The Games are over, they have been declared a success, our athletes have done us proud and all is well. If you were only reading the Indian press this week then you could be pardoned for thinking that India has just delivered the greatest event in the world. The despair and hand-wringing that we saw only two weeks ago has simply vanished in the sparkling lights of the opening and closing ceremonies and the narrative of failure has been replaced with a new one of arrival.
Read the mainstream international press of the past week though and you find a different perspective: one of disaster averted, of a last-minute face-saver, of stadiums that did not crumble and one where an unseemly jostling for credit has already begun after a Games where India somehow just got by.
Of course, many of these reporters have their own foibles, including stereotyping and simplification, but there is a point here that any mature nation will readily embrace.
Celebrating the exploits of our worthy medal-winning athletes is one thing and no praise is enough but should we allow their halo to eclipse the darkness of what came before. The afterglow of the spectacular closing ceremony has obscured the rest but now that our immediate job as hosts is over, surely it is time to reflect coolly and calmly rather than shifting from one extreme to another, from the depths of despair to the heights of jingoism.
Perhaps the shift in the discourse tells us something about us as a young, aspirational society, one that hates failure so much that we are ready to celebrate every whiff of the slightest success, of the smallest corner being turned, and simply forgetting about the rest.
Or maybe it tells us more about the media that creates the discourse than about us: after all who can forget the public jeers for Mr Kalmadi at both the opening and closing ceremonies.
The primary aim of these Games, according to its own organisers, was to announce the global arrival of India as a new power, as sort of mini-Beijing. It was to have been a wow moment. For all the successes of the past two weeks, has that original aim been achieved, in our eyes and in the eyes of the world? Have we dazzled the world or have we simply got by and saved face?
In organisational terms, have we created the perception of a new, different, India like South Africa did with the World Cup or reinforced an older one of an India that moves in mysterious ways and somehow just about gets things done like Greece with the Athens Olympics? The answer is negative and we must be honest to ourselves as talk surfaces again about a future Olympic bid.
The prime minister has rightly instituted a probe and the Organising Committee’s files are now locked up for scrutiny. We don’t know the exact parameters of the probe yet but irregularities, wasteful expenditure and possible corruption are all likely to be under the scanner.
Perhaps the post-mortem should also look into wider questions of legacies and priorities that shaped the Games. Here are some deeper questions that we should answer:
1. If the Games are about developing the national capital then will post-Games Delhi be better served with a Games Village whose 1,600 plus apartments are sold for a few crores each to rich Delhiites or with a Village that is turned into a student hostel for Delhi University, as was initially promised by Delhi? Why was this decision changed and why was a 700-crore government bailout given to a private builder who is selling the flats anyway?
2. The government bore the entire operating costs of the Games by giving an unsecured loan to the Organising Committee. The terms of repayment were to be worked out later. What are these terms and when will the money be repaid?
3. The total cost of the Games, inclusive of infrastructure, went up by 112 times: from 617 crore estimated in 2002 to upwards of 70,000 crore by 2010. Was it the economic situation or was it simply bad management, bad accounting and incompetence? Who will be held accountable for this humongous jump?
4. What will the follow-up be for our athletes who have done so well despite our system? Will resources now be poured into sports and in our rural hinterland for building a genuine sporting culture, as opposed to one where we simply clap our hands patriotically when someone does well against the odds and then forget about them till the next event?
5. What are the plans for the sporting infrastructure built for these Games, so the stadiums turn into beacons of excellence and not white elephants? Hyderabad had similar infrastructure built for the Afro-Asian Games nearly a decade ago and so did Delhi in 1982 but look what happened to it. How can we avoid a repeat?
A genuine introspection would be the true measure of these Games and our pride as a nation. Not thoughtless triumphalism, where we simply shrug our shoulders and move on.