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March 7, 2001

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The Rediff Interview/ Jyotirmoyee Sikdar

'I am confident I will be an equally successful politician'

A little over two years ago, Jyotirmoyee Sikdar was India's main hope for an Olympic athletics medal. After all, she had won two individual gold medals -- in the 800 and 1,500 metres -- at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1998. But came the Sydney Olympics, and the girl from Debagram in West Bengal's Nadia district was not around; an injury to her achilles tendon forced her to drop out and subsequently announce her retirement.

"I just didn't want to travel to Australia merely as a tourist, especially when I know I can't probably live up to the expectations of my people," she had then said.

Jyotirmoyee Sikdar But that was not the only reason for her decision to quit. More than anything, she was pained by the apathy shown to her by the state government and various sports bodies.

"My decision has been prompted by various factors other than just injuries. I tried to fight all odds, but soon realised that I was fighting a losing battle," she confessed.

Last month, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna winner, who represented India at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and other track and field internationals, decided to plunge into politics. She will be the Communist Party of India-Marxist nominee from Ranaghat (West) for next month's assembly election.

Rifat Jawaid caught up with the 31-year-old middle distance queen to find out more about her new love.

What prompted you to join politics?

Politics has been an inherent part of my life; there is nothing new about it. When I was a kid, I used to undertake extensive tours with my father, who was actively involved with the CPI-M. So much so that when he contested an assembly election on the CPI-M ticket from Nadia, I made sure I was present at his campaign rallies. The same party now says I should fight the election on its ticket. Therefore, I don't think there is anything wrong reciprocating the CPI-M leadership's requests. I feel the CPI-M is a political party dedicated to the people's cause.

The grapevine has it that your decision to join politics stems from the constant dejection you complained of during the last leg of your career as athlete, which apparently prevented you from representing India at the Sydney Olympics...

No, it's not that. I had planned to enter politics long ago. It was only a matter of time before I translated my long-due wishes into reality. But you are right. As a player, I had to face a lot of humiliation and disappointment; no one supported my cause then. So much so, that I had to quit athletics on health grounds, since I didnít have the required money to treat my injured leg. Therefore, I thought that I, being a sportperson, would be able to look after the interests of players better than any politician.

Also, my presence in the assembly is bound to ensure that players do not remain a neglected lot in West Bengal. I don't want other aspiring sportpersons to experience the same traumatic moments that I was witness to all along my career. Things will change for good when players have their representative in the state assembly.

With Jyoti Basu Have you been assured any ministerial berth by the Marxist leadership?

I am not looking on those lines. It would be the sole prerogative of my party leadership to allocate ministerial berths to whosoever they deem fit for them.

Your main opponent in Ranaghat (West), Shankar Singh, is a Congress heavyweight and a seasoned politician. Do you think your political immaturity would be an impediment to your success?

I have borne this fact very well in mind. But I also know that Singh won the last assembly election by a meagre 4,000 votes. Then, the Congress suffered a split with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress taking away a large chunk of its share of votes. Having said that, I am not worried who the opponent is. Let anyone be my rival, I will win. After all, it's my job to convince people what's good for them.

Which do you find more difficult to handle -- sports or politics?

Both are tough. Unlike track and field events, where the competition is more from individuals, in politics, you have to take the people along with you while complying with the party's guidelines. I am confident I will be an equally successful politician.

How would you prioritise your goals as a politician?

My first job would be to mobilise players at the grass root level, because this is where India's real sports potential is hidden. I would lay special emphasis on the discovery of new talent in the rural parts of Bengal.

The second thing: I will give importance to is improving sports-related infrastructure, such as setting up of new stadia with equipment and modern facilities. My experience suggests that the Centre has absolutely no policy or budgetary allocation for the development of sports in India. Such handicaps notwithstanding, West Bengal has always produced remarkable talent in all games. Pankaj Roy, P K Banerjee, Sourav Ganguly are a few names to prove that. I, myself, won two golds and a silver at the Asian Games, but see how was I rewarded.

You won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna following your splendid performance at the Bangkok Asian Games. When you allege that you were not rewarded properly, are you trying to say that the central government did not do justice to you by preferring Sunita Rani's name ahead of yours for the Padma Shri award?

Receiving the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna That's the point I am making. Ironically, no one, including the media, raised this subject. Sunita won a lone silver medal in the same event while I won the gold at the Asian Games. Yet, the powers-that-be chose to award her the prestigious Padma Shri. What is worse is that Sunita never even participated in any international track and field event as was the case with me.

Why was she given this prestigious award? Because, I am told, she hails from the same district as former Union sports minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa. They have always been partisan towards Bengalis. See what happened to Sourav. If not me, all of us were expecting at least Sourav's name to figure in the list of those awardees. Nothing of that sort happened. That's precisely why I want to join politics. I would, at least, be there to raise my voice every time someone dares indulge in such nepotism.

I wouldn't have grumbled had Shakti Singh or Bahadur Prasad been given such honours. Dhanraj Pillai was awarded the Padma Shri even though he won India one gold medal with 11 team members at the Asian Games. I, on my own, won two gold and a silver and see what happened.

What was even more hurting was that we had so many Union ministers from West Bengal, yet no one bothered to point out such fraudulent nepotism.

How difficult would your debut in politics be in view of the exodus from the CPI-M?

It wouldn't be that difficult. There hasn't been a mass exodus as you are saying. Only a few have left. But that's not a cause to get alarmed. If some have left, many have joined also. Take the example of me. Now the party has a new candidate in me. Similarly, there would be many more to fill the void that the exit of a few leaders have created.

Aren't you scared before the assembly elections?

Not at all. I lost all my fears and inhibitions in sport. I will try to live up to my party leaders's expectations by winning the assembly seat. Even if I had not got the nomination, I would still have campaigned for the CPI-M.

Does that mean you will sever ties with athletics forever?

I don't think so. Even after I quit athletics, I was training the Railways girls, and the results were overwhelming. Many of my trainees went on to win medals in national events. I will continue to devote time on coaching since this is my passion.

What happens to your Railways job and the accommodation? Don't you have to resign before fighting an election and also vacate the Railways accommodation?

You can't have all in your life. If you want to achieve something you must be prepared for eventualities. Both me and Avtar [(Singh) -- her husband] are moving to our new house in Salt Lake, which has been built on state government alloted land. As for my job, I am told I can go on five-year unpaid leave. Let's see how things go. But even if the Railway authorities don't grant my wish for leave, I am prepared to quit my job.

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