The Games People Play

01 September, 2010

IT WAS ALMOST A YEAR AGO, during a soirée at a friend’s place, that I first received some insight into the delays and malpractices in the organising of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Some of the people there worked for a consultancy company that was advising the Organising Committee, and shared some details after much coaxing from everyone. Those were the days when great optimism and excitement prevailed about the Games, the first major international sporting spectacle that India was to host since the Asian Games in 1982. But that night, I soon realised that I was probably a late entrant when it came to awareness of the mess we were hurtling towards.

Karinthy’s theory of six degrees of separation—the idea that any two persons are connected by no more than six other persons—has created what is known as the ‘Human Web.’ But in the case of people who have lived in New Delhi for some years, it feels more like two, or at most three degrees between someone involved with the Games and the average Delhi denizen. Through friends, relatives, professional colleagues and acquaintances, there are innumerable links that make this city of more than 15 million feel much smaller than it is. And this makes it difficult to hide skulduggery.

So if you’ve been in Delhi for the past few years, you didn’t need to wait for the recent media blitzkrieg against the organisers of the Commonwealth Games to have a pretty good idea of the magnitude of the disaster that is in the making even as we go to press.

Nonetheless, knowing what we did, most of us decided to keep quiet, or at best sit on the fence and vent some cautious scepticism, rather than take the issue full on. It is likely that in spite of the perceptibly visible mismanagement and the easily deduced corruption, deep down in our hearts we all wanted the Games to be a success, whatever it took. To have this superpower-wannabe nation of ours host this major sporting event, most of us were willing to extend to those responsible for making it a success those extra degrees of liberty, condoning their insatiable greed and shocking incompetence.

So much, then, for all those who have called for restraint in criticising the Games for the sake of preserving the country’s honour and reputation in the international arena. The people of Delhi have already shown exemplary patience in putting up with so much trouble precisely for the sake of that very honour.

And one cannot even begin to calculate—and perhaps recalibrate, in the light of the current revelations—an estimate of the stress that these Games will put on the funds for the government’s other, far more important, social welfare schemes and programmes.

In this sense, by no means are the critics of the Games working against national pride. That honour is squarely reserved for those responsible for having created this mess in the first place.

The government, for its part, continues to make a mockery of its own efforts to salvage this potential debacle. On 13 August, after a two-hour meeting of the Congress core committee comprising Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P Chidambaram, Defence Minister AK Antony and Congress Secretary Ahmed Patel, it was decided that the prime minister and the sports minister would keep a close watch on the Games’ Organising Committee boss and strongman Suresh Kalmadi and his team.

But it might be a matter of too little, too late. One wonders what it was that the government was supposed to do in the first place, if not keep a close watch on the whopping 350 billion rupees being spent on the preparation of a mega sports carnival with far more riding on it than is called for. How is it that it took until 45 days prior to the event to occur to the most illustrious and powerful leaders of the country that matters were spiralling out of control so fast that they needed to keep a ‘close watch’ on the organisers—and that, too, when the entire capital had already known of the Games’ shenanigans for such a long time?

A day after the meeting, the Prime Minister followed up with a statement that he would personally inspect the Games sites at the end of August. One can either marvel at his optimism that everything would have by then fallen into place, or pity his helplessness at not being able to do much more than do the rounds.

As the delays become longer and the corruption scandals get murkier, it is difficult not to empathise with the sentiments of former Sports Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer that those who genuinely have the national interest in mind ought to hope that the Games are not a success. Aiyer has been a tireless and a vocal critic of the Games, and is rightly afraid that if they are, by some stroke of providence, successfully organised, all the past sins of those responsible for the current fiasco will be washed away. Worse still, if it is a success, these very worthies might bargain for licence to bid for even grander events in the future and create for themselves bigger opportunities to play with public money.

Anant Nath