The rise and fall of Narinder Batra as top sports administrator (IANS Analysis)

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It was hockey that brought Narinder Dhruv Batra to prominence and contributed to him becoming the top sports administrator in the country; it was also hockey that eventually brought about his downfall.

Old-timers in Indian sports remember Batra as a state hockey administrator from Jammu and Kashmir who rose to prominence after hosting senior men’s national championships in the 90s.

Soon, he rose in the old Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) hierarchy to become its vice-president and then fell out with the president KPS Gill, made a failed bid to win the president’s post, and eventually won a legal battle that led to the downfall of the Gill regime and the setting up of Hockey India (HI).

The same Delhi High Court that opened the door for Batra’s resurrection as a hockey administrator also ended his reign as the most powerful sports administrator in India. The Delhi High Court directives came on a contempt petition filed by Olympian and World Cup-winner Aslam Sher Khan.

Under pressure after a Delhi High Court bench on May 25 struck down his appointment as a life member of Hockey India — terming it illegal and ultra vires to the National Sports Code — and told him to cease functioning as the president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), Batra on Monday resigned as IOA chief and president of International Hockey Federation (FIH) and also gave up his membership of International Olympic Committee (IOC) citing “personal reasons”.

Though his continuance as IOA president looked untenable once the court passed severe strictures against him and did not entertain a plea for stay, what came as a surprise was his decision to quit as FIH president — a post for which he was re-elected in 2021 by a wafer-thin majority.

Batra still had a few years left in his controversial reign at FIH during which he was pulled up by the world body for his intemperate remarks in a social media post following the 2017 Men’s Hockey World League semifinal match between India and Pakistan in London, before which the then India captain Sardar Singh was summoned for questioning by police in England in connection with allegations made by a woman against him. Batra was also accused of neglecting the FIH job to hold on to the IOA post.

By the time he quit, Batra’s four-year tenure as IOA president had already run its natural course in December 2021 and he was continuing as the elections were not held allegedly because of a court case.

The 65-year-old Batra announced last month that he would not contest for the top IOA post after the Delhi High Court order but even if he had contested, retaining the post looked difficult as he had a huge fallout with a group of senior sports administrators and IOA members including secretary-general Rajeev Mehta, senior vice-president Anil Khanna, treasurer Anandeshwar Pandey, and vice-president Sudhanshu Mittal.

It would also have been difficult for him to retain his IOA post as he is no longer a member of any National Sports Federation (NSF) or state Olympic association to contest the elections. He did not endear himself to some other members because of his iron-fisted and allegedly dictatorial running of the affairs of the IOA.

While losing the IOC membership was inevitable after being ousted as IOA president as the posts were inter-linked, it is his decision to quit as FIH president that would hurt Batra the most. Though he won the FIH elections by the narrowest of margins, it was through hockey that he rose in the hierarchy and ascended the throne both at the national and international levels.

Batra impressed many with his courageous opposition to KPS Gill and they welcomed his election as Hockey India secretary-general in 2010 and as president from 2014 to 2016, the year he was elected as FIH president for the first time.

It was at this juncture that Batra got afflicted by the malice that has brought about the downfall of many sports administrators — the desire to cling on to power and run things through remote-controlled dummies and rubber-stamp office-bearers.

He managed that by changing the HI constitution and getting himself nominated as “life president” along with Hockey India CEO Elena Norman, through whom he exercised his power. His detractors allege that though he did not hold any post in Hockey India, Elena Norman and a few other officials ensured that nothing moved without his consent.

That decision to hold on to his powerbase through proxy came back to bite him when the Delhi High Court declared his life membership illegal.

Hockey contributed in another way too as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case for misuse of Hockey India funds. It was the raids by CBI on his home and offices in Delhi and Jammu on Monday that proved the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back and Batra had to resign from all three posts.

Many thought that Batra would manage to save himself because of his closeness to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as he was a close aide of former minister and cricket administrator Arun Jaitley — fostered when he was treasurer of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA). The fact that the CBI registered a case of corruption against him proves that he seems to have lost that support too.

It was during Batra’s rule that Indian hockey rose like a Pheonix and became the global financial superpower in the sport by organising FIH-level events and going on to bag an Olympic medal after a gap of four decades — a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last year.

Batra also took hockey from the traditional centres like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Punjab to smaller cities like Raipur, Lucknow, Bhubaneswar and Rourkela that hosted top international events in the last few years. While he brought new ideas and stability to Hockey India, his dictatorial functioning and arrogant attitude did not endear him to many.

But in the end, Batra’s desire to cling to his powerbase eventually caused his fall as a top sports administrator.

All said and done, it can’t be denied that Batra fell by the same sword by which he rose to the top spot — hockey. It remains to be seen how he survives this nightmare.

But the last is not heard on Batra and there is a lot more to come — the CBI is still investigating the corruption case.

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