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What Explains Babul Supriyo’s Arbitrary Appointment to the FIFA World Cup Organising Body?

While politicians governing sports bodies is not an aberration, the political expediency that seems to colour Supriyo’s appointment is troubling.

Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Babul Supriyo. Credit: PTI

Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Babul Supriyo. Credit: PTI

Philosopher Walter Benjamin once mused that the diminishing consideration given to experience in the modern world had serious consequences for human impoverishment. Of course he was not talking about the present disdain for experts and intellectuals, at least not explicitly. But in the past few weeks and months, powerful men have told us that experience is overrated.

It would take a naïve person to believe that positions of privilege and power are occupied by the best and the brightest. Social networks and spheres of influence are indisputable factors in such decisions. So when Praful Patel announced Babul Supriyo’s appointment as the vice president of the 2017 FIFA under-17 World Cup Organising Committee on Twitter, one was moved to appreciate his accidental honesty.

Patel, president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), had no qualms in identifying Supriya, Union minister for heavy industries and public enterprises, as a friend. According to Patel, Supriyo’s other credential is that he is a great football fan. You or I could have been considered for the post, if only Patel would accept our offer of friendship. Note to self for future appointments.

Patel, who is also the chairman of the tournament’s organising committee, offered no further credentials to back his appointee. In fact, judging by Supriyo’s reaction on Twitter, the singer-turned-politician wanted to emphasise that his love for the sport would be enough. Experience was a trivial concern; perhaps, because his role is largely expected to be an honorary position.

Whether his appointment was decided by consensus, there was no information to confirm. But going by the history of the AIFF, appointments are often the result of political expedience or mere ad hocism. The organising committee, ably guided by tournament director Javier Ceppi and project director Joy Bhattacharya, has received much admiration for its efforts to ensure that India is ready to host its first FIFA tournament this October. The grassroots outreach project, Mission XI Million, and the volunteer programme have come in for special praise.

Why now?

So, why was Supriyo hired with a little over six months left for the tournament? The Narendra Modi-led government’s special interest in the competition may hold clues to the answer. In a statement this January, the prime minister emphasised that the tournament should leave a legacy for football in the country. This is not his only public pronouncement. Modi had also referred to the tournament in a Mann ki Baat episode last year.

If we are to take his statements seriously, the factors behind the appointment of Supriyo seem clearer. It is obvious that there is a lot riding on the successful hosting of the under-17 World Cup. Such is the current government’s obsession with its image, it will seek to influence the event’s administration any way possible. Of course, tournament organising committees cannot hope to function outside the government’s ambit.

But why Supriyo? Even if we were to accept his claims to being a serious football fan, it does not satisfy the doubts surrounding his appointment. Perhaps, the answer lies somewhere else. The current government has demonstrated a penchant for pushing its favourites even when they are found to be woefully short of the prevalent standards. In January, at least ten BJP leaders secured nominations as independent directors on the board of major public sector companies.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Patel’s role here may not be as unclear as it seems either. It is public knowledge that his party has courted the BJP on numerous occasions in the past few years; it had even offered unconditional support to the Devendra Fadnavis government after the 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections. In the more immediate situation, the NCP has one MLA, Churchill Alemao, in Goa, who backed the Manohar Parrikar government in the floor test in the state assembly on Thursday (March 16).

Alemao’s aversion to the Congress is rooted in the party’s refusal to give him a ticket for the Benaulim seat. “Congress ignored me, denied me the ticket and then fielded a candidate to finish my career, but the people of Benaulim constituency gave me a huge mandate,” said Alemao on Tuesday.

But there is another layer of political gambit attached to this situation. Patel and Alemao go back a long way and their relationship has not always been cordial. Churchill Brothers, the football club named after its owner, was suspended from the I-League (the country’s top football division) in 2014 as it did not meet the AIFF’s licensing criteria, which was part of the federation’s drive to professionalise Indian football.

However, traditional clubs like Churchill viewed that move as a ploy to promote the Indian Super League, the AIFF’s more glamorous, city-based franchisee competition. The fear is not overstated. The AIFF eventually intends to merge the two competitions, which would most certainly put some clubs at risk, if not all. Churchill, in protest of the 2014 suspension, had taken the AIFF to court, in addition to publicly calling the federation out on its designs for Indian football on numerous occasions.

But Alemao joined the NCP in October and, less than two months later, Churchill Brothers were reinstated to the I-League. The club returned to the competition even though the Delhi high court had merely directed the AIFF to consider its plea based on the team’s history. As the tempers between Patel and Alemao have cooled, it seems that both have conceded some ground to the other. Is it a mere coincidence that Alemao voted for the Parrikar-led coalition? Through its support for the BJP in the Goa assembly and the appointment of a Union minister to the World Cup organising committee, the NCP may have furthered its political designs. This is mere speculation, but the events of past months suggest it is a speculation worth making.

The AIFF, after all, is no shining beacon of sports administration. After stressing its commitment to professionalisation, it allowed the return of Churchill Brothers despite the club not having met its much-discussed licensing criteria. A mere commitment to fulfilling the criteria was enough. Furthermore, in the aftermath of Lodha Committee’s recommendations, it is unpleasant to note that a Union minister has been appointed to an administrative post. Although the Lodha Committee’s purview was limited to the BCCI, it was a landmark exercise which would sooner or later have consequences for sports administration in the country. It does not seem a wise idea to swim against the tide.

Like any philosophical question, there is no definite answer to who should administer sport. Sportspersons do not necessarily do the best job. Indeed, Supriyo’s appointment does not stand out as an aberration. Politicians often take charge of sports bodies, for better or worse.

It is also important to state that even if Supriyo’s name was pushed by the central government, it cannot be considered invalid on those grounds. It would certainly raise difficult questions about the nationalistic project undertaken by the Modi administration and the pungent historic parallels in sport, but that’s a debate for another day.

However, the political expediency which seems to colour Supriyo’s appointment is troubling. Of course, he would want to make us believe otherwise – his love and passion for football is all that matters.

Experience? What experience?