Ranjit Bajaj and East Bengal: A forbidden match
With East Bengal hanging on by the rope, it seemed former Minerva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj had thrown the club a lifeline by offering to purchase 70 percent shares of estranged title sponsor Quess Corp. There had been great pressure on East Bengal to follow in its rivals Mohun Bagan’s footsteps by joining the Indian Super League (ISL), but a spanner was thrown into the works when Quess decided to end its association with the club mid-contract.
The Red and Gold army have been struggling to find investors to support their bid for a place in ISL for a few months now and Ranjit Bajaj seemed to emerge with the deus ex machina in the club’s story. Although the ‘Saviour of East Bengal’, as he had called himself, has since withdrawn his bid, one cannot help but wonder what could have been had the takeover gone through.
Make no mistake, Bajaj is nowhere near the ideal hero despite his life story mirroring the plot of an Anurag Kashyap movie. Having multiple criminal cases against him that transcend state borders and the reputation of a temperamental maverick, Bajaj is not an easy customer to handle. A former gangster, MTV Roadies contestant, and a recovered drug addict, his past often raises question marks over his competency as the owner of a football club.
These questions were completely unfounded in his time leading Minerva Punjab, who have been transformed from a local level cricket club to Indian champions and an Indian football powerhouse. The fairytale had a bitter ending for Bajaj at Minerva as continuous confrontations with AIFF and financial unsustainability forced him to resign and look for a new project.
While their prospective new owner has faced a myriad of challenges in his life, East Bengal’s origin and existence can (rather unfairly) be reduced into their rivalry with Mohun Bagan. The club was formed in 1920 when Mohun Bagan took on Jorabagan in the Coochbehar Cup, minus the latter’s star centre back Sailesh Bose, who was dropped for unknown reasons. When the pleas of Jorabagan vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri to play Bose fell on deaf ears, he decided to sever all ties and form East Bengal. The driving purpose of its past and now, the future, has been to navigate the inferiority complex that they have experienced for large parts of the past century.
They came close to joining the ISL last year, seemingly edging ahead of the Mariners but it was not to be and now Bagan have managed to secure the funding and they’re left clutching at straws. Things went from bad to worse when just weeks after ATK’s takeover of Bagan, East Bengal’s investors pulled out of the contract citing the pandemic but figures at the club suspect that this was a long time coming.
On the surface, the contrasting characters of the club and Bajaj were never a good fit. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if a gung-ho approach would have helped the club after years of it being the bridesmaid in the I-league. Bajaj is a proven winner. He not only led Minerva’s senior team to the title, but has built a model that is uncharacteristically sustainable for Indian football at the youth level. The club’s youth squads consistently challenge for the national titles and they will continue to profit from his pioneering vision for years to come. East Bengal have been a title shout for ages but are yet to win the I-league, a feat Bagan has achieved twice. Bajaj’s extensive dominating style could have helped a club that seems to be mired in placidity.
The 40 year old expressed his desire to implement a Barcelona-style model at East Bengal, which was perhaps a strategy to put pressure on the club to accept his offer. With Bajaj, one never knows. A partnership between a club that has had troubles with owners, and an owner that clearly isn’t the easiest to work with - one would expect fireworks. Whether they would have been in jubilation or Balotelli-esque destruction, remains unanswered.