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A Monumental Non-event:  The Commonwealth Games and All That Rubbish

Vinay Lal
29 July 2010

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran Congress politician who has held various Cabinet positions in previous decades, and is presently a sitting Member of Parliament, has said the unsayable, indeed the unthinkable.  Aiyar is characterized in yesterday’s Times of India as an “outspoken and somewhat maverick” politician on account of his outburst against the Commonwealth Games, though the consideration that his intellectual perspicacity, unusual for a politician of any party, may be one reason why he is a maverick seems not to have occurred to the Times’ writer. Aiyar has now gone on record with the view that the failure of the Commonwealth Games, scheduled to be held in Delhi this October, is –– taking a leaf from Shakespeare -–– a consummation devoutly to be wished for.  ‘I am delighted in a way’, said Aiyar recently, ‘because rains are causing difficulties for the Commonwealth Games.  Basically, I will be very unhappy if the Games are successful because then they will start bringing Asian Games, Olympic Games and all these.’ 

It is not often that a senior politician, one moreover who has served as the Sports Minister and harbored close ties to the Nehru clan, would go on record hoping that the Commonwealth Games become a resounding failure.   In some countries, such an observation would be tantamount to political suicide, and I would not be surprised that had some official in China made a similar comment before the onset of the Beijing Olympics, he or she would have been roasted alive on burning coals.   One might say that Aiyar is no longer eyeing a cabinet seat, or, if one had a more expansive view of the matter, Aiyar’s comment may be taken as a testimony to the ‘live and let live’ mentality that, after all the fistfights, scuffles, abuses, and occasionally violence that mark the relationships between Indian politicians, still characterizes the world of Indian politics.  To be sure, Aiyar’s remarks did not go down well with Suresh Kalmadi, the chairperson of the organizing committee, or Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi.  Aiyar’s remarks, Kalmadi charged, are ‘anti-national’ and ‘irresponsible’.  To be called an anti-national these days in India is to invite comparison with Maoists, terrorists, or young insurgents in Kashmir, and if Kalmadi had any of these comparisons in mind, his own rebuke of Aiyar strikes one as bordering on the ‘irresponsible’.  (This is not at all to say that Maoists or Kashmiri insurgents are anti-national, but the overwhelming middle-class propensity to think so must be kept in mind in assessing Kalmadi’s remarks.)

Let us, however, leave aside for the moment the redoubtable Aiyar and the dull Kalmadi.  We can turn our attention more profitably to this elephant in the room called ‘Commonwealth Games’.  Obscure as they are, the most monumental non-event planned in India in decades, the Commonwealth Games are giving Indian officials, who have a monstrously mistaken idea of the importance of these games, sleepless nights.  Mrs. Dikshit, an intelligent, highly experienced, and shrewd politician, has more reason than anyone else to feel troubled and restless.   Unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, she would feel exceedingly unhappy, I should say wretched, if the Games failed.  With just a little over two months left before the commencement of the Games, Delhi, which is supposed to showcase India to the rest of the world – assuming, as we shall see, that the ‘rest of the world’ is at all interested in this sporting event –– appears woefully unprepared to host the games.  Most of the stadiums have not yet been completed, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which was inaugurated earlier this week, has already sprung a leak.  Connaught Place, once viewed as the pride of the city, has the appearance of a war zone, and nearly the entire city has been dug up by the MCD, CWPD, NDMC, and other government agencies.  [Yes, India is a country of acronyms, as I have observed before on this blog ––  here, at any rate, are the translations, respectively:  Municipal Corporation of Delhi; Central Works Public Department; New Delhi Municipal Corporation.]  Delhi has three World Heritage sites, which are expected to receive many more visitors during the Games, and none has the basic facilities mandated as a condition for continued listing.

Let us, however, suppose that the city’s officials pull off a miracle and everything is patched together just in time for the opening ceremony.  Whether out of respect for the ‘Father of the Nation’, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on October 2nd, a national holiday in India, or owing simply to the calendar set by the international secretariat, the Commonwealth Games are scheduled to open on October 3rd.  (We can add Gandhi’s name to the list of those who would have been unhappy, not, in this case, either by the success or the failure of the Games, but by the very idea of the Games.  So, in our inventory, we already have three forms of unhappiness.)  The most expensive tickets to the opening ceremony, which the organizers hope will instill incalculable pride in the inhabitants of Delhi, cost an astounding Rs 50,000 [see http://www.cwgdelhi2010.org/] –– an amount that would be nearly equivalent to the annual earnings in Delhi of many a maid, night watchman at a factory, and unskilled worker.  Mr Aiyar claims, justifiably so, that the astronomical amount, something in the neighbourhood of Rs 30,000 crores [1 crore = 10 million], spent on preparing India or rather Delhi for the Games would have been better spent on enhancing sports facilities in Indian towns and villages and giving training to tens of thousands of school-children.  Others have argued, just as plausibly, that many of the huge stadiums are likely to lie idle once the Commonwealth Games are over, and that the Games have drained the country’s resources.  

There is no gainsaying the merit of these arguments, and Indian critics might make a yet stronger case by pointing to the Athens Olympics, which, by some estimates, put Greece on the course of economic disaster.  The city of Montreal was paying for its Olympics three decades after the fact.  Nevertheless, the folly of holding the Commonwealth Games runs much deeper than is commonly imagined, though this can only be gauged by considering the immense psychological, cultural, and political investment India has made in the Games.  The Indian state and its mandarins are labouring under the impression that the Commonwealth Games will bring India before the world stage and enhance the prestige of the country, something –– though admittedly on a smaller stage –– like what the World Cup has allegedly done for South Africa or what the Chinese thought that the Beijing Olympics did for the People’s Republic of China, but this is a wholly erroneous view.  The idea of the Commonwealth is obsolete, and has never meant anything more to people in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and other former British colonies than the prospect of studying in Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship.  To the rest of the world, the Commonwealth is about as hot a topic of conversation as Lapland.  The Americans don’t have the foggiest idea about the Commonwealth, but this will not suffice as a demonstration of the sheer irrelevancy of the Commonwealth (and its Games) since the Americans are in any case colossally ignorant about much of the world.   The point here is that no one else in the world much cares about the Commonwealth either.  The Indian government is claiming that it expects to receive something like an additional 40,000 overseas visitors, but if the foreign tourists had their wits about them, they might understand why those among Delhi’s citizens who can afford it plan to flee the city during the Games.  The city will be lucky if it gets any foreign tourists beyond the norm.

India has aspirations to be a world power, or at least a country of considerable consequence for its neighbors in south, southeast and west Asia, and it views the Commonwealth Games as a platform to stake its claim to be taken seriously as an emerging power.  However, the Commonwealth Games are not merely a poor cousin of the Olympics, but rather a sure sign of the continuing irrelevance of India in the larger arena of world affairs.  In this respect, how the Commonwealth Games turn out is quite immaterial, though Mani Shankar Aiyar is doubtless right that a successful Games, whatever that might mean, will be construed by the Indian state as a sign to move on to something bigger.  The Commonwealth Games is, in the last analysis, a rather trifling and tiresome affair –– and it should be treated as such.