IT is not difficult to understand why Suresh Kalmadi attracted a huge cheer at the inauguration of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi last Sunday when he declared, “India has arrived.” The same crowd had booed him just minutes earlier, in a reflection of India’s anguish at the national humiliation over the chaos that preceded the games.
The spectacular opening ceremony helped to banish the accumulated angst, just days after there had been speculation whether the games would take place at all.
Popular anger at the appalling level of disorganization was perfectly justified. Where huge construction projects are concerned, a degree of corruption and nepotism is more or less inevitable. But the suggestion that delays and inadequacies are primarily accounted for by the fact that the so-called command economy still trumps the private sector doesn’t exactly cut the mustard. After all, the problems associated with hosting the Asian Games nearly three decades ago were hardly on a comparable scale, long before the notion of an economic free-for-all had caught on.
What’s more, as The Washington Post point out recently, the Delhi Metro, a “fully owned state company … laid 77 miles of track in less than five years to meet the Commonwealth Games deadline”. “It helps,” the newspaper went on to say, “that the Delhi Metro has as its chief executive an award-winning, tough railway engineer named E. Sreedharan, who does not tolerate bureaucratic or political interference and treats targets as sacrosanct.”
Perhaps Sreedharan, or someone like him, ought to have been in charge overall of the Commonwealth Games preparations. The crucial flaw arguably lies not in the fact that the task was entrusted to a lesser being, but that no individual or organization was in charge at all – until, in the last few days, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was compelled to personally step in.
By then the cost of the games had ballooned from an initial estimate of $210 million to a hundred times as much, according to some calculations, although the true figure won’t be known, if it is revealed at all, until the end of the games next week. Many Indians would have been willing to ignore the multiplication factor had the contractors delivered an adequate infrastructure – although even in those circumstances, the question of whether there could be any moral justification for India spending so much on so few, given that a square meal a day remains a luxury for a substantial proportion of its citizens.
The absurd notion of “the market” as a panacea for India’s economic ills and the western-led celebration of a “burgeoning middle class” ignores the blight represented by growing disparities of wealth. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out in The New York Times last week, “The newspaper Financial Express estimated that the private wealth of the 49 Indians on the Forbes list [of international billionaires] is nearly 31 percent of India’s gross domestic product”. He also cites a United Nations report in July that “revealed that there are more poor people in just eight Indian states than in all the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with the large state of Madhya Pradesh comparable in intensity of deprivation to war-ravaged Congo”.
Partly to pre-empt the missives that will inevitably flow from Indian readers, I would like to make it clear that this is not a Pakistani attempt to denigrate India. Pakistan is undoubtedly worse off in many spheres – and incapable, as things stand, of organizing a bilateral cricket match let alone international sport on a grander scale. It is also likely that the schadenfreude over serious shortcomings in Commonwealth Games preparations was shared by many Pakistanis. I was more inclined to find it embarrassing. Yet the notion of “India has arrived” seems more or less equally disconcerting.
It reflects, in part, a cultural cringe that I am all too familiar with as a citizen of Australia. It’s easy to empathize with the relief that accompanied the success of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, but the degree of significance attached to one of the few popular ceremonies associated with a broadly irrelevant post-colonial organization is nonetheless disconcerting. Would it not have made a great deal more sense to devote the billions of dollars wasted on this endeavour to alleviating the poverty that provokes mass suicides among Indian farmers and provides Maoist rural rebels with a raison d’etre?
The threat of terrorist attacks was arguably a more significant factor than the inadequacies of the athletes’ village in persuading individual participants – chiefly in the anglosphere – to pull out of the games. That threat isn’t fantastical, and all one can offer is the sincere hope that no form of violence will disrupt the competition. And yes, before anyone else raises this point, it would only be fair to acknowledge that elements in Pakistan are the likeliest offenders.
At the same time, recent events in Kashmir have amply demonstrated that the Pakistan factor is overrated in that particular context. There can be no doubt that over the decades forces from, or aligned with, Pakistan have contributed substantially to the disturbances in Kashmir, and that factor has helped New Delhi to weave a narrative that makes the huge military intervention in that state a response to foreign interference and subversion. But the events of the past few months largely serve as a reminder that too many Kashmiris find their situation untenable.
It is not inconceivable that it’s capable of resolution without any territorial exchanges. But progress towards that path has hitherto been deplorably hesitant.
Meanwhile, the Ayodhya verdict a couple of days before the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony provided another mighty cause for trepidation. It is both fortunate and reassuring that the court’s drawn-out decision has thus far provoked no intemperate reaction. A supreme court appeal could throw the case back into the legal labyrinth, after six decades of litigation. But it is indeed a happy sign that there has been no recurrence of violence on the appalling 1992 pattern.
The notion that the court essentially came up with a decision that was more political than legal is challenged by the claim that it conformed with the pre-mid-19th century pattern whereby the disputed site was shared between Hindu and Muslim worshipers. At any rate, the verdict paves the way for a monument where Hindus and Muslims – and, for that matter, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Jains – can worship together. Were that to happen, it would be easy to concur with the notion that India has “arrived”.
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