In the end, MS Gill may well get to have the last laugh. The Commonwealth Games did indeed come together with the haphazard, but happy inefficiency of a boisterous Punjabi wedding — right down to the slightly cringe-making filmi jhatkas at the closing ceremony. But much like Mira Nair showed us that sometimes it takes a monsoon wedding for family fissures, dark secrets and psychological truths to break out into the open, the Games have held up a mirror to India as a country and a people. And here are some reflections that stare right back at us.
n Crony capitalism has taken the sheen off India’s glossy ‘Liberalisation Dream’. As we watched insidious corruption, big money and bumbling incompetence come together in a horrifying union, do you remember how many times we wanted the State to step in and take over? Those who had run the Asiad Games in the eighties spoke repeatedly of the perils of ‘outsourcing’ the games and the need for the prime minister to oversee the arrangements personally, and appoint a single authority as Rajiv Gandhi had been then. It was an ironic argument in a country where the liberalisation mantra has always been ‘less is more’— when it comes to the government. Of course, sections of the government were no less laggard and wimpish — with both the urban development ministry and the sports ministry, now firmly under scathing public scrutiny. But when it came right down to the crunch — at that moment when we panicked as a country — we looked towards the State and its agencies to bail us out from a potential private sector debacle. When the Games Village was dubbed “filthy and unliveable”, despite being contracted to the spiffy real estate giant Emaar-Mgf, it took Sheila Dikshit to tuck her sari into her petticoat and get the floors scrubbed as a matriarch would her own house.
When the foot overbridge, built at a cost of R5 crore by PNR-Infra came crashing down, the Army put Humpty-Dumpty together again in less than five days. When the swashbuckling arrogance of the Games Organising Committee became directly proportional to that sinking feeling in our hearts, we waited to hear from the PM. In some sort of bizarre, return-to-the-womb impulse, it was almost as if we didn’t feel entirely safe in the hands of the private czars; looking instead for assurance in the embrace of the Sarkar. This does not mean that we are romanticising the years of public sector inefficiency either. But, with the Games scandal coming close on the heels of the Indian Premier League corruption, we realise that when you throw gigantic amounts of money at an event and don’t regulate it by benchmarks of responsible governance, what you get is crony capitalism, not liberalisation.
n Our ‘gora-fixation’ continues, but is riddled with contradictions. Through the length of these games, we have swung between the extremes of self-flagellation and aggressive pride. We obsessed about our image in the world’s eyes, but yet again, were really looking at ourselves through the West’s gaze. How many times did we care what the experience of the African countries was, for example? In a way, our prickliness about the Games was much like all the drawing-room hand-wringing all these years ,over how bad our airports were, before Delhi got its swish new Terminal-3.
We would routinely lament the impressions that our western visitors would carry back, never bothering to think how absolutely horrifying our own experiences may have been at JFK or Heathrow. And yet, I sensed a change this time. The racism of the New Zealand TV host, the aggression of the Australians, the talking-down by Mike Hooper — it diminished our patience and triggered some entirely worthy disdain. I think the Games spoke to a paradoxical moment in India’s history — one where we are learning to measure ourselves by our own standards, but still lapse into defensiveness about what others think.
n We haven’t got over our Slumdog Millionaire trap. Indians loved the fact that the movie got A.R. Rahman an Oscar, but hated that the movie was a poverty postcard. Middle class India’s intense courtship of the globalisation dream has meant some serious infidelity to starker home truths. The truth is that our high GDP co-exists with our shockingly low human development index. And the way we tried to “clean-up” Delhi by herding beggars into makeshift shelters or disallowing daily domestic help to travel from Haryana to the capital while the games were on, is a grim example of a country in denial. We don’t need to hide our poor in some Naipaulean version of horror at the fact that children still defecate on the streets. To me, that has been the single-most shameful aspect of the grand show that we put up otherwise.
And now the good news. The marvellous athletes- from remote corners and impoverished villages — this is the real face of the incorrigible democracy that India is and can be. Whether it was the women-wrestlers from Haryana or the soft-spoken archers from the Northeast, this was the real spirit of egalitarian India. The future of India lies beyond the now-elitist dreams of middle class India with its pedigreed Ivy-league education and Brooks Brothers suits (one for each day of the week). India will be shaped by a new middle — one that is taking shape and form in her small towns and villages. And if there is anything happy to take away from the Games, it is their indomitable, can-do spirit.
The Commonwealth itself is a somewhat anachronistic entity; a wishy-washy colonial imprint. Thus, my favourite moment at the opening ceremony was when the Gandhi march unfolded like a dream on the giant helium balloon to the strains of ‘Vaishnava Janato’ as Prince Charles looked up at the open blue sky. There was history coming full circle. Now, it’s time to build a future with an honest gaze inwards.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal