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  Opinion   Columnists  04 May 2023  Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | WFI mess: All that’s wrong as India sport, politics mix

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | WFI mess: All that’s wrong as India sport, politics mix

The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi-NCR. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India', and he’s also the author of 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
Published : May 5, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : May 5, 2023, 12:00 am IST

The manner in which this episode has played out raises doubts over the BJP leadership having such an iron grip over the party as is believed

Wrestlers Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia speak with the media during their protest at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, Thursday, May 4, 2023. (Photo: PTI)
 Wrestlers Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia speak with the media during their protest at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi, Thursday, May 4, 2023. (Photo: PTI)

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh epitomises everything that is wrong with India’s politics and sports management. The ruling BJP’s steadfast refusal to take prompt action against the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) is indicative of the duplicity of the leadership. Despite the seriousness of the charges and the protests since January, the government dragged its feet on the matter. The ruling party’s leadership chose not to act on at least three occasions to swiftly end this controversy and secure justice for women wrestlers who accused Mr B.B.S. Singh of sexual molestation.

First, the BJP leadership chose not put pressure on the accused to step down from the post -- eventually appointing, last week, an ad-hoc committee to run the WFI’s affairs. Second, the Delhi police inexcusably delayed filing a first information report (FIR), finally doing so only after the Supreme Court’s directive. Third and last, the police did not move with the swiftness it has shown in several parts of India while acting against political adversaries and communities whose loyalties are considered “suspect”. This lends credence to the allegation, levelled most recently after Rahul Gandhi’s conviction for defamation, that the same laws apply differently to people depending on their identity.

The response of the ruling party and the government so far exposes the disingenuousness of slogans and campaigns like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padao” and the idea of “selfie with daughter”, a call for which was given during an earlier episode of Mann Ki Baat. This is not the first time that the party and its leadership failed to promptly walk the talk. Earlier too, there was a much-publicised incident involving a senior Haryana BJP leader’s son who stalked a radio jockey while she was returning from work after dark in Chandigarh. Back then, several BJP leaders defended the young man by contending that the girl exposed herself to danger by being out of home alone at night.

All programmes and statements regarding promoting the girl child and providing equal opportunities come to a naught if transparent investigations are not launched against those alleged to have committed crimes against women. By not ensuring that the law took its course, the BJP and government opened themselves to the grave accusation that it was shielding the accused.

The manner in which this episode has played out raises doubts over the BJP leadership having such an iron grip over the party as is believed. This is true of the central leadership including the Prime Minister, as well as the state leadership, the chief minister included. It has been pointed out that Mr B.B.S. Singh is necessary for the BJP’s future electoral runs in almost a dozen eastern Uttar Pradesh parliamentary constituencies. If this is indeed true, it would mean that the verdicts in 2014 and 2019 were not chiefly the outcome of the popularity of Prime Minister Modi and Yogi Adityanath to some extent.

The failure of the BJP to act against Mr B.B.S. Singh, and also of the Samajwadi Party to not lend support to the agitating wrestlers, is an indication that the “bahubali” model of Indian politics, in which parties hands out tickets to a few mafia dons in return for safe passage in more constituencies, still thrives in India despite lip service by parties. This is a harsh reality despite the claims of the BJP central and state leadership that it has eliminated goons, drastically reduced crime and marginalised gang lords. That Mr B.B.S. Singh is still politically thriving despite his past gives rise to an elementary question: are political leaders with criminal backgrounds and continuing involvement with the underworld from just one community being marginalised?

It’s a grave tragedy that Mr B.B.S. Singh is being handled with kid gloves even after three decades of being known as a leading light of the criminal-politician tribe. The BJP had given him the first electoral nomination in 1991 from Gonda for the tenth Lok Sabha, the political coming of age for the party in UP -- it won a majority in the Assembly and secured 51 Lok Sabha seats. Significantly, Mr B.B.S. Singh in this election represented the so-assumed plebeians as against the sitting Congress MP, Anand Singh, a local “royal”. The rivalry between the two spilled over to the subsequent elections, although in 1996, Mr B.B.S. Singh was represented by his proxy -- wife Ketki Devi Singh -- because of TADA cases due to allegations of having sheltered the shooters of the D-Company.

Significantly, by 1996, Anand Singh had crossed over to the Samajwadi Party. In the next polls that followed in 1998, Anand Singh’s son, Kirti Vardhan Singh, entered the fray also as an SP candidate and defeated Mr B.B.S. Singh, a verdict that was reversed in 1999. Importantly, Kirti Vardhan Singh is now a BJP MP from his old constituency Gonda, while r B.B.S. Singh represents Kaisarganj. Importantly, all three political leaders, the father-son duo and Mr B.B.S. Singh, have been in the SP too at different points -- the father was once a minister in the government formed after the party’s victory in 2012. This was the reason why Mr B.B.S. Singh was confident that Akhilesh Yadav would not lend his name to the agitators against him.

Not insignificantly, Mr B.B.S. Singh crossed over from the BJP to the SP while a Lok Sabha MP in July 2008 under a cloud of allegations to bail out the UPA government and support it in the vote of confidence necessitated after the Left parties withdrew support due to the India-US nuclear deal. Despite his expulsion on charges of violating the party whip and allegation of involvement in the cash for votes, he was readmitted to the BJP in 2014 and has since been a member of the Lok Sabha. The ease

with which the three Singhs have been politically mobile underscores the limitations of all-popular central leaders or electoral mascots. It is evident that despite perceived unprecedented popularity, if Mr Modi or even Mr Adityanath needs support of political leaders with questionable criminal records, they will get it. This demonstrates that the idiom of the campaign may have changed, but it has not dramatically altered how elections are won.

The final issue the episode highlights is that sports management in India remains in the hands of political leaders either ruling party members, or at least blessed by them. An old tradition in India, this was continued by the BJP, disproving its claim of being an agent of change and new ethos. Stray nominations -- P.T. Usha as IOA chief, for instance -- are made with a discreet message that loyalty is essential. Sportspersons require a study spine. Not many retain it after retirement.

Tags: brij bhushan sharan singh, wrestling federation of india, ‪bjp, rahul gandhi, yogi adityanath