Sunday, October 10, 2010

Our best game: Chip on my shoulder

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are different explanations as to why the Government of India spent Rs 70,000 crore or more to host the Commonwealth Games. To the cynical, it was an incentive package for the country's burgeoning, public sector-driven 'cash and carry' economy. To political animals, it was aimed at boosting the prospects of Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi Chief Minister who is now inclined to pitch for the Olympics. To parochial Delhiites, the flyovers, expanded metro and upgraded civic infrastructure were about adding value to the proverbial corner plot. And to the insouciant Suresh Kalmadi, the Games were all about himself. According to The Times (London), Kalmadi has gratuitously asked the organisers of the London Olympics to consider contracting his services—presumably with Lalit Bhanot of "different standards of hygiene" fame in tow.

Midway through the proceedings, it is also becoming apparent what the Games are not about. First, it is not about people's participation in an event paid for by taxpayers. The empty stands testify to the fact that the Games are about as people-unfriendly an extravaganza as officialdom and Doordarshan can manage. Secondly, the Games are not about showcasing India's abilities. The colossal displays of incompetence, venality and deceitful conduct have given a new meaning to Incredible India.

Thanks to a dynamic private sector which, mercifully, was relatively uninvolved in the bacchanalia of a decrepit Establishment, India hasn't been totally written off yet but its ego has been deflated. It will take much more than self-congratulatory myth-building to remove the perception that underneath the hype there is still too much of the Third World lingering in India.

Finally, there is one thing this CWG isn't about: the Commonwealth.

The complete detachment of an enterprise from its avowed purpose has never been more marked and more deliberate. The CWG may have had its origins in the British Empire Games of the 1930s but despite the changed circumstances there has always been a common endeavour: to nurture a sense of community through friendship.

The one crucial element missing from the gathering in Delhi is that feeling of fraternity. The CWG could well have been an impersonal package tour of Delhi where visitors arrive, do their number, are treated to a capsuled version of Indian culture, see the Taj Mahal, taste a curry, experience Delhi belly and fly away carrying a T-shirt and memento.

Actually, it's been worse. From the time New Zealander Mike Hooper, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, got into a spat with Kalmadi and Bhanot, and was reviled for being a white man, the behaviour of the Indian hosts has been downright boorish and offensive. A contrived protocol standoff between Prince Charles and President Pratibha Patil unleashed a needless wave of apoplectic xenophobia; Bhanot decided that Australians, Scots and the English were racist fuss pots for demanding clean mattresses and spotless toilets; the governor-general of New Zealand (who is of Indian origin) was needlessly snubbed in Delhi on Thursday with an external affairs ministry boycott of his lunch because some low-life anchor in Auckland had tastelessly caricatured Dikshit`s name; delegations from Africa and the Caribbean were treated peremptorily because they didn't come into the Organising Committee's radar; and it took a formal protest by Uganda to secure an Indian apology for an accident caused by a malfunctioning security barrier.

Nor did civil society do any better. In our bid to show off our culture and achievements we forgot that the diversity of the Commonwealth needed showcasing too. Was there anything done in Delhi to demonstrate to the numerous countries that India too was interested in them? A golden moment to build bridges across the Anglosphere—after all, the Commonwealth is essentially an English-speaking Union—was squandered by an attitude bordering on insular arrogance.

The real irony is that the Commonwealth as we know it today was created at the behest of India. In 1947, it was both Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel who forcefully insisted that India should remain in the Commonwealth, as an independent republic and without being subservient to the Crown. To them, these connections forged by Empire were an asset. It was the parallel desire of the United Kingdom and the Dominions (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and, interestingly, South Africa) to accommodate India that led to the creation of the Commonwealth. The body may not count for much politically, but it has a formidable reach and is an important element in public diplomacy.

Kalmadi, it may be suggested in hindsight, isn't merely an individual; he personifies a mindset. As a supplicant of Kalmadi, official India approached the CWG with a puerile boastfulness that rapidly turned to cussedness once alarm bells started ringing. To many Indians, this cockiness equals national pride; to many outsiders it suggests that India doesn't merely have a chip on its shoulder, it has a chip on both its shoulders.

Sunday Times of India, October 10, 2010

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