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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Double standards on the Games

Burning money on a gala sporting event does not make us a super-power

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

When a newspaper reporter hoodwinked Buckingham Palace into employing him as a royal footman no one thought the security lapse justified deposing the Queen and abolishing the monarchy. But the Commonwealth Games are believed to be in jeopardy because an Australian journalist “waltzed past a police cordon into the main stadium with a suitcase-sized bomb detonator kit” as a London paper put it.

However, Western double standards don’t excuse the misplaced values of India’s status-obsessed elite. It was whispered in 2003 when Delhi trounced Hamilton in the bidding for the October 3 Games that each member nation had been offered $100,000 for its vote. International sports are riddled with such allegations, and the motive is both pecuniary and political. Hosting the Commonwealth Games was expected to convince the world that India can host the 2024 Olympics, thus providing the great equaliser in the race with China.

It is impossible to associate Manmohan Singh’s serene realism with such banal calculations. He must know that China is too far ahead in the conventional stakes and that India can best make a mark by remaining true to her own genius. But I fear that many of his colleagues, mainly short-term power brokers, think India is in the big boys’ league because its multibillion dollar economy boasts the world’s second-fastest growth rate, while nuclear bombs and the ability to send a man to the Moon satisfyingly enables Delhi to thumb its nose at European donors. They are dazzled by the prospect of lording it over a member of the United Nations Security Council. Singh alone seems to be concerned about the other India of 700 million people who survive on a pittance.

Indians abroad are embarrassed to read and listen to details of the fiasco. But however much we might bubble with righteous anger about race prejudice and Third World stereotyping, we know it’s all true. Open manholes, leaky roofs, stagnant water and exposed wires are like the beggars we round up and hide when foreigners come a-visiting. Our own standards are more indulgent.

Take construction. A brand new government hostel started life with rusty bathroom fittings. The fitted bedroom cupboards looked smart until one tried to open a drawer … the front dropped off. The Indian construction firm that makes elegant palaces for Gulf sheikhs turns out shoddy buildings at home where no one demands excellence and only a fraction of the sanctioned money reaches them.

India is no different in this respect from Pakistan where the Pakistan People’s Party’s Abdul Qayyum Khan Jatoi famously says, “Corruption is our right. Corruption has become a part of our culture. If a thousand people are engaging in corruption, the one who does not is only hurting himself.”

A week is a long time and the Games might still be salvaged. One must perforce hope they will be. Lord Billimoria gallantly reminds us they were planting roadside trees in Athens on the actual day the 2004 Olympics opened. A kindly Mike Fennell, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, dismisses critics as “Western snobs”.

We can also draw solace from Hugh Robertson’s view that though formidable, the obstacles don’t yet amount to “a show-stopper”. But then, unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, Robertson still has a sports ministry to defend and cannot afford to be a spoilsport. Moreover, though the British empire became the British Commonwealth with the prefix British dropped in 1978, and Britain itself disclaiming any proprietary interest, others still think in terms of a constellation of former colonies. Hence the indignation at Queen Elizabeth not opening the Games. Many feel they are being fobbed off with second best in the person of Prince Charles.

That’s part of the yearning for tinsel glory. Even if the run-up doesn’t demonstrate that banana republics come in all shapes and sizes, it does expose the false gods that can lead nations astray and delude the grasping and opinionated buffoons in charge into squandering resources on what is billed as the most expensive Games ever.

Delhi should be more concerned about the message of so many Indians trying to escape India. Eight Indian states have more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries. Malnutrition is twice as high as in sub-Saharan Africa. The stark truth is that large armies, lethal weapons and the banners and bunting of gala international events do not a superpower make. Wealth redistribution, education, housing, medicare and employment matter more than jamborees.

The £2-billion cost of the Games could have assured millions of deprived Indians of a new life.  

First Published: Sat, September 25 2010. 00:17 IST