In 1991, jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner, who successfully turned his family jewellery business into billion-dollar public enterprise, made a speech where he called his products “total crap” and boasted that some of his earrings were “cheaper than a prawn sandwich”. It immediately wiped off much of his fortune and Ratner lost his job. It was a moment that has been immortalized in the annals of corporate history, with the phrase “doing a Ratner” becoming a textbook case of what not to do as a leader. By those standards, Suresh Kalmadi has not yet had a real Ratner-like gaffe but perhaps that is because he didn’t need to.
Much of the reality of the Commonwealth Games has been self-evident for months to anyone who lives in the capital. One doesn’t need a Kalmadi gaffe to see unfinished stadiums, potholed roads or overshooting budgets.
Perhaps the real surprise is the intense screeching we are seeing daily on our television screens. The collective might of the press has suddenly descended on the Commonwealth Games as if it has discovered a long-kept secret. This might have been understandable if the Games were being held in some forlorn backwater where access was difficult.
But the Games have been a daily presence for nearly a decade now in the nation’s capital, where almost every national media group is also headquartered. Did the reporters and editors who are leading the charge now not notice a thing earlier? For instance, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report indicting the Games effort came out in August last year. It was also covered at the time by one or two major outlets and it’s a bit silly now to see breaking news tickers about it as if it is a brand new revelation.
Similarly for the costs, virtually every month that Parliament has been in session in the past five years or so, some MP or the other has raised a question over the costs of the Games. The Games’ burgeoning budget is a disaster but it has never been a great secret for anyone who cared to look. The scandal about the payments to London firms apart, if you only saw the television coverage, however, you would think that we have been hit by a calamity overnight.
Perhaps the problem is in the culture of minute-to-minute breaking news where the Commonwealth Games is only ‘news’ in the two months leading up to it or when someone else hurls a charge. With honourable exceptions, much of our press has had its vision too close to its nose.
As the media theorist Michael Schudson has argued, news, defined by its gatekeepers in the newsrooms, is a shared set of suppositions and it ends up being much more of a purveyor of conventional wisdom than we think.
Now that the Commonwealth Games is a ‘story’, what we are seeing on our screens is a minute-by-minute shooting match against Kalmadi, who has come to personify the problems of the Games. All this without any real debate about the structural reasons behind this disaster such as the failure of the various government agencies that were responsible – DDA, SAI, MCD, NDMC – and the lack of accountability from the rest of the government.
Kalmadi has much to answer for, no doubt, but the Organising Committee is also a convenient scapegoat in the knee-jerk media assault we are seeing. We have had better informed coverage of the Maoist problem from the dark corners of India than of the Commonwealth Games which sits right in the heart of the capital.
The fact is that the Games are an indictment of our deeper political and governance structure. In Parliament on Friday, as the entire Opposition stalled proceedings, the BJP MP Kirti Azad went so far as to call the government a blind “Gandhari”. Does it only take screeching media headlines to elicit this kind of Opposition vigilance? Why was the government not held accountable earlier when something could at least have been done? The Left, the Samajwadi Party and the JD (U) at least have a clear conscience on this but the BJP would do well to look at its own record.
The Games bid was initially won under the Vajpayee government and in the intervening years, the BJP’s local leaders in Delhi have rarely questioned the Sheila Dixit government in the State Assembly or in city administrative bodies on the priorities shaping the flow of Games money. It is very well to question the government now – and it must be held accountable – but there is a lesson here for everyone who is being sanctimonious.
Kalmadi may be the face of these Games but the real story is how virtually every stakeholder seems to have done a Kalmadi.