Liberal Opinion: Are developments in wrestling linked to mainstream politics?

Sports and politics are inseparable. Politics in sports is no different than games politicians play. Difference, if any, is that those who are in sports normally rise above party politics. Cutting across party lines, they have strong group affiliations. Look at the previous National Sports Federations (NSFs), including the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), key players used to come from absolutely different political backgrounds.

There are numerous instances when political bigwigs from the same party would be in conflict with each over the control of sports bodies. Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA) was a glaring example where   leaders of  a major political party were in direct confrontation with each other. It was not an isolated case. Elections to the IOA in late 80s, early 90s and even afterwards corroborate theory that for control in sports they have to shed their party affiliations and forge new sports alliances. The IOA would, for example, have a Congressman (VC Shukla, Suresh Kalmadi) as its President, and leaders from BJP (Vijay Malhotra), Indian National Lok Dal (Abhay Chautala), Shiromani Akali Dal (Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa)and others as Vice-Presidents. Many thought it to be a healthy  cocktail that could  help carry forward tricolour in international sports. Others had their reservations.

The recent cases, especially when allegations of sexual exploitation of women athletes and coaches are flying high, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is finding itself in a quagmire.While in case of Olympian Sandeep Singh, who had to shed sports portfolio, after a junior women athletic coach accused him for attempting to molest her in his illegal confinement, the State Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, has been maintaining that no one can held guilty just because serious allegations have been levelled against him or her. Even after more than a fortnight of registration of First Information Report (FIR) against Sandeep Singh at a Chandigarh police station, no arrest has been made. Investigations have been in progress. Haryana police, too, is holding a separate investigation in the case that rocked the state on the New Year Day.

On the other hand when Olympian Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat  accused the Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of sexual abuse and harassment of wrestlers in general and women in particular, the Union Sports Ministry swung into action and served a 72-hour ultimatum on the WFI to explain its position. Wrestlers have been sitting in dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for the last three days. The agitating wrestlers have already held a couple of meetings with the Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur besides meeting the first woman Olympian President of Indian Olympic Association PT Usha. The agitating wrestlers are demanding immediate dissolution of the Wrestling Federation of India which incidentally is headed by BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

On the other hand, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has  been denying all charges.  Claiming the dharna by Olympian wrestlers as   “political vendetta”, the BJP’s Kaiserganj MP has been  saying that “even if one wrestler comes forward and says that she has been sexually harassed, that day I can be hanged”. He has refused to budge under pressure.

Since the atmosphere is politically surcharged – just a day before the wrestler’s dharna began at Jantar Mantar – BJP had a national convention to chart out its strategy  for the 2024 general elections in the country. Uttar Pradesh is important for the ruling party as it has 62 MPs from a total of 80 from the biggest state of the country. Brij Bhushan, who has changed parties in the past, is one of 62 BJP MPs in Lok Sabha. He has been in control of the Wrestling Federation of India for almost a decade. Though he was never chosen to be a Union Minister, he is known to wield a lot of influence both in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh had been a wrestler himself and comes from Gonda. Though as a six-time MP he is known to be a staunch BJP man, he had shifted his loyalties to Samajwadi Party in the 2009 general elections. Besides Gonda and Balrampur, he now represents Kaiserganj in Lok Sabha.

Rated as a tough sports administrator, many view the dharna by Olympian wrestlers as a move to isolate and oust from the Wrestling Federation of India. They base their argument on the recent developments that have taken place in the Indian sports administration. Election of BJP nominated Olympian sprinter PT Usha as the Indian Olympic Association President is quoted as an example.

With elections in three North East States due in February, BJP appears to be in a consolidating mode. For it sports is one area that it does not want to leave alone.

Indian sports has already witnessed some major changes. It has for the first time an Olympian as President of Hockey India. Dilip Tirkey, the new President, who took over after unceremonious exit of Dr Narender Dhruv Batra, is a confidant of Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik.

By holding a second consecutive World Cup in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has been successful in denying the ruling BJP government any credit. By giving the State a facelift as a part of the preparations for holding the mega hockey event, the State is drenched in “Naveen Patnaik discourse” as lifesize flexis of the Chief Minister adorn all important roads in Bhubaneswar, Rourkela and Cuttack. Late last year, when India played host to the FIFA Women (UNder19) World Cup, Bhubaneswar turned out to be one of the favourite venues of participants where the hosts India had ended winless.

(To be concluded)

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)