The Indian Way With Sporting Events
India survived the 19th Commonwealth Games without major mishap, but no one should claim it went off brilliantly. I attended a mind-numbing two hour rhythmic gymnastics qualifying round with my eight-year-old daughter. She liked it. I was left wondering who decided this could be defined as a sport.
But more telling were the piles of rubble, uncut weedy grass, confusing signage and malfunctioning music system in and around the stadium. It worked in the end, but no one should think India put its best foot forward. What impressed me the most was that India actually had three rhythmic gymnasts. They didn’t do well, but at least they existed.
But, as I have been telling foreign media in interviews, expect mess and corruption when the Indian government is involved — the Commonwealth Games were 6,000 percent more expensive than originally estimated. Tech Mahindra handled the logistics, contracting, ticketing and back office ops for the World Cup in South Africa flawlessly for 40 million dollars — and are doing the same for the next World Cup. Needless to say, they had no role in the Commonwealth Games. Even his detractors are in awe of how Lalit Modi took just days to move the India Premier League to Africa.
Everyone contrasts what India does with China. The best way to look at it is that in China, the state is efficient, and the private sector stunted. In India, it is the opposite.
Because the Indian state depends on votes for its legitimacy, it focuses on doing things that its leaders believe earn votes — sporting events don’t cut ice in elections.
Chinese state legitimacy is based on economic accomplishment and, increasingly, nationalist spectacle. Putting together flawless games are a political necessity for Beijing, not just a manifestation of good governance. As Victor Cha’s excellent book on sports politics in Asia points out, China and other East Asian states have modeled the milestones of their rise as nations on what Japan did in the Sixties and Seventies. A model that has barely registered in India and, in any case, the Indian system is not following.
This doesn’t excuse the Commonwealth mess. And I hope that the strength of Indian civil society, its media and judiciary in particular, will mean that the corruption will not be overlooked now that the games are over. But I don’t expect India will ever hold a sporting event on a Chinese scale of efficiency — because the pressures to get it that right just aren’t there yet. And, if anything, the capacities of the Indian state are shrinking as the economy grows. The best hope would be a recognition that the private sector should be allowed a much bigger slice of the action. But that would mean giving up a huge amount of patronage for the political leadership. The same arguments that apply to privatization and why it isn’t happening apply here as well.
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