Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mess Management

By Swapan Dasgupta

Mahatma Gandhi is, arguably, the one Indian whose name is likely to have an instant recall anywhere in the world, not least in the countries of the erstwhile British Empire now grouped as the Commonwealth. Yet, ask an average Briton, including the ones who have at least two A-level passes, to write the Mahatma's name and you are likely to be presented with the scrawl "Ghandi". Probe a little further and you may well be told that that the same "Ghandi" was the father of "Indira Ghandi" and the founder of India's most enduring political dynasty.

Given the prevailing mismatch between fact and perception, especially about matters concerning 'foreigners', we need not be unduly harsh on the hapless Suresh Kalmadi for expressing his gratitude to Princess Diana for being present at the grand opening of the Commonwealth Games on October 3. To this go-getting MP for Pune, more accustomed to "managing the environment" ( Dhirubhai Ambani's persuasive explanation for his success in business) than engaging in polite small talk at convivial dinners, knowing the hierarchical difference between the Duchess of Cornwall and the Princess of Wales is not Brash India's overriding priority. As they say in "the Poonjab", Naththa Singh and Prem Singh, one and the same thing.

At a time when India is wallowing in the glory a spectacular cultural extravaganza, many gold medals and an incredible Test victory over Australia, it may seem distinctly unpatriotic to flash the proverbial gutter inspector's report. Indians, as Ian Jack has helpfully reminded us in The Guardian, do tend to leave things till the very last minute. The preparations for the formal inauguration of New Delhi in 1931 were, for example, completed barely "five minutes before closing time." So why blame Sports Minister M.S. Gill for his prescient but nonchalant comparison of the CWG with a Punjabi wedding? If the CWG is, as we have repeatedly been told, all about "national pride", Delhi Chief Minister Shelia Dixit shouldn't be grudged for preening at her own ability to snatch a jugaadu "pass" from the jaws of failure.

The final cost of procuring what in my university days used to be called a 'gentleman's degree' may haunt Indian public finance for many years to come but that, the optimists will say, is a small price for the benefits of a possible real estate boom in Delhi and the creation of many more politically connected millionaires. India lives for the present and the "exemplary punishment" the Prime Minister has promised for those guilty of corruption is unlikely to be a priority of the future. Like the potholes in newly-built roads, the edible will be blended with the inedible, overlaced with pungent spices, and cooked into a khichdi which, at best, will contribute to a bout of Delhi-belly. In the immortal words of Lalit Bhanot, the physical instructor from Delhi University who chose to be the public face of Kalmadi-ism, "the Westerners have different standards; we have different standards; everyone has different standards…"

Bhanot was mercilessly pilloried for his reflections on hygienic standards so much so that he chose to abandon his high public profile. India, it would seem, was being disingenuous. Bhanot may not have the finesse of the Delhi Chief Minister or the disarming candidness of the Union Sports Minister but underneath his gauche bluster he did unwittingly capture the essence of the Indian state's penchant for desi standards, the euphemism for tackiness.

The CWG may well be a facet of the burgeoning 'cash and carry' industry but it has nominally been painted as a bid to showcase resurgent India to the non-US Anglosphere. Instead, we have succeeded in exposing the country's rough edges which no amount of invocation of 5,000 years of culture can iron out.

The imperious overkill that has defined the bandobast would have been national scandals in most evolved democracies. In India, some deft 'media management' has ensured that the focus on sloth and high-handedness has been kept to a bare minimum. It was not a fiercely independent Indian media that exposed the shameful conditions in the Games village: the initial protests were from foreign team managers and the revealing pictures were put on show by the BBC only a day after the domestic media gave the arrangements a hyperbolic thumbs-up.

It needed a pesky foreign media to ask a basic question on Day One of the Games: where are the spectators? The insouciant Kalmadi replied that there were mile-long queues of, presumably, invisible Indians waiting to get into the stadia. By the end of the exchange, wrote the reporter for The Times, Kalmadi "sounded like Monty Python's Black Knight who, on having his limbs hacked off, retorts: Just a flesh wound."

Few Games have been less spectator-friendly and more citizen-unfriendly than the Rs 70,000 crore orgy in Delhi. In the name of traffic management, arterial roads linking Lutyens' Delhi to the satellite towns have been closed for 15 days. On October 3, all markets and offices in the National Capital were forcibly shut down, making Delhi resemble a ghost town. In the name of security, a brusque constabulary has confiscated lipsticks, car and house keys, loose change, pens and even reading material from spectators, thereby making it clear that their very presence of humans constitutes a security hazard. The not-wanted message has been reinforced by cumbersome procedures for the purchase of tickets to events. To cap it all, the state-controlled Doordarshan—a creature that TV viewers have all but forgotten—has used its favoured position to dish out sub-standard coverage reminiscent of the bad old days of socialism.

There is a picture of India that is emerging from the CWG. It is an India defined by inefficiency, venality, non-accountability, shoddiness, brazenness, high-handedness and, above all, gullibility. It is a view that focuses on the biggest impediment to India realising its true potential: a bloated state that has lost its ability to cater to the public good.

Fortunately, there is another India.

Asian Age/ Deccan Herald, October 8, 2010



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