31/10/2019 9:28 AM IST

BCCI Chief Sourav Ganguly's Complicated Relationship With Politics And BJP

The BJP may control the BCCI but Ganguly still holds all the cards. The party needs him more than he needs them.

PUNIT PARANJPE via Getty Images
Sourav Ganguly, BCCI president, during a press conference at the BCCI headquarters on 23 October, 2019.

There is a certain symmetry to Sourav Ganguly’s appointment as BCCI president. Ganguly took the reins of the Indian team following the match-fixing scandal that rocked Indian cricket, and now, 19 years later, he will lead the board following the Lodha reforms that roiled Indian cricket administration, and which were a result of the IPL spot-fixing and betting scandal. 

Clearly, Ganguly is Indian cricket’s man for a crisis. 

Though Ganguly is limited to a 10-month term before he has to take a three-year cooling off period under the new BCCI constitution, it is a situation Ganguly no doubt relishes. “He likes to be influential, to deal with power,” Ayaz Menon, the veteran journalist, told HuffPost India. “He likes to be in the thick of things.”

No cricketer of Ganguly’s stature and accomplishment has been president before and his experience as captain should also stand him in good stead, said Dilip Vengsarkar, a former India captain who has also been an administrator with the Mumbai Cricket Association. 

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“Man-management is very important and Sourav is very good at that. He was a very successful captain for India. He backed the players he believed in and they delivered. Because he has a cricketing background, he will take cricketing decisions and that will help Indian cricket go further. From age-group to first-class cricket, he will do a good job.”

Ganguly has also spent the last five years as secretary and president of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), so he understands how the board works. At 47, he will be one of the youngest presidents ever but has proven adept at navigating the labyrinth corridors of the board. “He is very sharp. He has a strong antenna and picks up things very quickly,” Menon said.

However, it is the manner of his ascension to the top post that has set off furious speculation about whether he will join the BJP after his time as president ends with an eye on the West Bengal elections in 2021.

Ganguly was not the front-runner for the post. Brijesh Patel, another former India cricketer, and long-time administrator with the Karnataka State Cricket Association, had the backing of N Srinivasan, the influential former board president. Jay Shah, home minister Amit Shah’s son, was also reportedly in the fray. It was only after Ganguly met with Amit Shah on 13 October that Ganguly became the consensus candidate. 

While Shah and Ganguly have both said they did not discuss politics, the optics of the meeting and the BJP’s subsequent support for Ganguly, make the possibility impossible to ignore. That Jay Shah is the new secretary and BJP minister Anurag Thakur’s brother Arun Dhumal the new treasurer indicates that the BJP is in control of yet another institution. 

“It is very obvious that it is a political appointment,” says Sanjay Jha, the founder of CricketNext, a spokesperson for the Congress, and a Ganguly fan. “The fact that he met Amit Shah and that there are lots of people from the BJP in top positions, it’s basically to send out the message that Sourav, if not overtly, is politically soft on the BJP.”

Ganguly is arguably as beloved in Bengal as Sachin Tendulkar is in Maharashtra. All the political parties in the state have at one time or another wanted a piece of his halo. Ganguly has been on good terms with current chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her predecessor, the late Jyothi Basu, whom Ganguly once called a guardian of Bengal. 

This is not the first time Ganguly, cricket administration and politics have mixed either. After then-CAB president Jagmohan Dalmiya died in 2015, it was Banerjee who publicly announced that Ganguly would be the new CAB president. At the time, Ganguly had been joint-secretary of the association for little more than a year. Yet, he has managed to stay politically uncommitted. 

Ganguly has been on good terms with current CM Mamata Banerjee and her predecessor, the late Jyothi Basu, whom Ganguly once called a guardian of Bengal.  

It’s not even the first time the BJP has wooed him. Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was reported that the BJP was hoping to convince him to run on their party ticket and according to The Economic Times, he was even offered his pick of constituencies. But after meeting Banerjee in January that year, Ganguly announced to the press that “I am not willing to join politics. Rather, I prefer to stay in the world of sports and this is my area of operation.”

Of course, much has changed since then in politics and the BCCI. The BJP are not only entrenched in the Centre, they are the second largest party in West Bengal. And the BCCI has spent the last three years run by a temporary committee set up by the Supreme Court. “The BCCI was in a complete mess as far as administration was concerned,” Vengsarkar said. 

Niranjan Shan, the long-time cricket administrator from Saurashtra, and a former secretary of the Board, said the choice of Ganguly was a collective one while Patel was persuaded to accept the position of Chairman of the IPL. “This is not a question of any political thing. This is purely two great cricketers wanting the same post. Discussion is always there. You have to settle somewhere. It is all amicable. There is nothing like groupism [in the board].”

It’s easy to see why the BCCI is better off with Ganguly at the helm. His reputation and stature give the board a much-needed sheen and he has none of the baggage that long-standing BCCI officials carry. 

“BCCI politics is about you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” Menon says. “It is a brotherhood. For them it is very important to present a united front. If someone else was heading the BCCI, they would have faced many more questions.”

Despite the short tenure, Ganguly stands to benefit as well. As Menon puts it, being BCCI president for 10 months is still being BCCI president. And if Ganguly can get a few key things done – sorting out the problems with domestic cricket and returning India to a place of pre-eminence in the ICC in particular — he will accumulate even more goodwill and reinforce his reputation as a man who gets things done. 

“[Being president] makes him a strong figure you cannot ignore,” Jha says. “He has the backing of India’s main political party. It gives him the power to deal with things and people he did not have before – state associations, ICC, advertisers, media rights. It gives him massive exposure to the commercial aspects of the game.”

It also keeps Ganguly firmly in the public eye, something politicians such as Pawar and Thakur have used to their advantage as board presidents in the past. One long-time board observer pointed out that after becoming BCCI president, any other position in Indian cricket would be a step down for Ganguly, even that of national coach. For Ganguly to keep climbing the ladder, a turn to politics would make sense, although that would risk alienating a portion of his fans in Bengal. 

“Someone with Sourav’s credentials, someone who has been one of the most rebellious characters in the cricket system, if he ultimately does choose to go with the BJP, he could lose enormous goodwill with people who liked him for his cricket but politically might not be comfortable with his choices,” Jha says. 

Still, that might be a risk worth taking if Ganguly does harbour political ambitions. “Knowing him, he would have thought about it through and through – understood the short and long term implications — and taken a clear call,” Jha said. “He will probably be aware that he will lose a certain set of people who are his admirers but he can tell himself this is different.” The BJP can also offer him something other parties cannot – the chief ministership, though that’s a role Jha believes Ganguly should avoid. “West Bengal is polarised and violent. I don’t know if he is cut out for such kind of vitriolic politics. He would be better served as an ambassador of the game. Frankly, if he decides to join politics, he would probably want a role at the national level.”

It’s also not quite true that the only way is down for Ganguly within cricket. Dalmiya, Pawar and Shashank Manohar all went on to become ICC president after being BCCI president. Kumar Sangakkara is currently the MCC president, which could offer another route for Ganguly. “The world is his oyster,” Menon said. “We don’t know what conversations he has had with political parties but he is in the happy situation of being able to pick and choose. In the cooling-off period, he can be a mentor to an IPL team, be a commentator, or serve a one-year term as MCC president or two years as ICC president.” He could even return as BCCI president. “After the cooling off period, he will be 51,” Menon said. “That’s still younger than most BCCI presidents.”

Ganguly has always been his own man, and a good reader of situations. It’s therefore hard to see him towing the party line and curbing his tongue if he feels something needs to be said. If he were to be chief minister one day, he’d presumably do it on his own terms. 

The BJP may control the BCCI but Ganguly still holds all the cards. The party needs him more than he needs them. In an inversion of the tradition where suitors compete for the hand of the princess, it is the Prince of Calcutta that is much sought after. So far, as usual, he is playing it straight. He told the media he will invite Banerjee to attend the India-Bangladesh Test match that will be played at Eden Gardens in November. For now at least, it is clear cricket still has his heart.