As I watched the reactions to the Commonwealth Games, I was acutely conscious of how fast the mood of the nation had changed. The same news anchors, who has been asking the nation “Is the Commonwealth Games something that India can afford?” two days ago, could barely conceal their excited approbation of the event. The same people, who had been circulating stale Kalmadi/Dixit jokes till yesterday and calling for a boycott of the games, were declaring proudly how India had put on an “international” (in the 80s they would have called it “export quality”) event, doing mooh kala to all other nations of the world.
It was this metamorphosis that made me realize, once again, why corruption is eternally such a sunshine industry in this country. It is because public memory, driven by the echo chamber that is the popular press, is as short as two-month old’s attention span, where all that is needed is to “produce a good show” and everyone is happy and everything is forgotten.
Make no mistake, the powers-that-be have pulled off a multi-thousand crore heist, right in front of our eyes. If that was not remarkable enough, they have, in the end, made us stand up in our seats as a nation and applaud as they have rolled out with the bags. Even Danny Ocean of Ocean’s Eleven would be appreciative of this chutzpah.
Of course things had gone bad for the gang in the beginning. The $80 toilet-paper rolls, the $61 soap dispensers, the 30 crores worth of earthen pots, the 9 lacs/rented treadmill, the 70,000 crore price-tag (many many times over the modest budget on the basis of which the games were bid for), the collapsed bridge, the water-logged venues, the dogs on the beds, the snakes, the overwhelming filth was just too much for the spinmeisters to brush under the carpet. People were enraged—-India was the laughing stock of the world, humara pride puri mitti mein milai diye in logon ne. When, in this context, the administrators tried parroting that line about pride and about concentrating on positives, they were laughed away.
The main men however were smart. They knew that the public outrage was not so much against corruption but against the monumental incompetence on display, that was making urban “Sabse Aage Honge Hindustani” India squirm. All they had to do was to plaster over the edges, insert toothpaste into the holes in the wall, put a coat of paint and keep harping on the narrative of “national pride” and “positives” and as long as the stuffing did not keep coming out, they would be home safe and snug , with no public pressure for their prosecution.
They were helped by the condescending, openly mocking coverage of the event by the foreign press, many from countries still suffering from a severe colonial hangover, including a doubtful sting operation, which made Indians “close ranks” in a “We will show them” display of brotherhood. And with a spectacular opening ceremony followed by hopefully a major-event-free Games, the CWG game would have gotten away scot-free, so amazingly well as a matter of fact that we may see once again a bid for the Olympics. And why not? After all, this business of international event-organization is such a marvelously profitable one, backed by tax-payer’s money and protected from scrutiny by the miasma of “national pride”, enabling the administrators to over-run their budget almost infinitely, safe in the knowledge that the government would keep on pouring money into the venture, because pulling the plug would be seen as a collective national defeat.
Some people will call me “negative” and “self-flagellating” for this post at this time of national celebration, which is of course amusing because I am frequently called a hyper-nationalist of the India-shining type. Lest I be misunderstood, I am fully appreciative of those who worked really hard to make the opening ceremony a success, many of whom honest men and women who had to work doubly hard because of the dishonest ones administering them. I also realize that the organizing of international games promote tourism and provides an impetus for investments in infra-structure —-which is why the original budget on the basis of which the CWG was approved made some sense.
My problem is with the many-times over-budget bloated gargoyle that the CWG has since become. This fact still angers me, despite the excellent opening show, because it has been done on principally the tax-payer’s dime.
As an example, the 40 crore hot-air blimp , beautiful and as lump-in-the-throat-creating as it was, was, I felt, just way way too much to pay for heated air, considering the many urgent demands for 40 crores of rupees that the country has, where an investment of that amount in the health/farming/infrastructure/education/law-enforcement/defense sectors would have gone further in our cause of making India a global power, than the few seconds of feel-good that this forty crores bought. When public money, and of course the scale is important, is justified by “national pride” I find it nothing different than Mayawati’s multi-crore statues and parks which are rationalized as expressions of “Dalit pride”—-a different kind of pride (one which urban India does not feel a connect with) but a “pride” nonetheless.
Some may say—what about IPL? Isnt that a vulgar waste of money? Well, it is private money, spent as an investment with the motive to provide some kind of profit to the investors. Even if it makes a loss, it is Mallaya and Shahrukh Khan’s prerogative how they want to spend their cash and at the very least, they do not have the responsibility to run the nation’s educational, infra-structural, medical and defense institutions. The CWG, driven by tax-payer’s money has absolutely no ROI motive, rationalized by a non-measurable emotional metric, administered by government bureaucrats using non-transparent contracting vehicles—-in short, a throwback to the worst days of Nehruvian Congressi socialism, a way of things that left India in the third rung of nations, a culture that should be our collective historic shame.
Cynics might say that if the blimp had not been made or if the CWG had not taken place, it is not as if the crores would have gone to discharge the government’s primary functions—-they may just have gone to upgrade some VIP’s security cover or to pay for some other boondoggle. Given the nature of institutionalized corruption, this might very well be true.
But still, when I see so much money just being blown away in the wind, people (mostly the urban and the educated) rationalizing the obscene cost of the spectacle by its “beauty”, men and woman back-slapping themselves at how they managed to “get away” by manipulating the public, while our law-enforcement agencies go up against Naxalites un-trained and with obsolete equipment, flood relief is not disbursed because the coffers are empty and the public health infrastructure is allowed to collapse due to lack of government investment, I do not feel proud.
I just feel sad.