'My political style is a sporting style. Generally we win'

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By Velly Thevar discovers that Suresh Kalmadi is not just a politician - he's a fervent sports buff too
  • Published 6.07.08
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Think of a politician’s office and you imagine a chair with a towel draped on the headrest and an air conditioner that drones on almost like the man in the hot seat. Suresh Kalmadi’s office doesn’t quite fit the bill. You step into a building that’s all glass and chrome and the entrance is a beautiful collage of games. Not the kind that politicians play, but the ones that contingents from across the world are expected to take part in later this year at an international meet in Pune.

But then, Suresh Kalmadi, 63, is not just a politician. There are, you can tell, two men who reside in that familiar bearded outer shell. One is the careful politician; the other a man who can devote his life to sports. And by straddling two worlds, he has managed to give Indian sports an international platform.

“My political style is a sporting style. Generally we win,” he says.

The office gives you an idea of how Kalmadi works. A huge section of the spacious first floor of the International Convention Centre in Pune has been turned into the office of the Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG). A massive cut-out of Jigar, the tiger cub mascot of the third CYG, greets you in the passageway. “While Shera is the mascot of the Commonwealth Games (to be held in Delhi in 2010), Jigar is younger, more naughty,” says Kalmadi, smiling indulgently at the cub.

As the president of the Indian Olympic Association and the Indian Hockey Federation ad hoc committee chairman, many believe that he is just what the doctor ordered for ailing Indian sports. And, the optimists believe, Kalmadi may give a new lease of life to hockey — once a game India excelled in, and one it has been booted out of in recent times.

“For the first time in 80 years, our hockey team is out of the Olympics and this is dismal,” says Kalmadi, who is preparing a blueprint for reviving hockey. Among other things, he says he has asked Indian hockey players, the coach and other experts to chalk out a plan of action for hockey. “We have to get them ready for the 2010 World Cup and qualify for the 2012 Olympics,” he says.

On hockey, Kalmadi can go on and on. On politics, though, the Member of Parliament — he has been one for 26 years — weighs his words with care. Often described as Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s man in Pune, Kalmadi has been fighting a battle for political space in a city where opposition parties — including his former friend Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party — are seeking to push him into a corner. “They are trying to keep me down,” is all that he’ll say.

There was a time when most saw Pawar and Kalmadi as conjoined twins. But, then, as the saying goes, two is company, three is a crowd. The two fell apart with the political emergence of Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar. “He was one of the factors. The other was that I wanted to be with Sonia Gandhi,” he says, referring to Pawar’s break with the Congress. There are some, on the other hand, who believe that the two fell out because Pawar was embarrassed by Suresh Kalmadi’s fervent “Pawar for PM” campaign after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi — a campaign that failed, as was obvious when P.V. Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister.

Kalmadi, the politician, joined the Narasimha Rao camp and got the portfolio for railways. Even then, Kalmadi’s heart continued to beat for sports. “As minister for railways, I immediately granted special privileges and concessions to sportspersons for travelling in trains,” he recalls. His critics hold that there was not much else that he did.

Over the years, Pune became Kalmadi’s fiefdom. Born in the city — though his family is originally from Mangalore — Kalmadi has, with some help from Pawar in the good old days, put his hometown on the global map. Kalmadi started the Pune Festival, a pot pourri of cultural events organised during the city’s 10-day Ganesha festival.

Pune is where he grew up and where his doctor father wanted to bequeath his stethoscope to his son. But Kalmadi had no interest in the human anatomy. Instead, he joined the Indian Air Force, where for 10 years he lived “a very disciplined life” as a pilot. And then, he adds, he switched to an “undisciplined life in politics.”

Kalmadi also plunged into business — he set up the Pune Coffee House and joined hands with his automobile engineer brother to set up a successful Maruti service station.

Pune and Kalmadi are now synonymous, but he remembers the help that he received in the beginning from his mentors — “hand-holding by Sharad Pawar and many others,” as he puts it. Those days, he spoke in broken Marathi. Today, Kalmadi has managed to rally around the non-Marathas in the land of the Marathas, for whom Pawar is still a demi-god — no mean feat for a politician who lacks a mass base.

But Kalmadi would rather speak about sports, though he has never been a keen sportsman himself. “I don’t venture into making statements as I am older and wiser now,” he says.

The political capital, however, beckons and he shuttles between Delhi and Pune every week. As we sit talking there are calls that he fields from his “friends from Delhi who want their children admitted to some of the best educational institutions in Pune.”

Kalmadi’s wife Meera handles most of the MP’s grassroot work in Pune slums. His two daughters live abroad while his son manages his businesses. Kalmadi might have quit the Air Force several years ago, but he still lives a disciplined life. “I wake up at 4.30 am and work from 5-7 am. I complete all my paperwork as this is the best time to work; nobody disturbs me.” He jogs for half an hour on his treadmill and then kick-starts his day at 8 am.

The hectic schedule, of course, shows on his face — he looks sleep-starved and tired. “My favourite pastime is dreaming about a holiday,” he admits. “I guess with politics and sports, I can’t afford to have any other passions.”

But mention sports, and Kalmadi gets fired up again. He remembers the time Chinese shooters came for a practice session with a bucketful of ammunition, and the Indian team had none because of the country’s restrictive import policies. “Our sports budgets are piddly sums and I think both the government and industry have to come forward (to help out). In the private sector, the Tatas and the Mahindras are doing a lot for sports, but we need more companies to come forward to give Indian sportsmen a chance.”

Meanwhile, Kalmadi keeps himself busy with the Pune games. He has managed to weasel out Rs 2,000 crore from the state and the central governments for building Pune’s roads and infrastructure to make it worthy of the October meet. A total of 71 countries and 1,300 athletes are participating in the games, for which an entire sports city has been carved out on Pune’s outskirts. The 153-acre complex features world class competition venues, excellent training facilities and a fully functional athletes’ village.

Pune — the MP sighs. “It is a great city to live in.” When you look sceptical, he laughs. “Okay, the roads and the traffic are a mess and there is a lot of development and building activity and there is pollution. But don’t forget that it has been featured in Forbes magazine as one of the 10 best emerging global cities of the world.”

If the Youth Games work out well, the Commonwealth Games in Delhi may run smoothly as well. And then, perhaps, he can take his much-needed break. Though, knowing Kalmadi, the holiday will probably be spent in Pune.