Politics in cricket

by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

(July 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) ‘I do not approve of politicians becoming sports administrators, whether they are sports celebrities turned politicians or otherwise’ was an acerbic comment famously known in Hulftsdorp as being made sotto voce by a senior judge of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, (now retired), from the Bench several years back.

Calamitious damage to structures of governance

This comment is both interesting and timely. It is interesting as it illustrates a rare instance of firm judicial principle. It is timely in the context of the ongoing debate on the politicization of cricket in Sri Lanka. As in all things, the game of cricket did not become politicized in this country overnight.

Instead, there was a long gestation period. Our failure to recognize this fact not only from the viewpoint of proper political or judicial governance but also from the perspective of our personal reactions merits thought. Personalities and personal motivations, as is common, easily override what ought to be strictly looked at as a matter of principle. The calamitous damage that this causes to structures of governance is realised in all their full force and fury, only years later.

Prohibiting politicians from sports administration

So, the context in which this judicial comment was made is suitable for some introspection. This was when a fundamental rights application filed by Sri Lanka’s former cricket captain turned politician Arjuna Ranatunga was taken up before the Supreme Court in late 2002 or thereabouts. Mr Ranatunga, then occupying opposition seats with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party, had challenged the refusal of the then United National Front’s Sports Minister to allow him to contest for the post of Chief of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board. The Minister had purported to amend regulations promulgated under the Sports Law No 25 of 1973 to stipulate that ‘members of parliament or provincial councils, or members of any other local authority cannot contest as office bearers in sports associations.’

This praiseworthy amendment was zeal on the part of the then Sports Minister, now a cacophonous front ranker in the Rajapaksa administration after having crossed over from the UNF when it became relegated to the opposition. But this was not due to any great desire to keep politics out of cricket but rather, owing to the fact that the challenge came from opposition ranks. Ironically, Mr Ranatunga is now in opposition to his erstwhile leader.

Regardless of these somersaults in the best political traditions, the issue was valid and of central importance. True, Sri Lanka’s sports history had illustrious statesmen who had held office in sports bodies particularly in the arena of cricket and thereby benefited the game. But in the far ruder and tumultuous times of today, is it wise to allow politicians to hold office in sports bodies? Certainly, one Supreme Court judge did not think so and said so, very clearly. Predictably, given the trend during much of the Sarath Silva Court (1999-2009), this judge was not nominated to sit thereafter on the Bench hearing this matter.

In early January 2003, the Court decided unsurprisingly in favour of Mr Ranatunga, declaring that his fundamental rights had been violated by the actions of the Sports Minister. In the public gaze, the fact that Mr Ranatunga was Sri Lanka’s World Cup winning captain took much of the sting out of the decision. If it was another sportsman turned politician who had ventured to be so ambitious, perhaps we may have seen a different public reaction. But here, as in many other things, the persona of the individual concerned determined the public impact.

The de-politicisation of sports bodies

At that time, the regulation sought to be promulgated under the Sports Law No 25 of 1973 was explained on the same basis as the prohibition on members of parliament etc from holding paid office in statutory bodies. Extending this principle to voluntary associations such as sports bodies was sought to be justified on the basis that politicians, by virtue of their power and influence, are in a peculiarly privileged situation. As such, they should not be allowed to contest office in national associations, including sports associations. Sports bodies and associations in Sri Lanka should be made free of political interference and influence. On the other hand, Mr Ranatunge’s complaint was that the regulation violated his constitutional rights to equality, to non discrimination on the basis of political opinion and his freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise.

In assessing the merits of the claim, the Court accepted that de-politicisation of sports associations is a laudable objective. However, it proceeded on the reasoning that this objective was not achieved by the impugned regulation. Rather, it pointed to the fact that this regulation was unfair in that it applied only to some politicians and left out others such as the Chairman of a political party, the General Secretary, members of Executive Committees and Central Committees. The classification was therefore deemed as arbitrary and devoid of any substantial basis, consequently defeating the objective of the regulation.

Deficiencies in the 1973 law

Yet subsequent questions arise as what possible other alternatives were open to the Court if the general principle that the de-politicisation of sports in Sri Lanka was healthy, was accepted.

If its one objection was in regard to the arbitrary application of the regulation, could not the Court have simply extended its reach to those politicians who had not been covered in its impugned formulation? But the judicial reasoning thereto appeared to be more complex, hinting at approval of politicians holding such office. A report submitted by a committee of inquiry to the Minister of Sports and Parliamentary Affairs in 1971 had recommended that politics and sports should be kept apart. Otherwise, as pointed out by the committee members, there would be dangers of bureaucratic and political interference in sports.

However, as was observed in relation to this report, the Sports Law which was enacted two years later did not conform to this warning and only disqualified persons of unsound mind, insolvents, persons convicted of moral turpitude, persons who, at any time, had coached sports competitors for payment, professional sports reporters and non-nationals of Sri Lanka from holding office. Politicians were not included in this list.

But given that the 1973 law was in the first instance, enacted by politicians themselves, this omission was not something to marvel at. The question was therefore whether a later regulation under the law, bringing in a prohibition in respect of certain categories of politicians, would have been beneficial to sports in the country. The Court did not think so, holding with Mr Ranatunga’s complaint that there was “no logic, reason or justification” for the prohibition.

Bringing this regulation back

This judgment is now fairly familiar history to all intents and purposes. However, if Sri Lankans are to engage in actual constructive action to restore lost lustre to sports bodies not only in the sphere of cricket but almost in every aspect of administration of sports in this country, which are manifestly plagued by corruption and maladministration, perhaps it is time to look at bringing back this regulation, reformulated more wisely and more widely.

There should not be any differentiation between corrupt or non-corrupt politicians, those whom we like and those whom we distinctly do not like. And whatever may have been the past, the political reality now is that politicians must be kept, one and all, out of the administration of sports. This rule must be firm and definitive.

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