Be a sport, let go of sports

Be a sport, let go of sports

By M.J. Akbar | 4 September, 2011
Sports Minister Ajay Maken receives a letter of support for National Sports Bill from a group of sportspersons in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI

Praful Patel had a good point to make. "If such a Bill is passed," the former Union minister for civil aviation and present Union minister for some portfolio which escapes my memory, said, "bureaucrats like a joint secretary will be running the sports federation. What is their competence in sports administration?"

Absolutely right, Prafulji, with one minor caveat, if commoners are permitted the indulgence of raising their eyes before the majesty of Cabinet ministers. Why did you appoint a series of joint secretaries as chief executives of Air India for all these years? Were they competent to run an airline? They were terribly proficient at awarding lifelong travel privileges for themselves, of course; but between joint secretaries and politicians they managed to devastate an airline that was once the pride of India. Make that two airlines, even if Indian Airlines was more often a source of hypertension than national joy. Still, it worked. It could buy its own fuel and pay its salaries. Its merger with Air India turned a sick man of the skies into a terminal patient. It is now sustained by massive drip feeds from a treasury that treats thousands of crores with the insouciant indifference that Ali Baba would accord to a bit of brass in his cave of endless wealth.

Praful Patel would probably respond by blaming the System. Yes. In the last two decades the Indian bureaucracy, trained to maintain the now heavily rusted iron framework of public administration, has expanded its remit and seized direct control of public sector companies that were once run by professionals, but this has happened with the willing consent of politicians who are far more comfortable with bureaucrats than professionals. Praful Patel may, in fact, be the least guilty in a group that stretches across political parties and spans two generations. This bloat began as bearable adipose during Mrs Indira Gandhi's second term as Prime Minister, in the 1980s; under her successors it has become a life-threatening disease. The bureaucracy acquired the public sector as its private realm. Today, it does not even pretend to look outside its own corridors for management even when it has run vital institutions to the ground — a very apt metaphor for what happened to Air India.

The one exception is all the more notable given the disaster that followed. When the late Madhavrao Scindia was given charge of aviation, he brought Yogi Deveshwar from ITC to head the airline. Deveshwar served his contracted period, handed the government a large cheque as profit, and returned to ITC. Since then, more or less, it is the government which has been handing out cheques to Air India.

So perhaps the powers that be will permit a sardonic smile at the angry determination with which Cabinet ministers are protecting their control of sports bodies from intervention by the same joint secretaries. Ajay Maken, the sports minister, is only trying to do unto the cash-rich BCCI what other ministers have done to an assortment of industries: grab perfectly healthy organisations in the name of the public good.

I agree fully with Praful Patel and Farooq Abdullah, who can still deliver (as he puts it) at the age of 74, and Rajiv Shukla, who wants to run IPL when he has time to spare from running Parliament, and Sharad Pawar, the new father of Indian cricket, that vermin like joint secretaries should be prohibited from entering their domain. There are, of course, a few of you who wonder why politicians who have never held a bat, or scored a goal, should control cricket or hockey, but we will leave that argument for another day. Pawar and company have, at least, been elected to their posts by committees who have the right to choose who they will.

But this is the perfect moment to raise a supplementary. The Cabinet has asked Ajay Maken to re-draft the proposed National Sports Bill. Why should there be a sports ministry in government? If the English ­Premier League has become indispensable to international football, or BCCI turned into a fabulous success story, it is precisely because they were never burdened with ­unwelcome help from government. At best a sports department could be a minor wing somewhere to channel the odd bit of help to a limping sport, a job the finance ministry could do in a few minutes every year.

Why should, by the same token, there be an information and broadcasting ministry, particularly when Doordarshan is meant, theoretically, to be autonomous? The only temptation an I&B minister has is to wave an increasingly impotent stick at private sector media. The very existence of a ministry, and a minister, is an invitation to control. A ministry never diets. Its culture demands obesity. It treats putting on weight as part of its moral responsibility.

Praful Patel has asked a brilliant question. He knows the answer as well. It is time to take the answer to its logical conclusion.


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