subscriber | 15 February, 2010

NEW DELHI.  Here is a thought: that India, despite massive costs and a fair amount of humiliation, will gain a massive sociological advantage out of the Common Wealth Games.

It may not show up in balance sheets or even in snap survey's. And as corruption allegations are investigated and blame for the very real pre-games PR disaster is apportioned, there are still loads of negatives that must work themselves through the system. But nevertheless there are signs out there that immaterial gains have been won. That the national psyche, on a balance, has been propped up a bit.

The first sign that India started to run in a similar direction, and not only politicians, popped up a few days before the games started:

A jovial Danish visitor told me that he actually had managed to get a free ride from a taxi driver. True, he pulled the taxi drivers leg by pretending he was a Danish wrestler and that he would represent his country in the Common Wealth Games. But the driver bought the story, and did what is unheard of among tourists visiting Delhi, he gave a free ride.

In fact the taxi driver, unaware that Denmark is not a member of the club, was probabably a wrestling fan from the state of Haryana, that bastion of wrestling in India which added massively to the country's gold medals tally.

Still, why should a taxi driver, normally not dishing out free rides, even ponder such a thing? I think the Common Wealth Games, despite major failures every step of the way, at a certain point - perhaps a few days before the games were about to start - became a national rallying point. The National psyche started to play its own game in the country's subjects heads. India, despite understandable cynicisism, suddenly wanted the Common Wealth Games to work. They maybe didn't really cared before. The years leading up to the games was a real drag with massive amount of construction work and endless traffic jams. But when it looked as the whole event could be called off, as leading teams threatened to pull out, and the show was seriously under threat, India rallied.

The crucial turn of events was when the BBC showed pictures of filth and dirt in the athletes village and the consequent comment by the Indian games organiser (who was hammered for it and later had to resign amid corruption allegations) that this was unfair as India's view on hygiene was not the same as among Westerners. This was just too much and forced India to close ranks.

So the unthinkable happened, even taxi drivers started to chip in.
India's opinion leaders, the high and mighty as well as those on street level, all agreed that this very real mess must be sorted at any cost. National pride was at stake. And with it India's newly won status as a fast growing, modernising economy. A Chinese wonder in the making.

Only a few days before the games was about to start the mood was nasty enough as New Delhi's worst kept secret for at least the last two years had slipped out of the bag. India became a global laughing matter as the World media had a field day.

It is true that it does take a crisis and massive media exposure before India leaders start to attend to a matter. Local media had already been on the story for weeks, if not years, when photo evidence posted on BBC's website showing filthy toilets, dirt and dog paws across a double bed in one of the athletes rooms. Then a new bridge linking to the Nehru Stadium, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, collapsed with 40 people injured.

What probably hurt the most though wasn't what foreign media was saying. India is very sensitive to that, but there is also recilience. The real turnaround probably came after the Chief organizer Suresh Kalmadi happened to slip that unfortunate comment that India and Europe had very different view on cleanliness and hygiene.

This gave Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who's has an aura of being Mrs Fixit - she is tributed with having overseen the construction of Delhi's world class new Metro-system - an opportunity not to be missed. She went out to the athletes village herself, the center of most of the controversy, and took charge. She asked India's best hotel owners to come in and help sort out the mess - and they did.

For India the CWG was supposed to be a rallying point, aimed to show the world that it has arrived, that it is ready for larger tasks like anything from the Olympic games to a permanent seat at the UN security council.

What looked as an irreparable mess was quickly turned around.  The athletic village was sorted. Various countries who threatened to boycott backed off, in fact every team arrived, albeit without many of their big names. Just about all construction work around Delhi was finished. Even three new Metro lines started operating.

In the end the Games was far from the success it was meant to be, foreign tourists stayed at home and so did Indian spectators, but the logistics ended up working ok. All the 17 competitions were concluded and without too many hiccups. A complete fiasco was avoided.

As for India's psyche it seem to have given the country's citizens a boost. CGW was carried out at great cost, and amid massive backhanders to 'babu's', the corrupt political elite, at every turn.

For sure, a lot more could have come out of it if India's politicians had used the games as rallying point at home. Empty stands were proof enough that the nation had not been mobilised. And that the invisible corruption hand was at work.

Which was a great opportunity missed to really engrave this global sports event in the national psyche.

But India did extremely well and came second in the Gold tally, beaten only by Australia.

For that wrestling loving taxi driver it was maybe worth it. And its worth to ponder if it, after all, wasn't worth it for India as a whole.

It does come down to costs, reportedly a massive 10 billion dollars. Theoretically the money could have been spent instead on lifting a portion of the country's 450 million very poor people out of their misery.  But that is besides the point.  And its history. What counts is how India handles the aftermath of the games. Can the games give hope to people in various segments of society and inspire them to aspire? Will built infrastructure be used in a way that broad sections of society benefits?  Has the country's psyche been given a boost?

More specifically: will that taxi driver, who by now may have figured out that Denmark is not part of the Common Wealth, contemplate giving the odd free ride again? Will his son become a famous wrestler one day? Will that devious Dane, who by the time the games had started had gone home, see India in a new, positive light? Can the national psyche be built through sports and will the sentiment travel to other sub-systems in society? Indeed can this form of mild nationalism help to make India's break with old cultural, not the least cast, values less troublesome?  I think it can, but this was nevertheless a massive opportunity that could have been handled so much better, which was telling. The Common Wealth Games was partially spoilt, but it does live on. And maybe those 30 gold medals were worth an awful lot more than their weight.



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