The Commonwealth Games will be a reality check for India
By Swapan Dasgupta
The belief that a sporting event can be deftly packaged to showcase national pride has a somewhat dubious history. It was Adolf Hitler's Third Reich that first chose to capitalise on the 1936 Berlin Olympics to proclaim the reality of a reinvigorated Germany marching in unison to a national purpose—a feat immortalised in Leni Reifenstahl's evocative documentary film. Japan had the same idea in mind when it set about trying to project its warped version of Asian pride for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics which had to be cancelled owing to the war in Europe.
The unfortunate association of muscle and speed with militarism and totalitarian regimes hasn't, however, prevented the theme of national-pride-through-sports from being carried over into the 21st century. China excelled in using the 2008 Beijing Olympics to demonstrate to a starry-eyed world the awesome might of undemocratic efficiency. South Africa had more modest ambitions when it took on the role of host for the 2010 football World Cup—an event that carried the additional burden of regulating the boisterous enthusiasm of the fans. But the net result of the successful tournament was exactly the same: an outpouring of national pride that glossed over the shortcomings of a cocky and self-serving African National Congress regime.
India has a feeble reputation as a sporting nation. Apart from cricket, where it has successfully blended popular enthusiasm with commerce to secure the commanding heights of the cricket economy, its standing in most of the recognised sports is non-existent. A surprise Gold Medal in shooting at the Beijing Olympics and sporadic individual successes in badminton, tennis, squash and boxing have been offset by the reality of its decline in hockey, a game where it won the Olympics Gold from 1924 to 1956. Like in various other departments, India's sporting record suggests individual successes and indifferent teamwork—cricket being the exception.
Despite what the Ministry of Sports or the Indian Olympic Association may claim, it is unlikely that the reason for hosting the Commonwealth Games in the first half of October was to give a fillip to India's struggling athletes, swimmers, wrestlers, gymnasts and rugby players. India lacks the aptitude, the facilities and the lavish patronage necessary to transform raw talent into world class skills. Apart from cricket, tennis, golf and squash where private initiative has made all the difference, Indian sport is unduly dependant on the munificence of an inefficient government. The autonomous sporting federations which could have assumed the role of nurseries have different priorities.
The myth that the creation of world-class facilities will make all the difference between mediocrity and excellence was punctured after the experience of the 1982 Asian Games held in Delhi. The Asiad, which became Rajiv Gandhi's launching pad into public life, had one enduring national legacy: colour TV. Apart from that, it gave Delhi numerous flyovers, a swanky residential complex in Siri Fort and a clutch of five-star hotels. True, the city also saw the construction of numerous grand stadia but these facilities ended up as venues for pop concerts, Diwali melas and political conventions. For the Indira Gandhi government, something as nebulous and intangible as national pride was the real priority, not sports.
Former Minister of Sports Mani Shankar Aiyar was being wilfully naïve when, in a characteristically irreverent intervention, he suggested that the huge amounts of money being spent on the forthcoming CWG—the estimates range from Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 40,000 crore—would have been better utilised in the training of sportsmen and women. Even if we disregard his successor's promise that the event would resemble a "Punjabi wedding", the fact is that neither the previous NDA that managed the successful bid in 2003 nor the present UPA Government that has made a dog's breakfast of the CWG ever imagined it was spending the money to further India's reputation as a sporting nation. The purpose of the Delhi CWG was always to announce to the world that India has arrived, a proclamation that would set the stage for a bid for the Asian Games, perhaps even the Olympics, and lots of neighbourly envy.
Tragically, the grand proclamation of national achievement is likely to fall on deaf ears. Since the CWG is largely a contrived event, it is unlikely the uneven quality of the venues will make a huge difference, apart from cautioning the international sports authorities of the need to seriously discount Indian claims in future. However, at a time when India is making a serious bid to be recognised as an economic power of consequence and a good place for business, the kerfuffle over the arrangements has proved to the world that India's transition from the Third World to Asian Tiger status is woefully incomplete. Far from showing that India has arrived, it has indicated that the country has a colossal scope for improvement before it can claim a measure of parity with the developed countries.
The biggest eye-opener has been the extent of state ineptitude. The ability of the state sector to plan and efficiently deliver projects according to international standards was on test in the CWG, and the results have been deeply disappointing. It was not the paucity of resources that led to public sector agencies such as the Central Public Works Department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and even the much-acclaimed Delhi Metro Rail Corporation often living up to the caricature of what the Duke of Edinburgh once called the "Indian electrician". Certainly, the generous funding didn't justify the shoddy renovation of stadia built for the 1982 Asiad. The expenditure on renovating Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was Rs 961 crore, Indira Gandhi Stadium Rs 669 crore, Dhyan Chand Stadium Rs 262 crore and Karni Singh Shooting Range Rs 149 crore. Speaking in Parliament, CPI(M) MP Sitaram Yechuri said: "these costs are huge. Compare them with the costs incurred in the renovation of Ferozeshah Kotla stadium. It was only Rs 85 crore."
It was heartening that Yechuri alluded to the cost-efficient renovation of the Ferozeshah Kotla cricket ground which was undertaken by the non-official Delhi Cricket Association. Quite unwittingly, he underlined the biggest malaise that hinders the effective showcasing of India: an inept and bloated state sector which lacks integrity. Cricket has flourished because, for all its imperfections, it has extricated itself from the subsidy regime of the state.
If the ineptitude of the Indian state has been on display, it is complemented by the parallel show of venality. Never mind the national pride self-serving politicians are now invoking, the evidence of brazen short-changing of the public exchequer through over-invoicing is too brazen to allow an easy cover-up. There have been ridiculously inflated bills for the hire of air-conditioners, dust bins, chairs and umbrellas; absurd sums expended on the purchase of soap dispensers and toilet paper; and sweetheart deals with fictitious advertising agencies and dubious car hire firms. The tight deadline meant that all norms and sense of responsibility were discarded as politicians and their nominees joined the gold rush. The Delhi Government didn't even hesitate to siphon money from Planning Commission-endorsed allocations to the holiest of holy cows: the welfare of Dalits.
The run-up to the CWG has been a reality check for an India that was allowing its new-found prosperity run away with its sense of proportion. In trying to cynically flaunt national pride, a cocky political class has created the enduring image of the upstart Indian. It's an image that seems destined to linger.