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

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.

15 thoughts on “*A Monumental Non-event: The Commonwealth Games and All That Rubbish

  1. Well done, India. But when will you stop playing catch up and do your own thing? China hosts the Olympics, so now India must at least showcase what it can. (China gatecrashes into the nuclear club and India follows, albeit after a decade of dithering, just when world opinion has turned against nuclear testing.) I recall the Asian Games in 1982. All those flashy stadiums, built by bonded labour on the express orders of Indira Gandhi, left in a state of utter disuse and decay thereafter. Shouldn’t it be apparent to us by now that if, as a country of a billion-plus people we can barely score any Olympic golds aside from the usual ones in rifle shooting, courtesy of erstwhile maharajas, it’s time to leave sporting events to zealously nationalistic countries like China who consider sports as war by other means? If that doesn’t ring true, try this old Indian adage: Khelo ge koodo ge bano ge kharab, padho ge likho ge bano ge nawab. (That’s right: Send all those potentially talented but utterly neglected swimmers from fishing communities along one of the world’s longest coastlines to … you got it … Bangalore.) P.S.: Not sure just what motivated Mani Aiyar’s outburst but I agree with the thrust of it.


  2. You Indians are really something special. There’s an old saying in Texas, “it ain’t bragging if you’ve done it”. For years now, I’ve witnessed an incessant stream of self-idolizing, grandiloquent drivel out of India, such as “India is Shining”, “India will be a super power by 2020”, “India will overtake China”, “Mumbai will be better than Shanghai in five years”, “India will host Olympics in 2020”, India this, India that, blah blah blah blah blah blah… India sure talks the good talk, but it can’t walk the walk. Heck, never mind walking, can India even crawl? Infrastructure can’t get built with idle boasts, so all the triumphalist nonsense is sadly beside the point. Thanks to the UN Development Agency’s new MPI Poverty Report and various other surveys, we now know that 55% of Indians live BELOW poverty line; 47% of Indian children are malnourished and therefore physically as well as mentally stunted (a percentage higher than Sudan and North Korea!); 20% of Indians go hungry everyday, of whom women suffer disproportionately; 160 million Untouchables are being oppressed by the Caste System and denied the very basic of rights; functional literacy stands at around a pathetic 50%, etc. All the figures add up to India being poorer than most Sub-Saharan African states. Now, here’s an idea for you Indians: how about putting a lid on your loud mouths and start doing real work for a change? Put action over words, substance over style, and actual results over marketing gimmicks. If you Indians can do that, you might just catch China by, say, 2150. If you want to catch China earlier than that, then you’d have to invite the Brits back.


    • Those who are familiar with India and the literature emerging from it have long known about the rates of
      poverty, illiteracy, etc. For Jeff’s information, the National Sample Survey, which is the most reliable source
      of information, released data about two years ago suggesting that 80% of the country lived on less than
      $2 a day. The record of India in looking after its poor and those who are in various ways at the margins
      is shameful. So Jeff does not surprise us with his statistics. But his comment that perhaps the Brits ought
      to be invited back, if India is to catch up with China, suggests equal degrees of arrogance and ignorance. Perhaps
      he might wish to consider Britain’s near third-world status in some respects today, or the fact that Britain’s
      National Health Scheme cannot run without Indian doctors. And one could give many further illustrations
      of this kind. A mere rehearsal of figures and percentages will not tell us much about India, either.


  3. India lives up to its well-deserved reputation as the preeminent underachiever among nations. India has a knack for defying the most pessimistic predictions by performing even worse than expected. This sham of a preparation must be unprecedented in the history of the Commonwealth Games, no, the history of sports. I can say with confidence that there has never been such a painfully plodding, incompetently executed, and thoroughly corrupt preparation for an international sporting event, be it the Olympics, the Asiad, the World Cup, or the Commonwealth Games. The incredible India has indeed done the incredible: being a self-proclaimed Great Power while botching a modest sporting event. Even the small nation of Greece, with a sliver of India’s population, has hosted the Olympic Games, which dwarfs the Commonwealth Games not only in scale but also logistical and infrastructural demands. India the super power soon-to-be? Bah! Try India the giant pygmy that can’t match the tiny Greece! With a political class of sycophants and incompetents, India would be lucky to hold itself together for another 60 years, much less aspiring to Great Power status.
    Speaking of Great Powers, I recall that a few years back, there was voluminous talk in India about catching up with China and surpassing it. Many Indians, driven by delusions of grandeur, flooded the Internet forums, belching the “India Shining” balderdash as unremittingly as the Gulf oil spill. Ever since the Chinese hosted the Beijing Olympics, which was an astounding display of China’s organizational and sporting prowess, the Indian pastime of fantasizing about overtaking China has suffered a precipitous decline. Through the Beijing Olympics, the Indians caught a glimpse of reality, which sharply moderated their false pride. The Indian ego was further deflated by the release of Slumdog Millionaire, which allowed the Western movie audiences a rare peek into the real India, whose grotesquery had hitherto been obscured by decades of Gandhian sanctimony and more recently, a thick layer of triumphalist maquillage. Now comes the Commonwealth Games fiasco, the last play in a trifecta of crushing publicity, and it may just do the impossible: muzzling the famously motor-mouthed Indians and putting their silly delusions to rest. No wonder India was fated to discover zero, for India is a ZERO!


    • I agree with much of what Jeff says about India as “under-achieving” nation and its fantasies of being a superpower.
      Nevertheless, how Jeff, who perhaps hails from Texas, can write with such confidence is also a bit of a mystery. While
      repudiating many of the cliches about India’s rise, Jeff repeats another set of cliches that have been circulating about
      India for ages, such as the supposed fact that India cannot hold together. The British were saying this for a very long
      period of time. I’m afraid our writer has little or no sense of irony — he thinks India is a zero, but of course the entire
      edifice of modern mathematics is based on zero, discovered in India.


      • “the entire edifice of modern mathematics is based on zero, discovered in India.”
        – Actually, the entire edifice of “modern” mathematics is built on Calculus, which was independently invented by Sir. Isaac Newton, who was English and Gottfried Leibniz, who was German.

        “India for ages, such as the supposed fact that India cannot hold together. The British were saying this for a very long
        period of time. ”
        – If India could hold itself together, then where did Bangladesh and Pakistan come from?


      • I’m not here to deliver history lessons! Should we now go into the entire history of the partition, for example? Anyhow, as the author of the post rubbishing the fantasies of India, I have no fundamental disagreement with some of what Jeff said. But, at the same time, some of his remarks are unenlightening and not at all interesting.


    • Dear “Jeff,”

      At the risk of provoking another round of your blather, may I challenge you to a test of authenticity?: Reveal yourself (and what you do when you’re not drowning in your own verbosity).


  4. Rahman’s composition approved as CWG 2010 theme song

    AMIDST IRREGULARITIES, allegations of corruption in the upcoming Commonwealth Games, here comes a morale booster. The empowered group of ministers (GoM) has approved ace composer and Oscar winner A.R.Rahman’s composition as the official theme song for the CWG. The decision was taken after a meeting that took place on Sunday evening. The song titled as “Swagatham” is tentatively slated to be released in the next 10 days.

    The event which is nearly seven weeks away, its implementation and contours were discussed for nearly three hours on Sunday. Amidst speculations, Union Development Minister S Jaipal Reddy made it clear that there will not be any changes in schedule, neither should there be delays in meeting the specified deadlines in the completion and readiness of the stadias in order to host the event that spans for 11 days.

    On the composition, he asserted that the theme song was discussed between the GoM, Rahman, Film Director Shyam Benegal and Producer Bharat Bala. The song was approved in principle and will be presented before the public in another 10 days.

    With just 48 days for the games to begin and personal request from the Mozart of Madras to portray the games in a positive light, sources say that the idea behind choosing Rahman’s composition is to make it a cult song like ‘Jai Ho’ from Slumdog Millionaire and FIFA’s very own anthem, ‘Waka Waka’.


  5. I could not agree more with Aiyar. And the alleged criticisms that Jeff hurls towards India make me rather proud. Yes, Indians tend to show only surface regard for efficiency and the indices and metrics which measure it. This gives me confidence that even if a Hitler were to come to power in India, we will not be host to a holocaust. This also gives me hope because it suggests that there are logics operating within India which transcend narrow considerations of efficiency, logics which for instance allow many more freedoms than what are available in the ‘free world’. Why else, for instance, would most gays in India be so indifferent to their legal status?

    This is not to glorify incompetence uncritically .. but merely to observe that people operating within and through hyper surveillance, as those in the ‘free world’ tend to do, probably ought to be jealous of us who live in inept states. 😉

    Oh and one more thing .. pray tell me Jeff, is not calculus built on limits? And don’t limits attempt to unravel the value of variables as they tend to …. zero? or its indeterminate reciprocal .. infinity?

    Before making such patently inane remarks about the ‘edifice of modern mathematics’, it might be a good idea to open class 11 maths textbooks .. or if you happen to be in the USA, undergraduate or graduate textbooks. 😛


  6. this fellowJeff or vishnu or whoever he is , is an ognoramus and desreves to be totally ignored. he is one of the tribe who live with blinkers on their eyes and can see no merit in other countries and people. It is because of such low type human beings that so much hatred exists in the world. He is surely a very frustrated man.


  7. @Jeff on Calculus
    I’m coming 6yrs later to the conversation, but with useful info
    Turns out that an Indian called Madhava from the kerala school of mathematics actually did a lot of calculus work 300 yrs before Newton.


    Quoting the relevant portion below

    Madhava’s contribution was his work on the infinite series. Though Newton and Leibniz are credited with the discovery of calculus, the fact is one of its critical strands had been developed in Kerala more than two centuries before that. The West has now recognised this and accordingly renamed certain results relating to the trigonometric series, previously known as the Newton, Gregory and Leibniz series, as the Madhava-Newton, Madhava-Gregory and the Madhava-Leibniz series, respectively.

    2. American Right wingers and apologists for west are the best eyeopeners for the rest of the world.
    They genocidedd the amerindians and grabbed the continent and its vast resources. Its not like they stayed in western Europe and built up their own wealth and well being.
    And yet they act as if all countries of the world started from the same point, and haven’t “caught up”


    • The achievements of the Kerala School of Mathematics are now widely recognized. Needless to say, in my piece I wasn’t even remotely suggesting that India does not have considerable achievements to its name; but all of this is a far cry from those vain glorious attempts on the part of India to be considered a “world power”, etc. India still has to tackle enormous problems of poverty, malnourishment, illiteracy, extremely uneven access to health care and housing, and so on. What’s so great about being a “world power” in any case? And of course I agree that countries are not starting from a level playing field. European powers and the United States had other countries to exploit and they were the principal players in the ruthless quest for colonies and markets.


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