Fair game? What political control of India’s sports federations tells us

The recent controversy surrounding the wrestling federation has put the spotlight on the age-old debate on who should lead sports bodies.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
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Last month, the Wrestling Federation of India was in the eye of the storm as wrestlers protested against its chief and BJP MP Brijbhushan Sharan Singh. Allegations pertaining to sexual harassment, funding and sponsorship were made and rejected. But the episode put the spotlight on the age-old debate: who should lead sports bodies? Politicians, bureaucrats or sportspersons? 

The National Sports Development Code of India, or sports code, was implemented in 2011, but several sports bodies are yet to comply. The chief aim of the sports code – an amalgamation of government notifications on how NSFs should be run – is to end the hegemony of entrenched sports administrators and hold transparent polls with adequate representation from sports. 

While a lot has changed on the field over the last few decades, including even the rules of some sports, politicians, businessmen and sports administrators still call the shots at national sports federations. Not so long ago, the Suresh Kalmadis, Vijay Malhotras, Abhay Singh Chautalas or Jnanrdan Singh Gehlots – all politicians – dominated the sports landscape, but it seems only the names have changed. Elections have more often than not been rigged, unanimous choices made and special posts created to accommodate a chosen few.

Many administrators, who refused to be dislodged from the top, could not withstand court scrutiny and at times the Central government’s nudge. To bypass this, they instead installed their yes-men in several NSFs. 

Of the 12 most prominent sports federations in India, six are headed by politicians or their relatives; four by sportspersons, including a BJP leader; and one each led by a businessman and a court-appointed administrator. There were 62 recognised NSFs in 2020-21, as per the sports ministry website. Newslaundry takes a look.

Wrestling

Beleaguered BJP leader Brijbhushan Sharan Singh was re-elected unopposed as president of the Wrestling Federation of India for a third time in 2019. The BJP MP from UP was also the chef-de-mission of the Indian contingent for the Asian Games in 2018 in Jakarta and Palembang. His clout in WFI can be gauged from the fact that he had won all his terms unopposed. He was first elected president in 2012 by defeating Congress’s Deepender Singh Hooda, son of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Football

In its 90-year-old history, BJP leader and former Indian goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey became the first former footballer to head the All India Football Federation in September last year. In the election, it was a one-sided match. Chaubey defeated football legend Bhaichung Bhutia, who floated his political party Hamro Sikkim Party in 2018, by 31-1. 

This came after the International Association Football Federation (FIFA) banned AIFF for “third party” interference in August last year, referring to the appointment of court-appointed administrators. 

The elevation of Chaubey ended the reign of Congress’s Priya Ranjan Munshi and NCP’s Praful Patel. Munshi occupied the top post from 1988 to 2009 until his health deteriorated. He was succeeded by Patel who completed three four-year terms. He could not fight the next elections as the sports code mandates a maximum of three four-year terms for the president of a recognised sports body.

Tennis

BJP MP Anil Jain was elected unopposed as president of the All Indian Tennis Association in 2020, succeeding former Indian Revenue Officer Praveen Mahajan. He isn’t as familiar a face in the tennis circuit as Anil Khanna, who, over the last two-and-a-half decades, has served as secretary general and president of AITA, and held various posts in international or continental tennis bodies. He is the current vice-president of AITA. 

In 2016, Khanna claimed he was unanimously chosen as life president of AITA. However, under the sports code, the posts of life president and vice-president are not allowed. Under fire from the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and Delhi High Court, AITA had in 2020 abolished these posts accorded to former external affairs ministers SM Krishna and Yashwant Sinha, besides Khanna. During the 2022 CWG in 2022, Khanna, then acting president of Indian Olympic Association, was rattled that the “needs” of Indian athletes are harder to satisfy than others. He was referring to boxer Lovlina Borgohian’s request for CWG accreditation for her personal coach.  

Anil Khanna has inherited the sporting capital from his father, Raj Kumar. The senior Khanna, who passed away in 2005, had served as the secretary (1966-74 and 1988-92) and president (1992-2000). A Delhi tennis stadium, named after the senior Khanna instead of tennis legends, was the venue of the 1982 Asian Games and the 2010 Commonwealth Games. 

In the Khanna family, the baton of sports administration has been passed on to the third generation. Anil’s son Aditya was first appointed as the honorary joint secretary of Delhi Lawn Tennis Association in 2009. He was then 26. He is now the DLTA treasurer.

Badminton

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was re-elected unopposed for a four-year term as president of the Badminton Association of India last year. This is his second term. Before him, former Union minister and Congress leader Akhilesh Das Gupta had served two terms until his death in 2017. Gupta, son of former UP chief minister Banarsi Das, was also investigated by the CBI for alleged nepotism. Gupta’s entry was facilitated into the body after VK Verma, who helmed BAI for one-and-a-half decades, was accused of misappropriation of funds during the 2010 CWG.

Shooting

Raninder Singh, trap shooter and son of former Punjab chief minister Amrinder Singh, defeated BSP MP Shyam Singh Yadav during the presidential polls for the National Rifle Association of India last year. This is his fourth term as president. 

Yadav had earlier flagged that the sport code allows only three terms. NRAI officials had then claimed that Singh had not completed 12 years as his first term was only for one-and-a-half years due to the death of his predecessor Digvijay Singh, a five-time MP from Bihar and Union minister, in 2010. Singh was first elected in 1999.

Archery

What the Khannas are to tennis, VK Malhotra was to archery. BJP leader Vijay Kumar Malhotra’s dominance as president in the Archery Association of India lasted for four decades. AAI was derecognised in 2012 as Malhotra’s tenure was in violation of the age and term guidelines of the sports code. The ban was lifted in 2020 when Union Minister of Tribal Affairs Arjun Munda became the face of AAI.

Boxing

In 2021, SpiceJet chairman Ajay Singh was re-elected president of the Boxing Federation of India for a second term. He defeated Mumbai BJP chief Ashish Shelar, who is currently the BCCI treasurer. The international body had earlier suspended the BFI after a new post of chairman was created for outgoing president Abhay Singh Chautala in 2012. Abhay is an INLD leader and son of former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala. 

The reason for the new post, allegedly, was that he could not fight another election after completing three terms as president. Another cause for suspension was his brother-in-law and Rajasthan BJP leader Abhishek Matoria’s controversial elevation as president of BFI.

Table tennis

The dominance of the Chautalas is also visible in the Table Tennis Federation of India. In December last year, Meghna Ahlawat became the first female president by defeating Gujarat home minister Harsh Sanghvi.

She was preceded by her husband and Haryana Deputy CM Dushyant Chautala. He was first elected unopposed in 2017 and again in 2021. In February 2022, the Delhi High Court had suspended TTFI and its executive council after India’s top female player Manika Batra alleged that she was asked to lose a Tokyo Olympics qualification match against a player trained at the academy of national coach Soumyadeep Roy. The suspension meant that Dushyant could not stand for elections.

Kabaddi

Let’s now move to the Gehlots of Rajasthan. Congress leader Janardan Singh Gehlot, who passed away in 2021, remained the face of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India for over two decades. He served as its president until 2013. In view of the sports code, he was appointed ‘life president’ in the same year. His wife Mridula was elected as president in a controversial move. She was again re-elected unopposed in 2017. The election was challenged in the Delhi High Court. 

Quashing the election, the court in 2018 said the AKFI was held at ransom by a “family enterprise”. “Worse, we are informed that the son of respondent no. 4 (Janardan) and 5 (Mridula) has been ‘elected’ as president of the Rajasthan Kabaddi Association,” the high court said. The couple’s son Tejasvi is the president of the Rajasthan Kabaddi Federation. 

The AKFI is being run by a court appointed administrator. It is facing the risk of being banned from international participation due to a delay in elections since 2019.

Hockey

Hockey India seems to have untangled itself from the clutches of sports administrators and retired officials. In September last year, Dilip Tirkey became the first player president of HI. Before him, veteran sports administrator Narinder Batra had served in various capacities as senior vice-president, general secretary and treasurer since 2002. In 2014, he was elected president of HI. He resigned in 2016 after he became the first Indian to lead the International Hockey Federation. 

In May 2022, the Delhi High Court placed HI under three administrators after Batra became “life member” in violation of the sports code. Two months later, his houses in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir were raided by the CBI for alleged diversion of Rs 35 lakh meant for hockey. Before Batra, retired IPS officer KPS Gill headed the erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation for 14 years till 2008.

Athletics

Olympian Adille Sumariwalla has been president of the Athletics Association of India since 2012. Before him, Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi’s writ ran large over the association between 1987 and 2005. He was again elected ‘life president’ in 2006. His 25-year career at the association ended after he was sacked in 2011 owing to financial irregularities in the 2010 CWG. 

At least one face that remained unfazed by the tumultuous shake-up in the sports federation after the CWG was Lalit K Bhanot. The former state-level thrower, who was jailed for a few months for his role in the CWG scam, is the longest-serving office bearer in AFI. He is currently the executive council member at AFI.   

Olympics

The Indian Olympic Association comprises 36 national sports federations and facilitates visits of teams to the Olympics Games and other multi-sporting events. Track-and-field legend and nominated Rajya Sabha MP PT Usha became the first female Olympian to head the IOA in December, heralding a new chapter in the IOA’s history. 

The IOA had regularly faced court scrutiny and risk of suspension from the International Olympics Committee. Before her, Narinder Batra (hockey), Anil Khanna (tennis) and Adille Sumariwalla (athletics) fought a legal battle to take over the reins. 

This was preceded by the dominance of Suresh Kalmadi, who served as president from 1996 to 2011. Unfazed by the CWG taint, he along with Abhay Singh Chautala were made “life presidents” in violation of the sports code. This led the sports ministry to derecognize IOA.

Sportspersons as administrators

Sports administrators or politicians at NSFs believe that they are more suited to run these bodies as it involves coordination with the government and the business community for funds.

“It requires coordination with international and local bodies, and the government. An administrator needs to have a fair idea of accounting, preparation of agenda of the meetings and minutes of the meeting, etc. Having said that, I believe sportspersons know where a federation is lacking in terms of facilities. But rather than elevating them to the president’s post instantly, they should start small. They can gain some administrative experience at the state level or the lower level in national bodies before reaching the top. This will help sports,” an office-bearer at an NSF said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak with the media. He said it was yet to be seen how Dilip Tirkey and PT Usha perform as administrators.  

On how several sports bodies have become family fiefdoms, he retorted that it was but natural that a son will follow in the footsteps of his father. “But anyone who wants to challenge them, they can participate in the polls, which are held in line with the sports code.” 

Another official at a sports federation lamented that “money can buy anything in NSFs”. “You know how a big corporate house representative has been foisted on the Indian Olympic Association,” said the former national player.

Sports activist and Supreme Court lawyer Rahul Mehra, who has been fighting a long legal battle to ensure NSFs abide by the sports code, says, “This claim (that sports administrators are better equipped) is made by those who have entrenched themselves in NSFs. They say nothing moves without politics. This argument is lop-sided. Is there any empirical data that shows that players don’t make good administrators? And how would you know unless they are given a chance. I believe sportspersons are less politically motivated and their heart lies in the progress of sports.”

Drawing a comparison with other professions, he said it would be ludicrous to have doctors leading bar councils, and likewise, lawyers helming the Medical Council of India. “So why not let sportspersons run NSFs? Whatever little progress has been made is because of courts. The government is going about at its own pace. It’s been 12 years since the sports code was implemented. And almost all federations have not complied with the guidelines. For example, all NSFs, including IOA, must have, in their respective general assembly and executive committee a minimum of 25 percent quota for eminent sportspersons with outstanding merit. Every single NSF has failed to comply with this mandatory provision of the sports code. And why only 25 percent? Why not 75 percent?”

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