A Game-Changer Bill

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Netas shouldn’t be allowed to derail Ajay Maken’s bid to improve sports standards, says Sanjay Jha

Brand-new pitch: Maken’s Bill focusses on creating a level-playing field for all sport
Brand-new pitch: Maken’s Bill focusses on creating a level-playing field for all sports federations, PHOTO: NAVEESH TEJPAL

IT TAKES a far-out real-life narrative involving Vilasrao Deshmukh to understand the filibustering that Union Sports Minister Ajay Maken can expect for his audacious effort to get the watershed Sports Development Bill approved by the Cabinet. Deshmukh though must be congratulated for setting his priorities right. Thus, instead of taking oath as a Minister for Science and Technology following a Cabinet reshuffle, he was in Mumbai mobilising crucial borderline votes to become president of the high-profile Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA). Of the 37 meetings held in the MCA earlier, Deshmukh attended just one, probably inadvertently. The elections had edge-of-the-seat intriguing suspense worthy of prime-time ‘breaking news’. To understand the importance of cricket to political heavyweights, one has to look no further than the most unlikely alliance that was struck. Deshmukh and his bête noire Sharad Pawar struck a snuggly pact instantly burying years of bitter animosity, all to keep the stubborn ‘Colonel’ out. Poor Dilip Vengsarkar. He had been one of the few former cricketers who has religiously pursued the onerous task of discovering home talent. But against wily forces, he was abjectly humiliated. Of course, it was legally a democratic process. The ‘Colonel’ looked crestfallen, and Deshmukh grinned like a satisfied Cheshire cat. A familiar tale, I guess.

That answers the billion-dollar question: Why do politicians persistently hanker to head sports federations? It provides them with sweet nectar — prime control over usage of large material/land assets, opportunity to dispense favours, award contracts to known entities, leverage power, frequent media visibility, free foreign junkets and boosting in-party popularity stakes. Crony capitalism emerges from its colossal clout.

Thus Maken was perhaps being overtly optimistic in believing that his senior political colleagues would take to his standout Bill like mice to cheese. In the Cabinet meeting were well-ensconced guardian angels of our sports: Praful Patel (All-India Football Federation), Farooq Abdullah (Jammu & Kashmir Cricket Association), Sharad Pawar (president, International Cricket Council), CP Joshi (Rajasthan Cricket Association) and, of course, the newly crowned Deshmukh himself. Maken must have felt as isolated as Mamata Banerjee would at a Lady Gaga concert.

What was an extraordinarily reformative Bill to improve sports standards was summarily punctured by these august men as being too interfering and lacking developmental focus. They grumbled about everything, particularly the age limit of 70 years and limited tenures, conveniently forgetting that in some state associations, office-bearers have been there for several decades. Suresh Kalmadi himself headed the Indian Olympic Association for 15 years. The embarrassing Commonwealth Games scam was perhaps inevitable. But who cares? We need to push the envelope to pass the Bill.

The politician’s usual winning gambit is his ability to surmount bureaucratic stonewalling in getting prompt clearances; an implicit confession that they use their arm-twisting, subtle cajoling and you-scratchmy- back-and-I-scratch-yours reciprocity to get things done. In short, an admission that they possess extraconstitutional methods that are liberally employed. That is a pathetic excuse for perpetuating political stranglehold in Indian sports; the answer lies in reducing red tape, exposing corrupt officials and having professional leadership. No one addresses that.

While Maken’s Bill correctly focusses on creating a level-playing field for all national sports federations, it is the BCCI that has not unsurprisingly reacted like its agitated antagonist. Despite their full-time autonomy, most federations have made monstrous snafus evident in poor training infrastructure, questionable coaches, absence of talent development programmes, nepotism and favouritism, sexual harassment cases, etc. A former national cricketer in a television programme made an effervescent defence of the BCCI: “Their office-bearers are just figureheads” — but then that exactly is the problem. The BCCI comprises of cosmetic floaters, where a part-time executive board decides the destinies of career sportsmen in a multi-billion dollar industry where India controls 75-80 percent of global cricket revenues. According to them, their bountiful treasuries manifest their gold standard work methods. Really? The BCCI has no CEO, conflict of interest is rampant, it has a feudal autocratic management style, and worse, is accountable to none. That it is a fuliginous establishment is no secret. That it is impervious to constructive criticism and common sense is also not completely unknown. But what emerges from its robust blitzkrieg against the Sports Bill is that it suffers from delusions of grandeur that requires immediate correction before it takes an irreversible form. Of course, the scandalous IPL scam is casually ignored as one man’s avaricious excesses.

The IPL was the BCCI’s well-nursed offspring that had a dazzling naming ceremony. Under the megalomaniac leadership of its disgraced former IPL commissioner, it contravened all standards of corporate governance, transparency and all statutory provisions of the country’s laws. Match-fixing, largescale betting, drug abuse, kickbacks, slush funds transfers et al allegedly happened under the large sinus-affected nostrils of these BCCI honchos. They smelt nothing, they tell us. Nothing?

BCCI officials said that they were transparent because their financial performance was on the website! That was like Dominique Strauss-Kahn saying the opposite sex is an attractive proposition. Even the famous Wall Street banks like Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and our own Satyam, DB Realty and Unitech announced “audited figures” with much fanfare, didn’t they? The answer lies in the mystery behind those numbers. Despite the astronomical IPL fraud, the BCCI’s belligerent bravura smacked of both stupidity and hubris.

We need the BCCI and all federations under the RTI Act to resolve many unsolved mysteries

These gentlemen also tell you that MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar play not for India but “Team BCCI”. Have you ever heard anything more ludicrous? Sports federations have become the private suzerainty of exclusive groups. We need the BCCI and all federations under the RTI Act to solve many mysteries that have hampered the development of sports; the allocation of television rights, vendor selection, bidding processes, selection of personnel, player development, tournament scheduling, and conflict of interest, among others.

The BCCI’s argument that it does not take financial support from the government, and hence cannot come under the RTI Act was either being clever by half or reflected its poor comprehension of financial accounting. Subsidies are an indirect form of funding; concessionary land, tax exemptions, massive deployment of police forces, import duty waivers all amount to utilisation of public funds and assets. Its studious reluctance to come under RTI only accentuates apprehensions about its myriad ways. Maybe the BCCI will be agreeable to an RTI as long as it stands for Right to Ignorance.

Maken’s Bill has many outstanding features; in the absence of a players’ association, a grievance redressal committee and an ombudsman who would investigate serious transgressions too. Giving the players representation of 25 percent on the executive board will substantially enhance credibility as well as offer realistic inputs. And the retirement age of 70 with a maximum of 12 years in office is as per appropriate international norms. After the disastrous exposé of doping by our athletes it is about time we adhered to WADA standards.

Maken’s Bill is a game-changer. It needs to be re-emphasised that the Bill does not superimpose bureaucratic nominations, the obnoxious culture of babudom. What it does is provide all federations, BCCI included, cardinal principles of corporate governance that would be non-negotiable. Self-regulation, from experience, has been far from salutary.

Indians perpetually lament that we cut a sorry figure at the Olympics. That is because we never practice the inspiring motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger. Maken’s Bill might just be a great beginning towards that goal.

Sanjay Jha is co-founder of hamaracongress.com. 
[email protected]

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