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All those men who failed the country

Don’t blame Suresh Kalmadi for everything. The PM and the bureaucrats are equally responsible for the CWG mess, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.
By Rajdeep Sardesai | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2011 01:08 PM IST

It’s good to see the smile back on your face just ahead of India’s biggest sporting spectacle. Must admit that a lesser man would have been beaten a long time ago. Through all the criticism you’ve had to endure in the last few months, not once have you even offered to resign. That is the mark of a good politician-cum-sports administrator: the ability to brazen it out even in the most adverse circumstances. Maybe you should be considered for the new Fevicol advertisement with the tagline: ‘No one sticks to the chair like I do!’

But this letter isn’t meant to be a Kalmadi-bashing exercise. That’s the soft option that we shall reserve for the idle twitterati. The more complex exercise is to dissect just why India’s moment of national pride has almost become a national embarrassment. Why is it that a nation aspiring to be on the global high table can’t organise an international mega-event with greater skill?

When I interviewed you earlier this week, you suggested that there was a ‘conspiracy’ against India. It brought back memories of Indira Gandhi and the ‘foreign hand’ and, frankly, must be seen for what it is: a patent attempt to escape from the real issues. If we were more honest with ourselves, we would admit that the Commonwealth Games (CWG) mess offers a mirror to the corrupt and lethargic state of the Government of India (GoI).

Take, for example, what your sidekick Lalit Bhanot said the other day when shown pictures of unclean toilets at the Games village. “Their (western) standard of hygiene and cleanliness could be different from ours so there is nothing to be ashamed about,” was his rather ill-timed remark. Predictably, it sparked off an indignant response in TV studios. But in government offices, Bhanot’s remarks may strike a chord.

Ever been to meet a secretary at Shastri Bhavan? The smell emanating from the loos of the premier neta-babu building would be enough to give you an instant nasal illness. Or come with me to the secretariat in Mumbai where the walls of every floor are lined with ubiquitous blood-red paan stains.

Take also the multiplicity of authorities managing the Games, who have made passing the buck a national sport. When a footbridge collapses, the urban development minister blames the Delhi chief minister who points to an absentee lieutenant-governor, while the sports minister ducks questions. As for officers and ministers scurrying around like plucked chickens to get the Games village in shape after seven years of sloth, it truly is farcical. For anyone who has had to deal with government departments, be it for a passport or a house completion certificate, none of this would come as any surprise. There is no single-window clearance and things invariably happen only at the last minute after we’ve run an obligatory marathon of government offices.

At least the ministers can be eventually held accountable by the voters. What of the faceless bureaucrats who have perhaps been the biggest beneficiaries of the mess? As the Central Vigilance Commission report had pointed out, a majority of the large-scale projects, which are under the scanner for massive cost overruns were managed by senior bureaucrats. Will any of them ever be touched, or indeed, become the butt of SMS jokes? The fact is that the Games became one large public sector undertaking in which the concept of accountability was given a convenient go-by.

Ironically, the man who could have enforced higher standards of probity is himself a product of the same bureaucratic apparatus. As prime minister of the nation, Manmohan Singh should have empowered a high quality management professional to be the chairperson of the CWG Organising Committee. That he allowed you that privilege was the first mistake as it only reinforced the status quo. For much of the last seven years, you were accountable to no one but a bunch of hand-picked cronies, some of whom have already destroyed their sports federations. Instead of creating a professional enterprise, the Organising Committee became Suresh Kalmadi and Friends Incorporated.

The PM’s second mistake was to appoint a series of sports ministers who were neither interested nor committed to the CWG. If Mani Shankar Aiyar had been in the private sector, he would have been instantly sacked for repeatedly attempting to sabotage the Games. If M.S. Gill had been in corporate India, he would have been put on a voluntary retirement scheme a long time ago. The PM could have appointed a young, enthusiastic minister in charge of sports instead of wasting their talents in some anonymous ministry with little work.

Unfortunately, our economist PM appears to have little personal interest in sports. The result is that the CWG was treated as an avoidable distraction rather than seeing it for what it is: a chance to showcase the best of India to a wider world. Almost two decades ago, the PM had opened up the economy with spectacular results. The Games were an opportunity to unshackle Indian sports from State intervention. Sadly, we missed the chance.

It’s not as if the government can’t get it right. The success of the Delhi Metro project has shown what is possible if the right man is appointed to lead a high-profile enterprise. The Metro project is headed by a man of unquestioned integrity and professionalism: E. Sreedharan. Pity we can’t say the same about the CWG leadership.

Post-script: A lot of people are wondering what you will do, Mr Kalmadi, after the Games are over. They need not worry. Even if you don’t get your Olympic dream realised, there is always next year’s Pune Ganeshotsav to look forward to. Since that’s ostensibly a private event, you hopefully won’t be charged with misusing taxpayers’ money there! Enjoy the Games!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal

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