Can Rajyavardhan Rathore surpass Ajay Maken as India’s best Sports Minister?

With Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore becoming the first sportsperson to be elected as the sports minister in 2017, there are a lot of hopes pinned on him. There is a strong belief that it takes a sportsperson to see the needs of another fellow sportsperson. Rathore has already been hailed as the best Sports minister that India has had till date. However, having been in office for only three months, the claim is a tall one. Especially when you have predecessors like Ajay Maken.

Maken, who held office between 19 January 2011 ‘ 28 October 2012, was also heralded as the best Sports Minister until Rathore arrived at the scene. In less than a year, Maken tried to usher in changes that had previously been unheard of in India and the amount of opposition faced by him demonstrate the lack of enthusiasm in the cabinet to embrace change. In order to appreciate or criticise Rathore, it is imperative to keep in mind the who the race for the best sports minister is really against.

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s tryst within the shooting range began in the mid-1990s and he would go on to bring home India’s first ever individual silver medal at the Olympic games when he finished second in the Men’s Double Trap at the 2004 Athens Games. Before making his mark on the Olympic stage, Rathore had previously bagged significant victories such as a silver medal at the 2003 World Championships and a record-setting gold medal win at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester the year before.

Born into a fauji family, Rathore too served in the Indian army. However, Rathore took an early retirement and decided to venture into the world of politics when he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2013. With the Modi government coming into power the following year, Rathore was sworn in as the Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting.

So, Rathore’s appointment as the new Minister of State for Sports was not a big brain-digging decision that the government had to take. This new appointment had raised hopes of a more proactive ministry that would understand the needs of the sportspersons and start putting certain processes in place. However, how much of the existing scene had really changed since Rathore took hold of the reigns?

Being an Olympian, Rathore’s announcements and vision statements seemed to carry a tinge of freshness from what the people are usually acquainted with in this country. Only recently, the minister announced ‘total funding’ to Indian Hockey in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He said, ‘From here on, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and World Cup are all Olympic preparatory tournaments besides being major competitions. The ministry will give complete funding to Hockey India in terms of whatever they need. 2018 is the year of sports in India.’ However, a declaration to fund hockey is not as big a glimmer of hope to anyone with a fair knowledge of the goings on in Indian sports as hockey is one of the few sports that have always received government support in its ventures. Much like a number of other stunts that the government has pulled off recently based on statements regarding things that already existed (for instance, women not having to change their surnames for their passports after marriage), government aid for hockey is also not a harbinger of good times in Indian sports. This statement can be ignored to a great extent as part of the conventional procedure of making some announcements to catch the limelight in the newspapers and media, the next day.

However, some of his recent comments have led a lot of people to wonder if having an actual sportsperson to look after Indian sports had indeed made a difference or had he just boiled down to become a quintessential minister. For instance, at the Madhya Pradesh Government’s Sports Award function, Rathore insisted that India had the potential of producing a hundred Usain Bolts and that the Government was going to use the school level sports program to identify talent for the same. He said, ‘In India, there are skill-based selections so other countries are able to outrun us, we want to change that. Someone who is 5 feet 11 inches at the age of 12 should be selected for volleyball or basketball teams while somebody with no hand-eye coordination but runs extremely fast should be put in for 100 meters running.’
To a layman, this might not sound ridiculous but such a comment coming from an Olympic medal bearer is slightly baffling. Even if one considers that the dream of producing a hundred Usain Bolts was a figurative and not literal one, it is difficult to comprehend his statement regarding sprinters. It is common knowledge to anyone with minimum experience in physical activities that running requires strenuous coordination of the whole body and that hand-eye coordination is no exclusion to that.

As far as policy decisions are concerned, the only announcement Rathore has made till now was about starting a Rs. 50,000 stipend plan for all Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) athletes and the revamping of Khelo India. However, once again it may be noted that both the schemes were ones started by the UPA government before Rathore took over. When the minister announced the new Indian hockey team coach through his Twitter handle or when he promised to release a fund of  five lakh rupees for the treatment of former boxer Kaur Singh from the National Welfare Fund for Sportspersons, all these just fairly contributed to normal routines of the image building process that any minister takes up to.

The mess left after the Commonwealth Games prompted the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh to replace Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Manohar Singh Gill with Ajay Maken while Gill was shunted to the low-profile Statistics and Programme Implementation Ministry as the Prime Minister went to a younger then, 47-year-old Maken, who is a cricket and golf enthusiast. The newly appointed Maken said that his challenge would be to see Indian athletes improving their performance at the international level and to make use of India’s massive population in the correct direction.

Going through his timeline as the Sports Minister, the following could be pointed out. He gave suo moto statement in Lok Sabha on 22nd February 2011 proposing the National Sports Development Bill (NSDB) which aimed at instilling good governance and participation of athletes in decision making. He launched OPEX-LONDON 2012 (Operation Excellence London Olympics 2012) on 3rd March 2011. Maken constituted a one member committee (Justice Mukul Mudgal) to inquire into the issues concerning the prevalence of doping.  He announced the demerger of National Institute of Sports, Patiala (NIS) from Sports Authority of India (SAI) on 20th July 2011.  On 30th of August, 2011, he presented before the cabinet, the draft of the National Sports Development Bill for approval. Though the bill had the approval of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the then Home Minister P Chidambaram and the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the bill was not approved and Maken was asked to redraft it. It is to be noted that the bill had the provision to bring BCCI under the preview of RTI.

NSDB had its own grand highlights. It proposed accountability and transparency in the functioning of National Sports Federation (NSF) by way of the Federation (NSF) adopting the good principles of IOC. It proposed to set up the National Sports Development Council headed by prominent athletes. The bill stood for fair and transparent elections. It proposed to strictly enforce an age limit of 70 years and tenure of a maximum of 12 years or 3 terms for the office bearers of NSF. The bill also forbids a Union Minister from contesting in the election to the Indian Olympic Association. In the decision-making panel, 25% would comprise of athletes who would have voting rights as well. It also proposed to appoint a High Court judge to deal with grievances and disputes; prescribed rules for prevention of sexual harassment, age-fraud, and anti-doping; also wanted all the NSF’s to come under the jurisdiction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Ajay Maken had proposed the setting up of National Institute of Sports Science and Medicine at JLN Stadium Complex, Delhi on 1st October 2011. On 26 December 2011, he announced that SAI Studio would be open for school, college, society, associations, and federations at nominal charges. On 2nd March 2012, he informed the MPs that Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds for sports facilities will be spent under PYKKA (Panchayat Yuva Krida Aur Khel Abhiyan) and USIS (Urban Sports Infrastructure Scheme).

Maken is definitely one of the most accomplished Sports Ministers India has ever had. Till Olympian Rathore took the seat, Maken was known to be the best on that pedestal of the Indian government. What Maken accomplished, initiated and executed over a period of one year can be defined as efficient and exuberant. The question is, whether we can actually draw a comparison between the new Sports Minister and the former one, Ajay Maken (who was also rated to be the best)?  As a former sportsperson, everyone is looking at Olympian Rathore to actually help create long-term talent identification and nurturing system, hire right sports science and coaching experts and ensure that players are not affected by the bureaucratic red-tapism that has been the bane of Indian sports for a long enough time.

Had the bill been passed in its original form, it could be at least safely speculated that a certain degree of transparency would be bound to follow. However, despite the backing of the PM, Home Minister and Finance Minister, the opposition camp successfully stalled it. Ironically enough, for a government that likes to monitor and police as many aspects as possible, of an individual’s life, the allegation that was produced against the NSDB by heavyweight politicians like Arun Jaitley was that it was much too ‘draconian’.
With members like V.K. Malhotra who had been in charge of Archery Association of India since 1979 and with a majority of the members being above the proposed outer limit age of 70 years, the bill would obviously face obstacles.

The narrative so far runs on the lines that Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore is the best Sports Minister we have had so far because of the achievements he has made in a short span of time. However, the highlights of Maken’s stint at the job still shine bright and can easily still be debated as the best India has had in the office. Rathore’s mettle as the Sports Minister will only be tested once the stage is taken by the Indian athletes at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. With Maken’s shadow looming tall, it is yet to be seen if it really does take only a sportsperson to know what their peers need.