Back in the 1970s, Willie Whitelow, who later became Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister, famously responded to a crisis in the then Labour government by tut-tutting to reporters: “Mustn’t gloat, wrong to gloat, mustn’t do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I am gloating like hell.”
The parliamentary debate on the Commonwealth Games scandal is far from over but the sheer shallowness of the Congress response so far means that it has been a week of serious gloating for the BJP, especially now that the inconvenient matter of the Karnataka chief minister is out of its way.
The BJP has good cause to gloat because the Congress defence so far has been a flimsy rear-guard action grounded in inane procedural legalities. It has stood on three pillars: the damning report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) should not be held as gospel truth, since it still has to be reviewed by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. Second, the CAG should have stuck to the accounts and had no business going into the appointment of Suresh Kalmadi as Games Organising Committee (OC) chairman.
Third, Kalmadi’s appointment was the outcome of the host city contract signed by the Vajpayee government in 2003. What could we do, ask helpless Congressmen with injured innocence? Our hands were tied, you see.
The first two arguments are self-serving double-speak for the simple reason that the current public debate about the Games is political, not legal. Politics is about the perception of good faith and if Ashok Chavan was forced to take moral responsibility for the Adarsh housing scam, it is difficult to see how the Delhi government and Central government ministers responsible for oversight can evade responsibility for the mess the Games turned into. In political terms, the Congress has simply not answered the big questions raised by CAG of unexplained ballooning budgets, gross mismanagement, favouritism and shoddy oversight.
Sure, the CAG report is not a definitive indictment in the sense of a chargesheet by a prosecuting agency but then neither was the CAG document on the scandal of the purchase of over-priced coffins for the Kargil dead during the Vajpayee government days. That report too was leaked to the press and it led to a Congress boycott of George Fernandes as defence minister for the rest of his term.
The tactic of shooting the messenger, as Congress MPs have tried to do with dark mutterings about the leak of the CAG report, may provide a diversionary talking point but simply doesn’t work as a credible defence.
It is the third argument, however, that is the most specious and betrays the complete emptiness of the government’s line of reasoning. By choosing to blame Kalmadi’s appointment on the NDA, the government is trying to pin the entire blame on the Pune MP and the BJP. This tactic completely ignores the fact that of the Rs 70,000 crore or so spent on Delhi’s combined infrastructure for the Games, Kalmadi’s Organising Committee was responsible for less than 3 percent (about Rs 1,628 crore).
It didn’t matter who headed the Committee, what mattered was management and oversight of the spending and why nobody acted when things were clearly going wrong. The issue here is of governance, or the lack of it. Even if you take the claim about the centrality of Kalmadi’s appointment at face value, the arguments presented for it at are indefensible. Congress ministers essentially point to the host city contract, signed by the Vajpayee government on September 11, 2003, which is said to have signed off all authority to the relevant sports body (i.e. Indian Olympic Association).
A cursory look at the history of the Commonwealth Games shows how wrong a misreading this is of the rules governing such Games elsewhere. The chairmen of the Organising Committees of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and the 2014 Glasgow Games (Ronald J Walker and Lord Smith of Kelvin, respectively) are both prominent businessmen, NOT the heads of their respective Olympic associations. Similarly, the 2012 London Olympics are being chaired by athlete Sebastian Coe, not by the president of the British Olympic Association.
The government should have known this. Even if the contract was later forged to insert Kalmadi’s name, there was no reason why he could not have been removed, like he ultimately was, in 2011.
The Prime Minister’s Office was aware of the problems and its unease was evident from the appointment of bureaucrat Jarnail Singh as CEO of the OC in October 2009 when the government finally decided to take more control.
The Group of Ministers to oversee the Games, first headed by Arjun Singh and then by Jaipal Reddy, proved completely ineffectual. Surely, this and the corruption it failed to stop is the key issue, not the smokescreen of Kalmadi’s appointment. In a sense, the government’s defence follows the same template as that of its defence in the 2G scam: that it was powerless as a bad minister (Raja) or a bad chairman (Kalmadi) took it to the cleaners.
This is an evasive argument that evades all responsibility for things that happened on Manmohan Singh’s watch. As he mulls over his reply when the debate resumes in Parliament this week, perhaps he should tell himself to act more prime ministerial and start taking some responsibility.