there were only murmurs of opposition in the IOA but that too became feeble when it came to a contest and there was no one to oppose Kalmadi. As insiders in the national body confess, the Maratha strongman still wields enormous power in the organization.
"The general body meeting of the IOA was held in Ranchi at a time when it became clear that Kalmadi would be arrested soon. In the run-up to the meeting, there were a lot of discussions with regard to the mismanagement and corruption during the Commonwealth Games, but in the end not even a single delegate opposed him. Instead, they sang his praises, in chorus, " says an IOA official.
The clout of Kalmadi - who became a third-time MP in 2009 - in the corridors of power was apparent in the way he tackled various sports ministers who assumed office during this period, from the likes of firebrand BJP leader Uma Bharati to cinestar-turned-politician Sunil Dutt. He not only managed to thwart the verbal attack of Mani Shankar Aiyar but remained unruffled during the time of MS Gill (before and during the Commonwealth Games). The chiefs of national sports federations too had to pay obeisance to him as they all feared being cold shouldered.
Cricket and Formula One were Kalmadi's latest passions but with the mandarins of the BCCI not playing ball, he vent his ire at the cricket administrators. After former Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu's efforts to get an F1 track failed despite a visit to Italy to meet Bernie Ecclestone in 2003, Kalmadi signed an agreement in 2007 to bring F1 to India. Later that year, JPSK Sports Private Limited entered into an agreement with F1 and before long reports emerged that Kalmadi's relatives owned a substantial stake in JPSK.
So the moot question is, did Indian sports benefit during the Kalmadi regime? Sports officials who have worked with Kalmadi over the years point to India's record in the Asian Games ever since Kalmadi took charge.
At the Bangkok Asiad in 1998, India finished 9th with a haul that included seven gold medals. The Indian gold count went up to 14 in the recent Guangzhou Games as India finished sixth on the medals table. In between, the Indian contingent scooped up 11 gold in Busan, 2002 and 10 in Doha, 2006. And it was during his time that Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the silver at the Athens Olympics and Abhinav Bindra won India's first ever individual Olympic gold in Beijing.
It's another story that the government support and funding had a huge role to play in improving performances.
When it came to organising, Kalmadi was the master tactician. He was instrumental in conducting 18 international marathons, eight athletics permit meets. It was Kalmadi who introduced the Asian Grand Prix and Asian All Star championships, which both lost sheen after a decent start. In 2004, Delhi hosted the World half marathon and, a year before that, the one and only Afro-Asian Games were held in Hyderabad. The muchmaligned National Games were again Kalmadi's brainchild and first held in 1994.
The Games bandwagon has rolled to different cities and next in line is Kerala, ready to the host the Games for a second time.
Even as allegations flew thick and fast about various scams involving crores of rupees, Kalmadi managed to spend a few crores on the construction of the multistorey Olympic Bhawan, the new IOA headquarters in Delhi. At first, the CWG organising committee was functioning out of the Bhawan till it moved out to the new space in Jantar Mantar. Though it was set up to house the Olympic museum, work is not fully complete and several rooms in the building are lying vacant. It is now being used by IOA staff, numbering around 25, and Hockey India, headed by Narinder Batra.
A NEW ERA?
Hopefully, Kalmadi's exit will see the dawn of a new era which will see more transparency and professionalism in the working of the IOA.
"What will be missed is his ability to work out deals. He was such a man that once he set out to achieve something, he would make sure to get it. It was his negotiation skills that won IOA many favours from the government, " said an official, citing the fight he put up against the proposed sports bill to preserve his territory.
When the country was rocked by a spate of doping allegations, during which time he quit the post of the president of the Athletics Federation of India, it was Kalmadi's presence that helped the IOA wriggle out of many tight situations - like the Sunita Rani doping case during the Busan Games.
There is no dearth of experienced, qualified and clean sports administrators in the country, but it remains to be seen who among those will put their hands up to take up this daunting job. That is, if Kalmadi loyalists allow them to take charge.
With the government and the judiciary now beginning to ask the IOA and the federations more and more questions regarding the money spent during the Delhi Games, the confidence of many honest officials, and the millions of sports lovers in the country who thronged to the various stadia in Delhi to make the CWG a success, is soaring. It's time now for Indian sports to move out of Kalmadi's shadow and carve out a place under the sun.
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