Going by the recent developments at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems inclined to dump medal-winning wrestlers in favour of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh due to the latter’s loyalty to the BJP and the political clout he wields in a few Lok Sabha constituencies of Uttar Pradesh.
After all, the BJP is dreaming of winning all the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2024.
The controversial president of the Wrestling Federation of India is facing sexual harassment charges levelled by some of the country’s top wrestlers, including Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia. They are seeking Singh’s resignation from WFI, but he has decided to brazen it out perhaps because he enjoys the tacit support of the powers-that-be.
Singh, who visited Ayodhya’s Hanuman Garhi temple over the last weekend to thank “Bajrang Bali” after the Supreme Court disposed of the wrestlers’ petition, has claimed innocence and said he will cooperate with any probe but won’t step down like a criminal. “I have faith in the Supreme Court, and I thank the court for closing the proceedings against me,” Singh said as he affirmed his faith in Lord Hanuman, who “protects me and becomes my saviour whenever I get into trouble”.
Instead of resigning from his post, Singh compared the wrestlers at Jantar Mantar to the Shaheen Bagh protesters and stated that “wrestlers’ demands are constantly changing”.
The Delhi police, which registered an FIR against the BJP MP only after the Supreme Court’s intervention, are alleged to have manhandled the wrestlers in a late-night action recently. The police, though, have denied any wrongdoing.
The ugly situation has brought Singh’s ties with the BJP into focus. Being an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case earned Singh the tag of Ram bhakt and ensured the BJP’s continued political patronage to him 1991 onwards, barring a stint in the Samajwadi Party from 2008 to 2014. Now his son, too, is a BJP MLA. Singh being a Rajput is an added advantage in caste-ridden UP.
This makes Singh an ideal candidate for the BJP, one who can help the party retain about four Lok Sabha seats including Kaiserganj, Gonda, Balrampur, from where he has won six elections, and Bahraich.
The last time Singh was expelled from the BJP was in 2008 when he cross-voted on a vote-of-confidence motion. He bounced back by winning the Kaiserganj seat in 2009 as Samajwadi Party candidate and the BJP learnt its lesson.
With 2024 parliamentary elections in mind the BJP is, therefore, unlikely to take any political risk by sacking Singh as WFI chief or starting disciplinary proceedings against him within the party even though the charges against him are grave. Any other person facing similar accusations would have been stripped of his position and possibly even jailed.
There cannot be a bigger irony than India’s ace wrestlers being treated like criminals while someone with a long criminal record himself is being given a long rope.
Singh reportedly has four cases pending against him. These relate to causing voluntary harm to a public servant, robbery, attempt to murder and illegal payment in connection with an election. Singh has said that there are no criminal cases against him now. Yet his image continues to be that of a bahubali, a muscleman-politician. His moving into the education sector in a big way has not helped repair his image. He runs 54 educational institutions in Gonda, Balrampur, Bahraich and Faizabad. A majority of these institutions are in Gonda.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal told the Supreme Court about the number of cases Singh once faced. He was acquitted in 30 of them for lack of evidence. Among the cases was one of harbouring Dawood Ibrahim’s henchmen for which he served time in jail under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Last year, he told the Lallantop YouTube channel of having murdered at least one person who had killed his aide.
The wrestlers’ protest is now into its fourth month, and they seem nowhere near getting justice. It appears that they will find it difficult to bring down a man with such reputation and political support. Return their medals they can but will it move the government into taking any action? Or will it even prompt the Delhi police to expeditiously complete their investigation in an impartial way?
Atul Chandra is a former resident editor of The Times of India, Lucknow, and an author.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.