Mani Shankar Aiyar has probably not read Dale Carnegie's best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. A few years ago, in a St Stephens alumni register, former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh wrote, "I am what I am because of the college". Prompt came Aiyar's rejoinder: "Why blame the college!"
Politics though is not a college campus. The ready wit and pungent sarcasm which might earn applause in a debating society is deemed as offensive in the real world. Lost in the process is the bank of knowledge that often informs Aiyar's writings and speeches. Which is why when he chose last week to express the hope that the Commonwealth Games would collapse with the rains, there was instant anger at what was deemed as an 'anti-national' remark, especially coming from an MP who is still a member of the ruling party and was sports minister not too long ago.
Ironically, a few days later, the tables have rather dramatically turned. Aiyar is now a chuckling soothsayer, Suresh Kalmadi is seen as a bumbling villain. As a slew of corruption allegations hit the Games, there is almost a self-congratulatory note among the nay-sayers for whom the event is a waste of tax-payers' money. That with less than 60 days to go for India's biggest sports competition, there is still a fierce debate over the necessity for it to be held in the first place only confirms our status as the world's premier squabbling democracy. Could anyone imagine a similar debate in China ahead of the Beijing Olympics?
Unfortunately, the debate itself has been wrongly posited as 'national pride' versus 'national shame'. Tying up the successful organisation of a sports event to 'nationalism' has a distinct Soviet-style ring to it. Cold War Soviet Union could see staging the Moscow Olympics in 1980 as symbolic of their 'superior' ideological system. Communist China perhaps viewed the Olympics as a 'coming of age' party. Even South Africa, a republic which is still less than two decades old, could view the soccer World Cup as an opportunity to parade its credentials as a 'rainbow nation'. But why does a nation with a million-year history need a sports spectacle invented by our colonial masters to reaffirm its 'nationhood'? In any case, true sporting nationalism lies in winning medals, not in staging high-profile tamashas.
The debate, therefore, needs to be shorn of the 'Games as nationalism' tag. A high-pitched battle between those who see every stadium leak as a disgrace and those who believe that a beautified national capital will be a source of pride will serve little purpose. Instead, we need to focus on what is the root of the controversy: a prevailing culture which is rooted in sloth, corruption and opacity. The Commonwealth Games are not the problem; they are only a symptom of the wider crisis that confronts new India.
In the euphoria over 8 per cent growth, we sometimes forget that we are still ranked a lowly 84th in the Transparency International corruption index. When a society is steeped in corruption, it would be unrealistic to expect that a R40,000-crore event will be above it all, especially when its organisational set-up is a hydra-headed monster led by babus and multiple authorities. We may appear surprised that the corruption extends to even the pricing of tissue paper and umbrellas, but whoever suggests that corruption only involves million-dollar contracts forgets the R500 'baksheesh' that is still handed out to the policeman who stops you for breaking a traffic signal.
Moreover, the belief that the end of the licence-permit raj would usher in 'transparent' procedures has long since been proven bogus. Instead, it has only bred a form of crony capitalism that revolves around handing out largesse to friends and relatives. Sports has been a particular sufferer in this regard. Every sports federation is run like a mini-empire by warlords and their henchmen, with virtually no checks and balances. Kalmadi has been heading the athletics federation for more than 20 years, the Indian Olympic Association for 14 years. In the process, Olympic sport has become Kalmadi's playground, an event like the Games providing the perfect stage for him to distribute patronage to the chosen few.
But why single out Kalmadi? What is the accountability of the government of India whose bureaucrats are on various Games' panels? The PM appointed a core group of ministers to supervise the Games, should they not take some responsibility? The Central Vigilance Commission report is a damning indictment of every civic authority in the urban development ministry and Delhi government, should they not be also brought under the scanner?
In a sense, the parallels between the Games and that other sporting circus, the Indian Premier League (IPL), are uncanny. In the IPL, the sleaze showed up the frailties of corporate India which tried to run the event like a private members' club. In the Games, it's the soft underbelly of the State which is being exposed. In the IPL, a single individual, Lalit Modi, has been held responsible for the corruption even as the other board and governing council members appear to have got away. In the Games too, the focus seems to be on Kalmadi when it should be on every government department that has benefited from the bonanza. Maybe, that's why its called the Commonwealth Games: the wealth has been commonly shared!
Post-script: question for Mani Shankar Aiyar: how does he reconcile his hatred for mega sports events with the fact that Rajiv Gandhi's original showpiece project was the Asiad 1982? A supplementary question: would Aiyar have shown similar antipathy towards the Commonwealth Games if Rahul Gandhi had been organising committee chairperson?
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network
The views expressed by the author are personal.