Kolkata: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal has lately been taking on the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in every conceivable constituency. And from last month, the two parties have squared off for influence over Mohun Bagan and East Bengal—India’s oldest football clubs, with active fan bases running into hundreds of thousands of people.
BJP has started to lobby for inclusion of the two teams in the Reliance Industries Ltd and IMG-controlled Indian Super League (ISL) football tournament.
These two clubs, indirectly controlled by the Trinamool Congress, passed up the opportunity to be included in ISL because of financial constraints. They would have had to pay an annual franchise fee of Rs15 crore each, which they cannot immediately afford.
That apart, they also had reservations about not being allowed to represent Kolkata, where they are based, because the city is already represented in the ISL by Atletico de Kolkata, a new team controlled by Kolkata-based industrialist Sanjiv Goenka.
Before taking the decision towards the end of May, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had several rounds of discussions with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and sports minister Aroop Biswas, as well as with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the controller of the sport in India.
Nothing worked, and the two heavyweights from Kolkata couldn’t get ISL management or AIFF, which is headed by Mumbai-based politician Praful Patel, to create a special dispensation for them to take part in the league without having to pay the franchise fee.
It is now feared that the two clubs from Kolkata could lose their relevance in Indian football as ISL is emerging as the most respected football league in the country. Even the JSW Group-controlled Bengaluru FC gave up on the rival I-League and opted to join ISL from this year.
The BJP, which is nibbling at every opportunity to make inroads into the Trinamool Congress’s support base in West Bengal, is now trying to play the white knight, cashing its leverage with central ministers.
After writing to AIFF’s Patel and to Vijay Goel, the Union minister for sports and youth affairs, the party has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appealing to him to intervene to make sure Mohun Bagan and East Bengal got due recognition for their towering contribution to football in India.
In a letter written to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, Ritesh Tiwari, secretary of the BJP in West Bengal, said that all key football clubs should be included in ISL in the interest of the sport, and that keeping Mohun Bagan and East Bengal out of the tournament shows ISL is being driven only by the motivation to make profits.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal club officials said they were not consulted over this and that BJP’s bid to rescue them was completely unsolicited.
“We did not have any prior information about the BJP writing to the prime minister, seeking his intervention in this matter," said Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta, a physician who serves as the assistant general secretary of East Bengal. Echoing him, Debasish Dutta, Mohun Bagan’s finance secretary, said his club came to know about Tiwari’s letter only when it received a copy.
BJP is eyeing the huge fan base of these two clubs, said other officials, who asked not to be identified. By some estimates, Mohun Bagan alone has an active fan base of around 200,000 people. East Bengal wouldn’t be far behind, according to these officials.
If a solution could be found to the crisis facing these clubs and BJP could lay claim to it, the party will win brownie points with voters in the state. Currently, both the clubs are under the Trinamool Congress’s control and BJP is now trying to make inroads, the officials added.