The boos, the cheers, and then the huge response to the thrills of last night’s brilliant gala opening of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi said it all. The message surely was that the past few weeks have been hideous, but let’s now greet what is good and enjoy the splendour of Delhi’s mega international sports event.
Boos, plus jeers and whistles, broke out twice against Suresh Kalmadi, head of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee. He was not however being booed for corruption. The noise, which took everyone by surprise, reflected the pent up anger and frustration of Delhi-ites who see this blustering responsibility-dodging part-time politician as the focal point for failures that have blackened India’s international image in recent weeks.
If Kalmadi had delivered, and the misery had been avoided, he would not be the unpopular character he has now become. His corruption would not have been highlighted, and he would not have been booed.
The biggest cheers from the 60,000 audience were for the Indian and Pakistani athletes when they paraded into the arena and for A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, a mildly eccentric boffin who was India’s last and hugely popular president.
The best picture on television, aside from the spectacle, was of Prince Charles, who was there to open the games.
He stared sideways (right) at Kalmadi as the boos built up, with a long quizzical look that said “so how are you going to fix this one?”. (The answer emerged today when Kalmadi told a tv reporter he didn’t hear the boos).
There have been some criticisms in Delhi today that most of the displays were little more than India has put on in the past, and that the show looked far neater on television than it did on the ground; but to dismiss the success so roughly would be churlish. You can’t change India’s traditional dances and ceremonies but you can portray them on a new and massive scale, which was done last night.
Hovering above the stadium was the huge aerostat helium balloon (above) , with a constant change of pictures around its rim, which added high tech glamour.
The other good news was that a section of the Delhi Metro serving the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where the opening took place, was opened earlier in the day. It was another example of India’s chaotic ability to fix things at the last minute, and it worked. I travelled on the line yesterday afternoon and, though the stations were still littered with builders’ debris and there were hold-ups because of signalling problems, literally thousands of people (below) were using the trains to get to the opening.
Getting to and from the games however was difficult and took hours. I watched on television, but a friend who was there has told me about getting there “through swampy unfinished gardens, passing over a pungent gush of sewage and wading through discarded plastic bags“. There was an “abandonment of attempts at crowd control” plus “broken steps, streaked and scruffy (often empty) private rooms, not enough garbage bins – and yes, filthy toilets”.
Kalmadi (below) is rightly being blamed for most of these and many other problems that have plagued the run-up to the 11-day event, including late completion of facilities and filthy conditions at the games village flats.
He has had a notoriously corrupt reputation for years and there have been many reports of jobs being given to relatives and friends. Yesterday’s boos stemmed from the fact that he and his friends have not delivered and that, as the pressure mounted in recent weeks, he has tried to walk away from problems.
But he and his committee have only been responsibly for a fraction of the Rs30,000- crore ($6.6bn) or more that some estimates suggest have been spent preparing for the games (not of course including the metro railway).
The rest has been spent by five or six other authorities, mostly involved in running Delhi. These authorities, not Kalmadi, were responsible for building and renovating venues and many other works and involved massive corruption and delays. One of them for example is responsible for the footbridge that collapsed two weeks ago (and was quickly replaced by an army bridge).
The basic problem is that there have been too many people nominally in charge, with no real top-down co-ordination and leadership. Those responsible include Sheila Dikshit, Delhi’s chief minister (who received loud applause last night), Jaipal Reddy, Minister for Urban Development, and M.S.Gill, Minister for Sports – none of whom have the calibre or authority to lead such a mega event.
On top of all that, Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) should have taken an early lead, but he has played his usual role of standing back from the fray and the PMO lacks punch. They should have been encouraged to step in by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the governing coalition and Congress party. As I pointed out on this the blog in July, her late husband Rajiv Gandhi took charge of Delhi’s 1982 Asian Games but she and her son Rahul have not deigned to become involved.
So as we watch the games unfolding, and having enjoyed watching Kalmadi being booed last night, let’s remember that responsibility for the faults that led to the crisis goes right to the top of the government and coalition.
It would be a pity if Kalmadi is the only person to be pilloried after the games. But, having watched a little how India works, I doubt if anyone else signficant will be nailed. Long term lessons about accountability, management and performance, are unlikely to learned.