The comment of the week: Commonwealth Games Organising Committee Secretary General Lalit Bhanot saying in all seriousness that foreign standards of cleanliness may be different from ours, when accosted by the filth of the Games Village. If this had come from a Westerner we would have pilloried him for racism and for besmirching the name of good old Mother India. Maybe, in a different context, if you had read this as an internet joke, it might even have sounded funny, in a Yes Minister-like black humour kind of way. But the tragedy is that this was an official response by a hapless officialdom that genuinely has no clue what it is doing.
How do you take people on an inspection tour without even first checking if the premises you are inspecting have been swept clean or not?
As the focus shifts to the athletes from today, the Prime Minister would know that there is a deeper issue the Games have revealed. This is no more about just hosting a successful sporting event. This is about India’s chest-thumping (or ashamed looks) as an emerging power, about the (in)ability of his government to deliver and about the reputational and political risks it implies.
Already, a unit of the global rating agency Moody’s has said that the Games has tarnished India’s global image and may hurt its reputation as an investment and tourist destination.
Politically, the Congress cannot go on pretending that it had nothing to really with these Games, and leave the rap sheet to the OC alone. Before the 2009 general election, for instance, Delhi’s newspapers were full of advertisements praising the Sheila Dixit government and Manmohan Singh for what the Games were doing for Delhi’s infrastructural development.
The Election Commission duly clamped down on these ads as breaking the electoral code of conduct and the OC apologised for issuing the advertisements.
Now the same Sheila Dixit, who should have benefited from the Games, if things had gone well, is left blaming Indra devta for the delays and the Games have added to the impression that governance is in stasis with a Prime Minister who can express annoyance but can get little done.
How many times have we read the reports that the Prime Minister has urged officials to get their act together – and since mid-2009 the PMO has certainly been seriously concerned – but ultimately if things don’t get done, then the buck must stop somewhere.
In pure governance terms, the Prime Minister set up a Group of Ministers (GOM), headed by Jaipal Reddy, to overlook the Games effort a long time ago. Like in say the crisis over Manipur or on Telangana, the time has come to ask the question if such a mechanism is actually useful for decisive executive decision-making. A week ago, when 27 people were injured when a pedestrian footbridge collapsed, Mr Reddy, otherwise one of our more decent politicians, dismissed it as a minor incident, reportedly going on to add that the GOM has no plans to meet further.
Such a ministerial group may be a useful mechanism for consensus building on tough political issues but for swift action, it leaves no one particularly in charge and question marks over responsibility. Indeed, serious analysts have in the past questioned the government’s use of the GOM route for virtually every tricky thing it encounters.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has pointed out the ready recourse to a GOM for everything “is undermining confidence that normal processes of government can work” and is almost a quasi-admission that this is a government that gets into action only in a crisis which has in part been created by its own ministers. What India needs is leadership or even the impression of one, not recourse to a faceless committee every time there is a problem.
The Commonwealth Games has only held up a mirror to a wider problem. If the government means business then the only decent thing to do now is for a transparent and quick investigation after the Games into the things that went wrong and a clear fixing of responsibility. The public anger over the Delhi debacle means that this is now more than just an academic debate.
This is deeply political. Indira Gandhi, for example, used the 1982 Asian Games to shore up her international and domestic image as a responsive leader after the blot of the Emergency and Manmohan Singh will not want his second tenure as Prime Minister to be defined by the free-for-all of the Commonwealth Games.
The world has seen how we got into this mess. Now it is waiting to see if we can fix it. And the voters are watching.