It must seem naïve now that sports minister Ajay Maken believed he could get his Draft National Sports Development Bill cleared by the Union cabinet, considering so many ministers are office bearers of various federations. There are several silly things that politicians are known to do, but shooting themselves willingly in the foot is surely not one of them.
Consider just cricket. Senior politicians and cabinet members who are involved in the administration of this sport include Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Arun Jaitley, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Farooq Abdullah, among others. They may cut across party lines, but cricket is the glue which binds any ideological divide by the power it commands in the country.
In saying this, I am not aligning myself necessarily with Maken’s Bill. Let me clarify a few things upfront. In its broad sweep, and most of the major provisions therein, the Bill has merit. But the thrust leading up to the vote by the cabinet seemed to needlessly focus too much on one sport, cricket, which is the best governed.
Open up: A file photo of BCCI members at a press meet. Photo by Hindustan Times.
The more serious issue for me, however, is whether the government should play an active role in running sports; indeed, whether there is any need at all for a sports ministry. The government’s track record in sports administration over the past 64 years is dismal. The sorry state of hockey and athletics is a stark example of the deleterious effect of government interference. There is little to suggest that matters are on the mend in other areas.
I’ll come to that shortly, but first let’s look at cricket and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which the sports ministry seemed to want to bring to heel, and which became the cause célèbre in this affair.
The recent Test series debacle in England provided a good enough handle to whip up public approval. But this was pandering to populist sentiment and flawed in its understanding of sport.
The fact of the matter is that cricket receives no grant from the government, manages its own affairs and has produced impressive results and a healthy balance sheet over the past few years. It also conforms to one of the major provisions in the Bill, viz. the tenure of office bearers. Its audited accounts are in the public domain annually, albeit not as easily accessible as desired.
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Reforms must be based on hard investigation, not on the hot air that has become the staple of public and media discourse. In saying this, I am not giving a clean chit to the BCCI which, I believe, should voluntarily submit to the purview of the Right to Information Act if, as it claims, its house is in order. This will increase its credibility and reduce the criticism against it.
I have several grouses with the BCCI, which have often been articulated in these columns—that it pursues a healthy balance sheet rather than sustained excellence is the biggest of these. Office bearers of the cricket establishment also tend to be stuffy, arrogant and recalcitrant, which is out of sync with the times, and creates complications where none need exist.
Why should public accountability be difficult for the BCCI to digest? As a legal entity, it may be a registered body under The Societies Registration Act, and hence a private body. But the BCCI also raises millions of dollars in telecast rights and advertising, etc., on the basis of a billion hearts which beat for the game. Surely then, fans are entitled to ask some legitimate questions.
As an audited body, the BCCI should strive to make its accounts public more easily. Cricket Australia’s accounts, for instance, are available on its website. How much better would it be if the BCCI would post its dealings—like, say, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri being on the payroll as commentators—for the public to know what’s happening? Or to clarify “conflict of interest” situations, like how secretary N. Srinivasan has also been allowed to own an Indian Premier League team?
The BCCI functions like some freemasonry, shrouded in secrecy and with a veneer of arrogance, which is not just unnecessary but also unacceptable in current climes. That said, I am vehemently opposed to the government taking over the BCCI; indeed, all sports bodies should be disencumbered from the government if Indian sport is to make real headway.
The Australian system, according to me, has strong merits. There is no sports ministry in that country. The government provides broad guidelines—sports for all, zero-tolerance for drugs and promoting health and healthy competition—on which the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) acts in collaboration with various federations and associations.
The ASC is run by commissioners drawn from various walks of life, including bankers, technocrats, business people and sportspersons, etc.—but crucially, all those with a passion for, and deep understanding of, sport. They are in charge of funding federations, and of withdrawing grants from bodies that don’t meet targets.
The crux is the quest for sporting excellence—not power—within defined financial parameters and a national vision. That may be a worthwhile model for India to emulate, for it will eliminate the proliferation of politicians in sports federations and make officials in federations set their sights on winning medals for survival rather than winning votes.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org