Meghalaya Diary, part 3: Politicians across party lines use football to score in the ultimate game of politics
One of the reasons why so many people connected to football are entering the electoral arena is because of the feeling that they can count on the votes of their fan bases.
Editor's note: As Meghalaya goes to the polls, Firstpost travelled to the northeastern state for a series of stories on the political economy. We looked at the state's economics, culture, society and sport and examined the interlinkages with politics to give you an in-depth view through a three-part series.
On 12 December, 2017 Chief Minister Mukul Sangma launched the Meghalaya State League. At a star-studded event in Shillong, Sangma said that the aim of the state's newest football league would be to nurture sporting potential, develop stadiums and youth programmes. In a press release about the event available on Sangma's personal website the chief minister said that the MSL would spread the passion for football beyond Meghalaya and promised that infrastructure investments would be taken care of under the government's Mission Football scheme.
The MSL has been modelled on the Champions League. Just like the UEFA tournament, which is contested by top-division European clubs, the MSL is a competition for the top clubs of the 21 football leagues operating in the state's 11 districts. None of the matches were held in Shillong or any of the big urban centres, intentionally so. In fact, the big teams from the cities were thrashed by the community-based teams from semi-urban and rural areas. The final was won by minnows Niaw Wasa who beat fellow journeyman-team Tynrongmawsaw, who had held off Shillong giants Langsning football team. The inaugural tournament was wildly popular and matches were attended by cheering fans whose numbers could often not be accommodated in the small mofussil stadiums.
However, the timing of the MSL was curious. Why was the first edition of a pan-Meghalaya football tournament held just a few months before the elections? And why was the Mission Football Policy launched at the fag end of Sangma's five-year tenure? This is where the lines that separate football and money turn grey. The mission has a stated budget of Rs 560 crore. The aim is to develop 1,400 playgrounds, eight mini and full-fledged football stadiums. This chimes perfectly well with a state where football is the main sport.
Professional footballers who make it big become hallowed names and the sport provides an opportunity for upward mobility. In fact, a large majority of the players who play for the big Shillong clubs (Lajong, Wahingdoh, Rangdajied) are from other parts of the state. A football match will attract far more people than a political rally and a politician who gives money to his/her local club or sponsors a tournament can earn tremendous goodwill. It is in this light that the MSL and the mission football policy has to be viewed.
"The chief minister told the Meghalaya Football Association that if the MSL is not conducted before the elections it will not get official funding," a source told Firstpost, adding that a sum of Rs 1 crore had been sanctioned for the month-long tournament. The source also said that the actual budget for the Mission Football Policy was closer to Rs 1,000 crore, double the officially mentioned figure and that a third of that amount had been earmarked for infrastructure development. Another source said that the owner of one of the big Shillong clubs had managed to corner a large portion of this money. The policy allows investments from private parties either as PPPs or fully privately owned.
To understand the relationship between football and politics, consider the following: SK Sunn, the owner of Rangdajied United is contesting the upcoming elections from Mawphlang constituency; Mahendro Rapsang, a scion of the Rapsang group of industries which also owns Langsning FC is contesting on a Congress ticket from West Shillong; The South Shillong sitting MLA Sanbor Shullai of the NCP is the patron and owner of Laban FC, a club based out of a locality of the same name; there are reports that Ampareen Lyngdoh, a Congress minister, favours Malki FC.
One of the reasons why so many people connected to football are entering the electoral arena is because of the feeling that they can count on the votes of their fan bases. After all SK Sunn's team is one of the big Shillong clubs and his son, Eugeneson Lyngdoh is a professional footballer who plays as a central defender for India. At the club level, he has played for Lajong, Bengaluru FC, Pune City and, of course, Rangdajied, where he honed his skills.
To understand the politics of football it is essential to understand how money, football and politics are connected.
Meghalaya, being a sixth schedule state, enjoys constitutionally guaranteed provisions. Indigenous tribals do not have to pay income tax. A lot of the football clubs in Meghalaya are community clubs: unregistered, non-professional outfits located in their particular communities (suburbs/villages) and are passionately supported by their fans, also from those communities. Often even the players are from the same communities, linking them organically to the fans.
Multiple people interviewed by Firstpost said that politicians sponsoring some aspect of the game or tournaments can find easy goodwill. Unregistered football clubs are an easy way to launder cash because there is no paper trail. For instance, a politician who pays the salaries of the players is sure to become popular in the community. It’s cheaper than organising busloads of people for an election rally. All a politician has to do is organise a football tournament and then make a short speech to the thousands of captive fans. Even political rallies will not bring in as many people as a football match.
An official at one of the football associations said that he had been approached by a lot of politicians to stage matches in their constituencies in the last couple of months. In fact, a majority of the funding for community clubs comes from politicians, the official said.
Consider a typical case: SK Sunn of Rangdajied. Sunn is the retired chief engineer of the Public Health Engineering Department, the body tasked with supplying drinking water in Meghalaya. A SANDRP report, published on raiot.in, says that corruption was uncovered in the department by a CAG performance audit. The allegations against Sunn include misusing Swachh Bharat funds. His son, the talented Eugeneson was selected by Pune FC for more than Rs 1 crore in the Indian Super League draft.
Community clubs were run by their neighbourhood sports associations. Often six-seven players of the starting XI were from the community and they either didn't get paid or got low wages. The clubs did not have a permanent home ground and had arrangements with local churches or schools to use their grounds. The players played for the passion of playing football or upholding the pride of their communities/neighbourhoods by beating rival clubs. In lieu of wages, the players would be given sacks of rice! Thus, when a rich patron, often a politician or businessman, stepped in to help the club financially, he would be perceived as a saviour.
In the 1970-80s most football clubs in Meghalaya were community clubs and aroused furious passion among their fans. This started changing with the professionalisation of the game. Shillong Lajong, Rangdajied and other clubs were established in the 1980s. They were bankrolled by one rich person or family and they hired professionals to run the club. "These clubs were disliked by the fans because they were not rooted in the community," Mark Swer, a music and sports historian, told Firstpost.
In the 1990s, with the arrival of cable TV and a host of other entertainment options in the urban centres, the following for football receded in towns like Shillong. The professionally run Shillong clubs set their sights higher, of entering India's top flight, a goal achieved by Shillong Lajong in 2009 when it joined the I-League's second division and gained promotion to the first division the next season. It was joined by Rangdajied and Royal Wahingdoh in subsequent years.
At the same time, the passion for football remained in rural and semi-urban areas. Crowds continued to pack stadiums and cheer for their teams, which by now were regularly beating the Shillong teams in local tournaments. "One cannot lay the blame entirely at the feet of the big clubs because Lajong was the first to think about playing in the I-League. Imagine, a small state like Meghalaya having three teams in India's top flight," Swer said.
It is this passion for football that politicians are hoping to tap in the coming elections.
This is the third and final part of the series.
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