Electoral battles tougher than soccer clashes: Player-turned-MP Prasun Banerjee

Kolkata, June 25 (IANS) Having played in the left-half position through his glittering football career, former Indian captain Prasun Banerjee has now conquered the Left in his first battle on the political turf, becoming the first soccer player to make it to parliament.

The newly elected Trinamool Congress MP from Howrah rates his latest victory as the "toughest" and most memorable, even when compared to his winning the Arjuna Award in 1979-80 or turning out for Mohun Bagan against soccer legend Pele.

"In football, when your opponents commit a foul on the field, they do so openly. But in politics, your rivals are forever ready to hit you below the belt. The Left Front played lot of dirty tricks to stop me. They clandestinely joined hands with the Congress, the BJP. There were hush-hush campaigns in Muslim dominated areas," the 58-year-old famed footballer of the 1970s and 1980s told IANS in an interview.

"So I shall keep this victory ahead of all my other accomplishments," said Banerjee, who defeated his closest rival, Left Front spearhead Communist Party of India-Marxist candidate Sridip Bhattacharya by 26,955 votes in a multi-cornered fight in the by-polls earlier his month caused by the death of Trinamool MP Ambika Banerjee.

He dedicated his victory to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Ma, Mati, Manush (mother, land and people).

"Cricketers, hockey players, athletes - all have made it to parliament earlier. But nobody thought of nominating any footballer before Mamata Banerjee. This is actually her win," he said.

During his playing days, Prasun Banerjee was a darling for soccer fans in Kolkata and other parts of the country with his great ball control, deft passing, stamina and ability to cover large territory on the ground.

Banerjee's eyes still light up when he recalls Sept 24, 1977 - the day he played in an exhibition match before 80,00 cheering fans at Eden Gardens against Cosmos Club which had the legendary Pele and other top international stars in its ranks.

"In fact, we were leading 2-1. But late in the second half they scored from a penalty and the match ended in a draw. Pele and the other stars all praised Bagan's performance".

He led India in the 1979 Olympic qualifiers, besides being part of the Asian Games squads in 1974, 1978 and 1982.

"As a footballer, I used to be inspired by the roars of thousands of spectators, while playing against (arch-rivals) East Bengal and other sides. In politics, you draw your strength from the love of the masses and workers. Both soccer and politics need lot of stamina because you have to run a lot. Maybe that's the reason I am feeling at home in politics," he Banerjee said.

But even in his new avatar, Banerjee has set his eyes on returning to the game which has given him so much.

"It's my dream to set up an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art soccer academy that will be one of its kind in India. My model is the academy of famous German club Bayer Leverkusen. But for that one needs lot of money. Let's see."

Banerjee regrets that so many years after independence, the country is yet to get a full-fledged sports policy. "It's a matter of shame. I shall raise my voice in parliament and try to mobilise all MPs".

He also wants to properly develop the sports complex at Dumurjala in his constituency. "Now it is a sham of a sports complex. I have to do something."

Banerjee, who turned out for the Asian All-star XI at Bangkok in 1983 against Brazilian greats like Edar, Zico and Socrates, is also chalking out his plans for development projects in the area.

"I want to work for the people and with the people. I have been out on the roads, lanes, by-lanes of my constituency since my victory. I am trying to understand the people's problems. But my leader Mamata Banerjee knows the constituency like the back of her hand. I shall do whatever she tells me to do," he said.

The younger brother of the legendary Indian soccer player-turned-coach P.K. Banerjee, the new MP lost his father when he was only four years old. It was a difficult childhood.

"My elder brother brought me up. He had to feed nine mouths on of a salary of Rs 85. After practice, he never ate the two eggs given to him. He used to bring those home for me and another brother," he recalled.

(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at sirshendu.p@ians.in)

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