Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has helped the century-old East Bengal football club to land an investor thereby removing the biggest hurdle in the club’s path to play in the Indian Super League (ISL), India’s top football league.
As the announcement was being made at the state secretariat on Wednesday and the program aired live on the Trinamool Congress’ social networking page, congratulatory messages were popping up with the club’s fans hailing the Trinamool Congress chief for her efforts to “save the club from being a refugee”.
“In their 100th year, East Bengal were nearly deprived of playing in ISL. Mohun Bagan had signed an agreement (to play in ISL) earlier but there was a lot of uncertainty over East Bengal. It was not desirable that millions of their supporters would be deprived,” Banerjee had said while making the announcement from the state secretariat.
Political experts said that even though the initiative might have helped Banerjee and her party strike a chord with the club’s millions of fans in one go and woo the sentiments of football-loving Bengalis, they were skeptical whether such efforts would materialise into electoral gains in the crucial 2021 elections.
“This would surely help her to strike a chord with the East Bengal club’s fans and gain some political mileage over the BJP in the tussle over establishing control over the clubs. But I don’t think it would give her any electoral mileage in the 2021 elections. Elections are not fought over which party is helping a football club,” said Udayan Bandyopadhyay, professor of political science at Kolkata’s Bangabasi College.
Experts said that control over the clubs is an age old practice among the ruling parties. The CPIM did it in the past when it was in power in the state. The BJP does it at the centre and the TMC is doing this at the state level.
The BJP’s Bengal unit which had been nibbling at every opportunity to make inroads into the Trinamool Congress’s support base in West Bengal had also been trying to score brownie points in the tussle over the clubs. The party had been trying hard over the past few years to find solution for the crisis the East Bengal and Mohan Bagan clubs have been facing.
While in 2017 had written to the Prime Minister requesting his intervention to include Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the ISL, a year ago the two clubs had approached BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya to find a solution.
“Mamata Banerjee knows very well that he is losing ground and her popularity is fading among the youths of Bengal. So she is trying to make every effort to woo them. By these stunts won’t help,” said Rahul Sinha, national secretary of the BJP.
And it was not just East Bengal. Banerjee on Wednesday also tried to touch the emotional chord of millions of football loving Bengalis saying that her government is planning to come up with three gates in Kolkata after the three top football clubs – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting – in Kolkata.
Political experts however feel that such efforts may have given the TMC some edge over its opposition but won’t fetch votes when it comes to elections which are fought out based on hard realities.
“In a democratic country, clubs and organsiations should run in an autonomous manner. But that hardly happens now-a-days. The reason is two-fold. While on one hand the clubs lack powerful leaders and need an umbrella for their existence which they get from the ruling party, on the other hand the ruling party also gives them patronage and interfere to grab more power. It’s a symbiotic relation,” said psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University.
Even though the club was formed in 1920 in Kolkata, the founding fathers of East Bengal hailed from Bangladesh (then known as East Bengakl). As a result it was though that a sizeable chunk of the people who came to settle in India from Bangladesh after the 1971 war, were East Bengal fans. Many of them settled in north Bengal and hence north Bengal has a chunk of the club’s fan base.
Interestingly the TMC is eyeing for north Bengal in the coming elections as the BJP had won seven out of the eight seats in the region and the Congress bagging one in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.