Bhaichung Bhutia’s entrance to the Football House in New Delhi on Thursday, 25 August, was extravagant. With 5-6 cars and around 30-40 people in tow, it had all the trappings of a grand celebration.
After all, Indian football’s most iconic face was filing his nomination for the All India Football Federation (AIFF)’s president’s post.
The nomination certainly added spice to the AIFF elections, slated to be held on 2 September, even though it might not have upset the calculations of many as of yet.
This is because 28 state associations out of 35 had already backed the candidature of Bhutia’s former India teammate Kalyan Chaubey for the AIFF president’s post in a meeting on Wednesday.
With such numbers behind him, Chaubey, a former India goalkeeper, will also not be overly worried about the fact that Rajasthan FA president Manvendra Singh, son of former BJP leader Jaswant Singh, walked out of that meeting.
In fact, it was also learned that Chaubey, whose name was proposed by the Gujarat FA and seconded by Arunachal Pradesh, had another meeting with 20-22 state associations in AIFF headquarters soon after filing his nomination on Thursday where he assured members that he will be working towards improving the infrastructure of the state and focusing on grassroots football.
With the scales tilted heavily in favour of Chaubey, who is also the son-in-law of the late Anjan Mitra, a former Mohun Bagan executive, can there be a twist in the tale? That’s what Bhutia will certainly be hoping for.
However, it will take a lot to queer the pitch of Chaubey. Chaubey, a BJP leader from Bengal, has the blessings of the powers that be. The fact that he gave a tough fight to the late TMC leader Sadhan Pande before losing the battle in the West Bengal elections last year has also impressed the top echelons of the ruling party at the centre.
One also understands that state association members have taken due note of the political interest backing Chaubey’s candidature with the under-17 Women’s World Cup, a month away.
Chaubey, who played for several top clubs including East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, is also likely to get the backing of Congress after NA Haris, Congress MLA and president of Karnataka State Football Association, filed his nomination for the vice-president’s post.
Under the circumstances, former India captain Bhutia, whose nomination was proposed by the Andhra FA and seconded by the Rajasthan FA, definitely needs to pull some trick out of his hat in order to win what seems to be an increasingly lost battle.
However, some are of the view that Bhutia’s fight is more a symbolic one than a real threat. Not that he would throw in the towel so easily after putting his hat in the ring, but the entire election is not a matter of winning and losing for him.
His candidature is being seen as more of a fight and a statement against the present dispensation.
Bhutia has been the founder of the Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP), which contested the Sikkim Legislative Assembly elections back in 2019. For a while now, there have been whispers in the political corridors that HSP has been trying to woo BJP and form an alliance with the party.
However, under the circumstances, it seems to be a bridge too far that both Bhutia and BJP will arrive at an equation in such a short time.
Bhutia, though, has strongly denied political motives.
“I am on good terms with every political party, and I have always worked for the betterment of football. Right now, Indian football is a mess. So, this is a good opportunity for us to bring in drastic reforms and change the face of football in India," Bhutia said.
"I feel and genuinely believe that if you have ideas, plans, and roadmaps in place, you don’t need a political party to support you,” he added.
In fact, it is being speculated that Bhutia’s candidature might also be the idea of former AIFF president Praful Patel, as both Rajasthan FA’s Manvendra Singh, who was also a vice-president during Patel’s tenure, and Andhra FA are known as Patel loyalists.
With both the state associations nominating Bhutia, Patel and Co. might be throwing a spanner in the works of the electoral process and betting on Bhutia’s reputation, image, and credibility.
One also understands that the former India captain also just couldn’t have backed off after having filed his nomination for the president’s post last week as a representative of eminent players.
His name was then proposed by former national teammate Deepak Mondal and seconded by Madhu Kumari. However, with the Supreme Court rejecting CoA’s proposal to give 50% representation to eminent players in the electoral college, Bhutia’s nomination fell through.
Essentially, the now-disbanded CoA had proposed that 50% of AIFF’s electoral college must comprise former footballers. Bhutia was the flagbearer of the footballers’ body.
But Supreme Court’s rejection of the proposal meant Bhutia’s nomination didn’t hold ground and his reputation would have taken a beating. So he had to file his nomination again.
A source close to the developments said, “Contrary to beliefs that Bhutia is putting his image at stake, it is actually a win-win situation for Bhutia. If he loses the election, people would say that the country’s football stakeholders didn’t let the country’s biggest footballing icon come into power.”
“And if Bhutia manages to win, then he becomes the most powerful person in Indian football. A name like Bhutia is a brand in itself. So however confident Chaubey might be, it will still create some doubt in his mind and he won’t be able to rest easy for the next one week.”
Whatever the outcome will be on 2 September, one thing is clear. The AIFF is going to have a former footballer as president for the first time in its 85-year history.
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