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Deep Focus

Spoilsports

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This is a clear admission that we are helpless and can't do anything, " said the division bench judge, looking straight at the additional solicitor general.The aimless hum that had drifted into the crowded courtroom of the Delhi High Court on Wednesday seemed to escalate into a more purposeful buzz.Was the judge making a general confessional statement or was it an opening gambit for a sharp tongue lashing and a sharper deadline?

It turned out to be the latter.The judge's comment was in response to the ASG's waffle while replying to the court's pointed query on steps taken by the government to ensure that heads of national sports bodies do not exceed two terms, as is the stated norm.The case was a PIL, filed by advocate Rahul Mehra, demanding more accountability in the functioning of national sports bodies.The government's continuing reluctance — despite Sports Minister MS Gill's stout endorsement of the contents of the PIL — to come clean on this count, left the court livid.It gave the ASG not more than seven days to file the government's stand.

In other words, the coming week could prove a watershed for Indian sport and its functioning.Perhaps...perhaps, the court will force some change and prevent Indian sports from being run as personal fiefdoms in which everyone but sports and sportsmen have prospered.The last Olympics might be seen as a breakthrough of sorts with India bagging its first individual gold medal, but look at it differently: a billion-plus people and just one gold in these many years is a story of unmitigated shame.

So, in all the dirt that was flung during the IPL crisis, there might be an uncut gem coming our way.Perhaps the unfolding scandal will make a few sincere people of import – for whom sports is not just one big game – take a close, hard look at the extent of muck elsewhere, look at how other sports are also run, invariably by politicians and other vested interests, and assess the extent of damage they have inflicted.

Rahul Mehra's PIL could be the catalyst.Filed in December, this PIL is probably the most ambitious challenge to an age-old status quo and the moth-eaten paraphernalia that goes by the name of Indian sports administration.Seeking more transparency and accountability in 13 sports bodies – which include the Sports Authority of India, the Indian Olympic Association, All India Football Federation, Indian Amateur Boxing Federation and Hockey India – it also demands that the two-term tenure clause (as stated in the National Sports Policy of 1974-75 ) be restored for its heads.

Now, BJP MLA Vijay Kumar Malhotra may not take to this too kindly.After all, if this HC arrow is fired, he'll have to vacate his office as president of the Archery Association of India, a sanctum he has religiously occupied for not long – only 37 years.Equally piqued would be Suresh Kalmadi, undisputed head of the impregnable IOA for 15 years now.Only recently did Kalmadi reluctantly cede his post as boss of the Athletics Federation of India, after 21 "fruitful" years.

Of the 35 National Sports Federations under the IOA, at least 10 are headed by politicians, many of whom have held posts for years together.

Ailment halted Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi's long reign over Indian football, something he had secured unopposed from 1986 to 2008.And only death could dislodge Hukum Singh from his perch atop the Capital's table-tennis association which he saw as his fief for over three decades, regardless of whispers of sexual harassment and allegations of gross misappropriation of funds.Hukum Singh was matched blow for blow by Moolchand Chauhan, who presided over the Indian federation for as many years if not more.Sport, today, has come a long way from those draconian days, or indeed even Digvijay Singh's idea of dynasty, where it took a judicial intervention to save Indian shooting from becoming a family heirloom.The former JD(U) minister's father, Kumar Surendra Singh, in a sense, handed the mantle to his son in 2002.

BCCI secretary N Srinivasan also heads the chess body, but it seems he has little time for anything other than cricket.

Globally, sport today is getting richer and larger in scale, hence a greater need for transparency, organisation and professional administration.If the mandarins of the Indian cricket board pooh-poohed former Aussie prime minister John Howard's ICC candidature, why is Sharad Pawar, still the agriculture minister of the world's second most populous nation, also running the ICC? Should he not have forsaken the crucial cabinet berth once he secured his seat in world cricket's Dubai headquarters? Howard at least does not hold any political office and can pay undivided attention to ICC matters.In fact, nowhere do politicians so completely rule sports as in India.

And now with India sitting on the cusp of far-reaching economic growth, this remains one eyesore.And the results, in terms of the country's sporting "achievements", are too evident and painful to dwell upon.

There is a twisted logic to what keeps these men stuck to their pot of gold.The Chautala brothers from Haryana rule the roost in table tennis and boxing.While Ajay Singh Chautala now runs TT, Abhay heads boxing.The political family has managed to make Haryana a boxing stronghold despite the sport's traditional centres in the northeast and the south, naturally shifting the power base too.When multiple world champion Marykom caused an uproar at the recent Nationals in Jamshedpur, citing biased referring and favouritism after she was beaten by Pinki Jingra, a Haryana-based newcomer, everyone knew whom the firebrand Manipur boxer's tirade was directed at.After the rush of blood had ebbed, Marykom realised it would be unwise to disrupt the new power equation and apologised for her behaviour.

Is the lure of power so great that scions are groomed to handle such "responsibilities" for the future? Karti Chidambaram, the 38 year-old son of Union Home Minister PC Chidambaram, is another sports administrator.He is the president of the All India Tenpin Bowling Federation and chief patron of the All India Karate-do Federation.

Apart from these, this law graduate from Cambridge and MBA from the University of Texas has been throwing his weight behind the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association for the past eight years as a vice-president.He was made the All India Tennis Association vice-president in 2008.He is also chairman of the Commonwealth Games Preparation Committee of the association.

But most crucially, Karti represents the Kancheepuram District Association in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.Karti's deep involvement with various sports seems the only aberration in a new trend where the younger political class doesn't seem too keen to move into sports administration in India.

What is it about the Indian neta that he is so drawn to power, both wanting to control it and subvert it? There is the undeniable pull of international recognition.The late Umrao Singh was once asked during the run-up to the Asian Games in 1982 what was the need for him, as a senior Congress minister in Punjab, to be seen at all international athletics meets.His reply summed it all up."As a minister, we are all the whims and fancies of Madam (Indira Gandhi).One fine day if she feels we are not required, we are out in the wilderness.But, this (athletics federation) at least gives us a platform.When we stand at the stage awarding medals, the whole world sees us on TV.Being a minister is a much smaller thing, " a veteran journalist recalls him as saying.

Then, there are other uses of sports.Apart from being the unifying factor that pacifies the various fractious state bodies that bring in the votes, a top politician or industrialist's presence at the helm serves as a magnet for funds, which mere officials would not be able to pull off.

In a conversation with former Bengal football chief Ranjit Gupta some years ago, on why the state associations could not find anybody suitable to oppose Dasmunsi when he was at the helm, the Indian Football Association official said that while they so badly wished they could, there was just nobody big enough to convince corporate houses or the public sector to part with some money for the sport.A parliamentarian came with that distinct edge.

In an arid economic landscape, Dasmunsi was able to convince petroleum giant ONGC to do its bit for Indian football."Tell me, which one of us would have been able to swing it?" asked Gupta.That rhetorical question cuts to the very heart of the problem — sports administration in India is ultimately about patronage and there are no better practitioners of that game than our netas.Which is why even those within the sporting fraternity wishing to see real change can't imagine a future without powerful political patrons.

Former Indian hockey captain M M Somaya, for instance, says, "Having some powerful politician or influential bureaucrat always helps.It is important to have someone powerful who can manage the environment.See, there's no harm in that, but an association or federation should be run like a company, where there are different departments which are eventually made accountable for their performance."

Somaya advocates the establishment of external agencies that can impose checks and balances in the functioning of sports bodies.

Says Somaya: "The IPL mess is a financial one, but that is just one part of what a sports body deals in.There are other departments and parameters like infrastructure and youth programmes that need to be addressed.There should be agencies to review, ensure scrutiny.Set targets and periodically judge them on set parameters.Winning a medal should not be the sole index of good governance.Warn the body if it is floundering, do away with the committee if the malaise persists.Simply picking a hockey team for the Olympics and the Asian Games, like KPS Gill and Jothikumaran did, is not the only work of the Indian Hockey Federation.There are other sectors that need to be taken care within the federation."

Calling it an idealistic way of looking at things, but not an impossible one, Somaya is not alone.A younger generation of proven sportsmen, Olympians and Arjuna Awardees with educational backing and training — Viren Rasquinha, Geet Sethi, Prakash Padukone and Abhinav Bindra — have taken it upon themselves to clean the system and provide professional solutions to the ills that plague Indian sports administration.

But is the solution really so simple? As the IPL mess revealed, there are too many temptations for the politiciancorporate nexus not to survive in Indian sport.Vijay Mallya, the most vocal of the anti-conflict-of-interest brigade, has a team in Formula One.He lends the names of his products to top two football clubs from Kolkata.He monitors the fortunes of his IPL team very closely.There is nothing wrong with that.He heads a wealthy corporation that can afford to invest in these sporting endeavours.But it turns out he once also headed the Pondicherry Football Association from 1999 to 2003 — a crucial phase when Dasmunsi fought off opposition, notably from the Samir Thapar-led faction, to retain power in the AIFF in the 2000 elections.Mallya was rewarded with a vice-presidentship of the federation from 2000 to 2004 for his behind-the-scenes working to see Dasmunsi was not ousted.

The football case is peculiar in that according to a ruling by the game's global governing body Fifa some years ago, the president of the federation is now the apex point of the administrative pyramid.The secretary, formerly elected, is now appointed and has little say in policy matters.In succeeding Dasmunsi, Praful Patel has ensured a direct link with Fifa and the glamour and power associated with the world's largest, most powerful and wealthiest sports body.Wonder how Patel would look playing the role of match commissioner at key international fixtures, an art which his shrewd predecessor had perfected to keep earning FIFA sops.
Yet, today, there seems to be a sense of urgency more than ever before to remedy this malaise.

Back in the courtroom, even as AS Chandiok pleaded for more time, Mehra later claimed that the government was clearly avoiding filing the reply since the eight-year term was a thorny issue."Why would they want to answer this question?" he said rhetorically."This involves the political class cutting across all parties.Why would the government want to upset the applecart?" But Mehra is hopeful that things will improve.

The Right To Information Act is a potent weapon in the hands of the sport-loving public to demand what exactly is going on in the murky corridors of Indian Olympic Association or Hockey India.Unlike the administrators, who draw from the high and mighty of society, you just have to be a regular sports fan to demand to know the truth.

In 2000, when Mehra and friend Shantanu Sharma had filed a PIL against the workings of the BCCI and toured newspaper offices for help, they were just 26 years old — usually the age-group today that feels that Lalit Modi has been done in and that financial irregularity was a trivial price to pay for the shrill glamour and spellbinding magic of the Indian Premier League.

Back then, Mehra and Sharma were initially perceived to be publicity-hungry and riding on the entire match-fixing bandwagon.It took four years for them to force the BCCI to get transparent in their functioning.This time, the High Court has given those who run Indian sport just a week to explain what they are up to.There is hope.

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