Removal of BCCI President Anurag Thakur a Step Towards Reforming Sports Bodies in India

Chief Justice T.S. Thakur's landmark judgment has set in stone the standards that all sports bodies will have to follow henceforth.

Anurag Thakur. Credit: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

Anurag Thakur. Credit: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

When Sharad Pawar resigned as the president of the Mumbai Cricket Association last month, he said it was because he was “hurt” by the Supreme Court’s observation that the office bearers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) do not move on from their positions because it is a lucrative privilege.

In his resignation letter, Pawar wrote: “The Supreme Court has said that the officials should not be above 70 years of age and they have described these positions as lucrative, which made me very sad and that’s why I don’t have any wish to work anymore.”

The head of Nationalist Congress Party went on to claim that he had not gained financially from his position while devoting time to building facilities. It hurt Pawar that the apex court had failed to acknowledge his contribution.

What brought about this sudden transformation in Pawar, who just three years ago had something else to say in an interview with the former political editor of The Economist, James Astill. The conversation took place for Astill’s book on corruption and cricket, The Great Tamasha. The author recounted Pawar’s words in an interview.

“He [Pawar] says he likes power, and cricket has become an extraordinary means for politicians to gain power and recognition in India. The enormous financial revenue this sport brings in is unmatched. And Pawar likes these things.”

So what will it be, Pawar?

The stark contradiction came to mind as the Supreme Court ordered the removal of BCCI president Anurag Thakur and secretary Ajay Shirke on Monday. Despite being offered multiple opportunities, the two principal office bearers were unable to ensure that the Justice R.M. Lodha Committee’s recommendations, which had been given legal validation in a Supreme Court judgment on July 18, were implemented.

Thakur and Shirke’s attempt to hide behind ‘democratic procedures’ and the board members’ reluctance to accept the court order was finally dismissed on Monday. In the Lodha Committee’s eyes, the duo has played an “obstructionist” role since the judgment came out. Consequently, the apex court decreed that a new set of administrators, to be nominated by amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium and Fali Nariman, would oversee the functioning of the BCCI till the committee’s recommendations are adopted.

Former chief justice of India, R.M. Lodha, led a three-member committee that was entrusted to ascertain the appropriate punishment for those found guilty in the 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal. The committee was also asked to offer recommendations for a revamp of the BCCI so that the threat of sporting fraud and conflict of interest could be fought.

But ever since the Lodha Committee was constituted, the BCCI has constantly challenged the whole process. This time, its resistance was employed to question a Supreme Court judgment. While the recourse to a review petition – or a curative petition thereafter – remains open for the BCCI, it would be wishful to believe that the judgment could be overturned even after the current chief justice, T.S. Thakur, demits office.

The non-cooperation on the BCCI’s part will bring little sympathy if the order is challenged again. In response to external scrutiny, the governing body has sought the help of every possible artifice – a celebration of tradition, creating diversions by claiming credit for cricketers’ on-field achievements or, when all failed, raising false alarms. None of the tactics worked.

But it did not stop the board’s reliable supporters from taking a stand against the initiative. “While I am closely associated with cricket, the matter is in the Supreme Court. The court is now going to decide how cricket will be organised. Till yesterday, they were guiding how to run the country. Now, they are also guiding the sports organisation,” Pawar had said.

So, in the past few months, we have been told about the wonderful work done by the board all these years. It has been a spirited effort, even by a few members of the media. How patrons have run the board with vision, unfettered by any limits over term or influence. It is not inaccurate to say the BCCI has achievements it can legitimately boast about. But then, the morass that underlies the governing body runs deeper than what meets the eye.

Many administrators are known to run their state associations as fiefdoms and promote self interests even when they hold offices in the BCCI. The current dispensation was not immune to these temptations as high-profile matches continued to be awarded to associations that owe their allegiance to the office bearers. Hence, Australia will play Tests in Pune (Shirke’s home association), Ranchi (joint-secretary Amitabh Choudhury’s home) and Dharamsala (Thakur’s home) next year.

Yet, former cricketer Ravi Shastri has said that Indian cricket “could go back by five years.” The disruption, apparently, could hurt the successful Indian men’s team. But, as Sharda Ugra detailed in a sharply argued piece for ESPN Cricinfo, the doomsday scenarios are not real.

“The truth is that the state associations in Indian cricket do not function hand to mouth…” Ugra wrote. The riches of the IPL ensure Rs 25-30 crores annually for each state association. Only those bodies may suffer which are already running low reserves since the BCCI has suspended their funding owing to unaudited accounts or non-submission of balance sheets.

The Delhi and District Cricket Association is a prime example as it is currently reliant on the supervision of the Delhi high court appointed administrator, Justice Mukul Mudgal.

Indeed, the absence of the BCCI’s principal office bearers is unlikely to halt its daily operations as CEO Rahul Johri is in charge of them. But this is an unusual scenario for the governing body as powers are usually vested at the top. Until the amicus curiae-nominated panel takes over on January 19, confusion is likely to prevail. However, it must be stressed that this is unlikely to affect the upcoming India-England One Day International series.

The confusion exists because of the likely ineligibility of a large number of office bearers. In its recommendations, the Lodha Committee had set stringent requirements for officials. All those who are not citizens of India, are 70 years or older, are ministers or government servants, are holding an office in another sports body, or have been in charge for a cumulative period of nine years or more, are disqualified.

Following the court order on Monday, BCCI’s south zone vice president G. Ganga Raju was being touted as a potential interim president, however, it remains unclear whether his position as the Andhra Cricket Association’s head will disqualify him. If this case’s record is a reliable indicator, past cricketers might be entrusted with the duty of guiding the board over the choppy waters. Sources have suggested that Mohinder Amarnath is likely to play a key role in the transition period.

Whoever takes charge will have the unenviable task of ensuring that the Lodha Committee’s recommendations are implemented. The Thakur-led dispensation did not perform the duties it was required to carry out. A decisive relationship, which respects the court’s judgment, is the need of the hour.

Indeed, it is baffling that there is surprise over the court’s order that came out on January 2. Once the July 18 judgment was out, what other choice did the BCCI have? As the Lodha Committee said in its December status report to the Supreme Court, the board’s actions and statements were “grossly out of order and would even constitute contempt.”

In a statement following the order, Thakur remained defiant. While once again taking credit for the team’s on-field displays and lauding his own setup, he framed his fight as a struggle for autonomy of a sports body. It is a weapon often employed to ward external scrutiny off.

The question of who should lead a sports body is a philosophical one that remains open to debate. However, its contentiousness does not limit the level of inquiry that the BCCI or any other association should undergo. In current terms, this is a question of power and privilege. But it also deals with the way we see sport.

As I have argued, sport does not exist on a rarefied plane. It needs to be scrutinised like any other sphere of human activity. Only then can sport hope to contribute to a world different from the one we have now. The world in which bodies like the BCCI match the standards we expect of any governing body.

But the powerful and the privileged often dilute democratic interventions in the running of their organisations. By claiming that the BCCI is autonomous, Thakur is seeking to remove the body from the sphere of judicial and social inquiry. Such arguments have also been employed by retrograde all-male golf clubs that continue to debar women.

This is why Justice Thakur needs to be lauded for delivering a landmark judgment. It has set in stone the standards that all sports bodies will have to follow henceforth. The judgment’s far-reaching implications were informed by a democratic worldview in which the influence of power and privilege is sought to be limited. Although the conclusion of the BCCI’s overhaul is still far away, a path towards reform is clearly visible now.