By moving against the permanent heads of Indian sport, M.S. Gill has revived a forgotten 2004 initiative by the late Sunil Dutt who as Sport Minister quietly tried and failed in a similar move. In the ongoing battle over Indian sport, there is a deeper question that needs to be asked: why are politicians or bureaucrats so attracted towards sport? Virtually every sporting body in India is controlled by a politician or a bureaucrat. Once entrenched, most manage to stay on for years, even decades, in a way that is uniquely Indian. So why are these strongmen – Vidya Stokes is one of the rare women politicians in Indian sport — virtually permanent in their power and why has it been impossible to dislodge them?
At its core, sport in any society has always been about the nature of power in that society and the patterns of control by politicians have actually followed the dominant patterns of Indian politics. A quick glance at the Indian political firmament confirms that the longevity of strongmen/women and their cliques is a feature shared by virtually every political party in every state of the union. The Nehru-Gandhis have controlled Congress since independence, the firm of Advani and Vajpayee held sway over the BJP since the mid-1970s and Advani is still the pater familius, Farooq Abdullah’s family has controlled the National Conference since its inception, the Badal clan has its fiefdom in the Akali Dal, the Chautalas sway over Haryan’s INLD remains unchallenged, Mayawati’s iron-clad grip over the BSP is as solid as her mentor Kanshi Ram’s, Chandrababu Naidu continues to define the TDP like his father-in-law NT Rama Rao, Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress is inseparable from her persona, Karunanidhi has controlled the DMK since at least the 1960s and Jayalithaa has successfully carried on MGR’s mantle in the AIADMK. Even the Left in West Bengal and Kerala has been defined as much by personality politics as other parties. Indian sport, in that sense, follows larger Indian political culture that mixes democratic processes with older forms of feudalism and organization.

Sport is only a mirror in which to see the deeper imprint of society. While India has undoubtedly grown more democratic with the empowerment of hitherto marginalized groups like OBCs and Dalits the structures of political power even within these new groupings remain bound in tightly controlled immutable hierarchies. To quote Ashis Nandy, Indian politics continues to have its “natural, substantially hereditary seats” which cannot be changed without a radical overhaul.

The continuance of feudal structures of power in most Indian political parties is due to the same deeper social factors driving the autocratic and closed political corridors of Indian sporting bodies. This, seen in consonance with the rules governing such bodies, augment the political authoritarianism of individuals who seize control. For one, all sporting bodies are supposed to hold regular elections. Like political parties, these elections are mostly not held, or when held, they are largely a sham orchestrated by those in power. Like the wider system, once entrenched in power at the top of a grouping, it is virtually impossible to engineer the throw-out of a political satrap.

Yet political parties are subject to five-yearly performance reviews by the electorate which unleashes its own internal dynamics. There is no such mechanism to temper those who control sporting bodies. They operate in splendid isolation, as private bodies, answerable only to the rules and strictures of the global bodies they are affiliated with. The brandishing of the supposed IOC threat of Indian suspension now is a case in point.

But change is not impossible. India today is a very different place from April 1974 when the then Ministry of Education issued its first circular to fix sporting tenures. The same appeals to Article 8 of the IOC Charter were made even then but that did not deter a determined Indira Gandhi from appointing Air Chief Marshall O.P. Mehra as IOA President during the emergency. The IOC archives in Lausanne are full of complaining letters equating the change with the dark authoritarianism of the Emergency but the status quo reverted only after the Janata government stormed into power.

If an isolated, weak India could not be suspended then by the IOC, can it really afford to take on the confident India of today?