For 34 years, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was ruled by two politicians, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and Praful Patel. Now, the race to elect the new AIFF president is turning into a two-way fight between former footballers, the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia and ex-India goalkeeper Kalyan Chaubey.
On Thursday, the two 45-year-olds, born a day apart in December 1976, filed their nominations for the elections, which were due more than two years ago but will finally take place on September 2. Bhutia’s decision, however, has added a last-minute twist to an already dramatic saga.
Following a meeting of the state associations – whose representatives will vote in the elections – in New Delhi on Wednesday, Chaubey had emerged as an unanimous choice to become Patel’s successor. The BJP politician from Kolkata, it is learnt, had blessings of the party higher-ups as well.
However, Rajasthan Football Association president Manvendra Singh, a Congress politician and a former Lok Sabha MP, did not back Chaubey’s candidature. Instead, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh supported Bhutia, who had filed his nomination earlier as well under the eminent player umbrella but it became invalid after the Supreme Court ruled that only state association representatives can be on the voters’ list.
While they have both been footballers, Bhutia and Chaubey are now active politicians themselves. Chaubey, who has played for Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the 1990s as well as the national team, joined the BJP in 2015 after briefly dabbling into football administration.
Bhutia has been involved in multiple roles in football administration post-retirement – from owning a club to becoming the president of the players’ association and even being on the AIFF’s technical committee – apart from diving into politics by joining Trinamool Congress in 2014 before launching his own party, Hamro Sikkim, in 2018.
“Kalyan is a sweet guy, a nice person. But I will be a better president. I will be able to do much more justice to the game than him,” Bhutia told The Indian Express. “I run a football club, I have been in state association in Sikkim for the last six years, I have had the exposure of playing in England, I am in constant touch with some of the world’s top footballers, I started Indian football players association – only football has a players association with proper rules in place (in India).”
When approached, Chaubey did not wish to comment on his candidature.
Bhutia, meanwhile, added his priority will be to empower players and state associations, which he said did not happen under the previous administration led by Patel. “I don’t want India to only host the Under-17 World Cup… Until and unless we produce players, we can’t move forward. And players will be produced by states. Today, states are struggling to organise leagues and grassroots tournaments. They were not given proper guidance or support. I will make sure states and players are given top priority,” he said.
The election process is underway even as the AIFF waits for FIFA to lift the suspension imposed on August 15 for violating its statutes. FIFA had suspended the AIFF after alleging ‘undue influence’ from third parties – referring to the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators – in the functioning of the federation.
It set two main conditions to lift the suspension – repealing the CoA’s mandate and ensuring the AIFF administration was once again fully in charge of its daily affairs. The Supreme Court, following an application filed by the government, passed a judgment in which both these conditions were met, thus paving the way for India’s return to the international fold.
The AIFF elections next Friday will be now held just for two posts – president and treasurer, for which Arunachal Pradesh’s Kipa Ajay and Andhra Pradesh’s Gopalakrishna Kosaraju will contest. There is no contest among the candidates for the executive committee, with the representatives being chosen unanimously by the states as well as for Vice President, where Congress politician NA Haris is the only candidate. Football Delhi president and former FIFA development officer Shaji Prabhakaran’s name has been proposed for the post of secretary-general.