Kalyan Chaubey’s WhatsApp display picture (DP) is an illustration of a man pulling a zipper. There are static bob heads on both sides of the zipper and the man is trying to unite them. Above the pictorial is written: ‘A true leader doesn’t create separation. A true leader brings people together.’
The image is clearly symbolic of how Chaubey brought most of the state football associations under one roof as he comfortably won the All India Football Federation (AIFF) elections, which was held on Friday, 2 September. Out of the 34 state association members, 33 voted in Chaubey's favour.
In the context of Indian football, Chaubey clearly pulled off an impossible. This is because he defeated one of Indian football’s most iconic faces – Bhaichung Bhutia, who threw his hat in the ring at the last moment after his nomination was proposed by the Andhra Pradesh Football Association and seconded by the Rajasthan Football Association.
Prior to the elections, 14 representatives from Chaubey’s panel were elected unopposed as the executive committee members. On Friday, the contest was for three posts – president, vice-president, and treasurer. Chaubey's panel ended up winning in all three categories.
While he won against Bhutia, Karnataka State Football Association Chief NA Haris defeated Manvendra Singh of the Rajasthan Football Association for the vice-president’s post. Arunachal Pradesh’s Kipa Ajay also had a big win against Andhra Pradesh’s Gopalkrishna Kosaraju for the treasurer’s post.
How Political Angle Worked In Chaubey’s Favour
Apart from the groundwork that Chaubey laid for the elections in the last 10 days, what has also worked well for him is that he is being perceived as a key leader of the BJP in West Bengal. Even though he lost in the West Bengal elections last year to the late Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Sadhan Pande, and conceded defeat to TMC’s Mohua Moitra in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Chaubey remained in the good books of the top brass of the party because of the tough fight he gave to these TMC leaders.
This is also probably the reason why his nomination was proposed by the Gujarat Football Association and seconded by the Arunachal Pradesh Football Association, two states that are traditionally not known to be football powerhouses in the country, but hold political leaders relevant in national matters.
One also understands that there's a larger political context to fielding Chaubey for the AIFF top job. In West Bengal, football is one of the most popular sports. So, the party is sending a message to the people of West Bengal by promoting their state’s son for the top post in the football body. Incidentally, one of West Bengal’s most favourite sons, Sourav Ganguly is presently the head of the country’s cricket body (Board of Control for Cricket in India), and Chaubey's victory means both the BCCI and the AIFF will be run by people from West Bengal.
State Associations Show Faith in Kalyan Chaubey
Ahead of the D-day, Bhutia made a last-ditch attempt to convince the states to back him through a letter. “There are some Northeastern State FAs getting pressurised due to political influence. This should only be about football and not politics. Indian football has suffered a lot over the decades because of political interference and this is a great opportunity for us to course correct, revive football in our country, and bring it up to international standards. I believe I am the best man for the job,” Bhutia said in a letter to all the northeastern states on Tuesday.
However, as evident from the result, the letter did not bear a positive outcome.
Chaubey, who has represented several top clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Salgaocar during his 15-year-long professional career, is a five-time runner-up in the I-League/National Football League and has won other honours in domestic football as well. He was also a part of the Indian teams that won the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship twice (1999 and 2005). He had undergone trials with Germany’s second division side, Karlsruher SC, and a German amateur club, VfR Heilbronn, in the early 2000s. Chaubey, who is also the son-in-law of the late Anjan Mitra, a former Bagan executive, worked with the Bagan Academy from 2011-2013 after retiring from football.
However, these credentials don’t hold much ground when compared with Bhutia’s CV. But then, one has also learnt that the state association members feel that electing Chaubey can bring in the much-needed funds to a cash-strapped organisation like the AIFF because of the former goalkeeper’s proximity to BJP leaders. With only Rs 5 crore allocated to the football federation for the 2022-2023 period, owing to the national team’s ‘poor performance’, the members banked on Chaubey to bring in the funds.
(Shilarze Saha Roy is a seasoned sports journalist writing about all things football. Occasionally, he also dabbles in cricket and BCCI.)