The unprecedented level of public anger over the screw-ups in the preparations of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) can be best understood if we see it as a clash between two Indias.
The people in charge of the Games typify old India: corrupt, slothful, incompetent, chaotic, unconcerned with the pursuit of excellence, unwilling to benchmark against global standards and convinced that in India, sab chalta hai.
The people who are most angered and horrified by the CWG mess are those who believe that we are creating a new India: one that can do things to global standards, whose competence and intelligence are highly regarded all over the world, an India where people work hard, where there are high levels of accountability and where commitments are treated as sacred.
When Indians talk about ourselves these days, it is this new India we allude to. It is the new India that is an emerging superpower. It is the new India that is the rival of a resurgent China. It is the new India that the world is rushing to befriend and to invest in.
But just as we begin to believe the hype about the new India, the old India comes back and bites us in the arse.
One reason why there is so much public outrage over the CWG mess is because we perceive the old India as having failed the new India. On the one hand, we talk about competing with China. On the other, we can never ever dream of matching up to the standard of the spectacular Chinese Olympics. In fact, as long as the old India types are in charge, we can’t even organise the Commonwealth Games, a relatively minor league event.
In the eyes of the world, we are now a laughing stock. We can brag as much as we like about the new India. But when it comes to delivering on an international commitment, we are no China. We are still corrupt, slothful old India.
The most horrifying aspect of the CWG fiasco is that the guys at the top still don’t get it. You and I may think we are building a new India. But the old geezers who are still in charge are content to live in the old India.
Take sports minister, M.S. Gill
(age: 74), a retired babu and the man who must take the rap for many of the screw-ups. Gill’s view is that the Commonwealth Games are like an Indian wedding. There will be disasters. There will be chaos. There will be confusion. But somehow, it will work out in the end. This is India, yaar, he suggested, this is our way of doing things.
It is hard to think of an attitude that is more out of tune with today’s times. Forget about systems, forget about delivery dates and forget about accountability. It’s like a shaadi, yaar. Ho jayega. Somehow!
Or take Jaipal Reddy (at only 68, the baby of this Cabinet). After Suresh Kalmadi fell into disrepute, Reddy was moved in by the government to keep an eye on things. Much of the faulty construction is the responsibility of his ministry.
What do you suppose Reddy’s attitude to the recent foul-ups is? The collapse of the overbridge that injured several workmen. The false ceiling that caved in, etc.
These are minor matters, he says. Why focus so much on them? These things happen, he suggests. And finally, there is the inevitable appeal to patriotism, always the last refuge of the politician. All of us should focus on the positive aspects of the Games and not draw attention to the disasters. Because India’s prestige is at stake.
And who do you suppose put our prestige at stake? The people who oversaw the collapsing bridges? Or you and I who worry about this disaster in the making?
When the Cabinet is full of people who operate in a chalta hai environment, can you be surprised by the attitude of the organising committee?
Every Indian I know was deeply ashamed to see the pictures of the filth in the Games Village and to read the reports about the state of the athletes’ accommodation: human crap on the floor, paan stains on the wall, dirty loos, and animal footprints on the beds.
And yet, how did the organising committee react? According to Lalit Bhanot, the problem was merely one of the differing standards of western hygiene and Indian hygiene.
With that single response, Bhanot summed up the difference between his India and ours. In his India, it’s all right if people crap on the floors of bedrooms meant for athletes. If anybody complains, then they are just using western standards of cleanliness.
This clash between the two Indias runs through almost every aspect of the CWG fiasco. In the old India, it is unthinkable for officials to disperse hundreds of crores of rupees without pocketing substantial kickbacks for themselves.
So it is with the CWG organisers. Forget about the over-priced equipment purchased for the Games or the dodgy companies hired at huge cost to perform meaningless tasks. Even the contracts for constructing buildings and roads have been awarded on the kickback principle. Why else do you suppose the infrastructure is so shoddy? Why else would bridges fall, buildings remain incomplete and ceilings cave in?
The tragedy of the Commonwealth Games is that it did not have to turn out like this. If we had assigned the Games preparations to the private sector — to any of the infrastructural companies that run airports, build hotels etc — budgets would have been adhered to, deadlines would have been kept and the construction wouldn’t have been sub-standard. Moreover, there would have been accountability. If the private sector fails, then it doesn’t get paid.
Alternatively, the government could have displayed some leadership. In 1980, Indira Gandhi recognised that the Asian Games would be a fiasco unless the government got involved at the highest level. Rajiv Gandhi oversaw the preparations, deadlines were kept, the infrastructure survives till today and the Games served as an advertisement for India.
But what this government has given us is a complete repudiation of Rajiv’s legacy. The preparations have been handed over to people like Suresh Kalmadi and when ministers have got involved, the task has been left to incompetent windbags. Nor has there been any attempt to find an alternative private sector model.
Is it any wonder that we are all so angry? As hard as we try to build a new India, this fiasco reminds us that old India still has the power to humiliate and embarrass us.
*The views expressed by the author are personal