Friday, April 29, 2011

Suresh Kalmadi’s tryst with Pune and politics

Suresh Kalmadi’s tryst with Pune and politics
MoneyLife, April 26, 2011 01:00 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
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The man who was often referred to as the CEO of Pune, may have brought much glamour to Maharashtra’s cultural capital, but he didn’t do much to relieve the problems of common Puneites 

The first time I had a glimpse of Suresh Kalmadi and his simple and sweet wife Meera on a public stage was in the mid-1970s when they hosted a live programme of Usha Uthup in, if I remember right, at the Sub-Area Grounds. I was a teenager in college then and all of us had gone to see and hear the charismatic pop star whose metallic voice was a rage in those days. I remember the crowd was huge. The other association with Mr Kalmadi was the Poona Coffee House opposite the Deccan Gymkhana bus stand that we patronised on Sunday evenings when dinner would not be served in our hostel mess.

During those days, the surname 'Kalmadi' was associated more with Dr Shamrao Kalmadi, his father, who was well known as a Good Samaritan, in the role of a doctor and community man. He established the Karnataka High School, by literally going door-to-door for donations. His humility and social conscientiousness captured the hearts of many.

It is said that Dr Shamrao was not too happy when Suresh left his career in the Indian Air Force and plunged into politics. In fact, when Mr Kalmadi's house was raided by income-tax authorities many years back, his father was most embarrassed and believed that his son was on the wrong path. No prizes for guessing what he would have thought of the recent CBI action now!

Suresh Kalmadi surged ahead in his career in politics and there was no looking back after he became member of the Rajya Sabha in 1982, until the Commonwealth Games scandal halted (whether this is permanent, or temporary time will tell) his otherwise smooth-sailing political race. He has an impressive record of over a decade in the Rajya Sabha and then was elected to the Lok Sabha from Pune thrice.

Though Suresh Kalmadi is synonymous with Pune, at the national and international level in politics and sports, it is ironical that he is perceived as having little rapport with the common man or the woes of Puneites. When Pune was ridden with pot-holes that threatened the lives and limbs of citizens and they raised a hue and cry about it, he said that the media ought not to highlight such negative views about Pune that would scare away investors, instead of promising to rectify the corrupt road construction system and the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC)-contractor nexus. Though he doled out money for the roads from the funds available to him as a member of Parliament, the common Puneite did not see him as being sympathetic to their cause.

Recently, while swine flu rocked Pune (the city was stamped as the swine flu capital of the country), Mr Kalmadi was occupied with his responsibilities as president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) came in a bit late to air his concern over the situation.

Public transport, the prime inconvenience of Puneites, has been in a mess; his Pune Vyaspeeth (the forum he established to tackle issues concerning Pune) took up the issue, but it did not reflect at the ground level. He ruled the PMC for many years as the local Congress chief, but the civic body had a laid-back attitude and was always mired in cases of financial misappropriation.

One of the few exceptions where Mr Kalmadi got his act together for the benefit of the common Puneite was on the issue of protecting the hills of Pune. Thanks to his firm stance against the proposal of allowing construction on the hills, the PMC passed the Green DP for the 23 merged villages of Pune, and the state government has had a tough time trying to undo the step taken by the PMC.

Paradoxically, despite not being the common man's man, Mr Kalmadi is synonymous with Pune, sometimes even called its CEO. To many, Mr Kalmadi is a politician of the elite, an impeccable organiser of mega sports and cultural events. Personally, he comes across as a friendly, amiable person, but his mask as a politician somehow belies these traits.

He enhanced the status of Pune by hosting the Pune International Marathon which completed 25 years this year; held the National Games in the city in the mid-1990s; and the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2009 (the curtain-raiser for the 2010 Commonwealth Games). However, to common Puneites, this has not been reflected in any sort of change in the sports culture of the city, and even access to facilities at Chhatrapati Shivaji Stadium at Balewadi comes at a high price. Yet, they have been compassionate towards him. Puneites showed their appreciation for the work done during the 2009 youth games by attending the event in thousands, even if some went only to have a look at the new dream destination for sports. Then they re-elected him to Parliament  in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

The Pune Festival, mooted by Mr Kalmadi, was a star-studded cultural extravaganza in the first few years after it was launched in the 1990s. The country's leading maestros of music and the performing arts, as well as Bollywood stars, swooped down on Pune, and his abilities as a brilliant organiser came to the fore again. But the Pune Festival has lost its sheen in recent years, as the primary objective to attract foreign tourists on the occasion of the historic, traditional 10-day Ganesh Festival has come a cropper. Although he denies this, and insists that the Pune Festival is for locals too.

So, has Mr Kalmadi lost account of accountability and credibility over the years? No doubt, there are other bigger players in the mega Commonwealth Games scam, but the fact remains that he was the face of the Games management and he will have to bear the merits and the demerits too. Besides, he will have to also answer many uncomfortable questions about the questionable public expenditure and lack of expenditure details with regard to the Commonwealth Youth Games, the Pune International Marathon and now the Pune International Film Festival (PIFF). RTI documents have revealed that public money has been spent, but no, or haphazard, details are available of the same.

The last big and glittering party he held in Pune was a few months back, when the IPL Pune team, now called Pune Warriors, was born, and Subroto Roy was the prime guest. No doubt, Mr Kalmadi brought glamour to Pune now and then, but now the clamour to prove his credibility is increasing from Puneites. Has he lost ground now?

(This article first appeared in Intelligent Pune on 31 December 2010. Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached atvinitapune@gmail.com.)

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