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Incredible Illusion

Will an evening of spectacle establish India as a big power?

Incredible Illusion
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Incredible Illusion

Finally, after months of nail-biting, heart-stopping anxiety and damning headlines, ‘Incredible India’ mounted a dazzling opening ceremony to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) on October 3, causing much relief, even exultation, in the beleaguered CWG organising committee and the government. The rousing reception to the participants, the stobe-lit night, and the thunderous applause of the packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium every time the speakers mentioned “India has arrived”, were heady enough to prompt the villains-of-yesterday to crow about their abilities, their achievements.

The mesmerising opening ceremony had its impact well beyond the stadium. The Guardian exclaimed, “India has arrived: spectacular ceremony opens Commonwealth Games”. The Sydney Morning Herald was equally upbeat, “An ancient land opens its heart to the world”. But is one razzle-dazzle evening enough to repair India’s battered image? Could it engender global amnesia about the other side of India—so dark, inefficient and corrupt?

“China wouldn’t have felt good if India hadn’t hosted the games well. As neighbours we take pride in the success.”
Dingli Shen, Fudan University

Relief the opening ceremony surely was, as it proved the doomsayers wrong, admits a senior Indian diplomat. But he adds there’s no reason for anyone to crow considering “the shelf-life of a negative story is much longer than that of a positive one”. The effusive headlines on the opening ceremony haven’t dissuaded the western media from harping on the negative images India generated weeks ahead of the CWG. The Indian diplomatic corps will have to work that much harder to “rebuild India’s image,” he says.

Even this rebuilding of India won’t succeed unless its dark side is proved to have been permanently exorcised from what’s India. Just two days after all the rah-rah comments, a malfunctioning security barrier seriously injured three members of the Ugandan delegation. Imagine the incalculable damage to India’s image had the injured delegates been from a developed country? We Indians are more sensitive to their opinion, forgetting amidst this India-has-arrived chatter of who we really are. Proof of this came through India’s strong response to the racist remarks of a Kiwi talk show host against Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. India read out a strong demarche to the New Zealand high commissioner and demanded demonstrable action against the TV host. In the din, the Ugandans were forgotten even as its sports minister railed against the CWG organising committee.

Assuming there is no mishap in the remaining week of the CWG, the razzle-dazzle of the opening ceremony has at least injected an element of realism in estimating India. As John Lee of the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, told Outlook, “If the games proceed smoothly, the world, especially the west, will come to a much more balanced view of India—that it is a rising power with growing significance and enormous capacity but is also a developing country struggling to cope with the demands of modernity.” This isn’t to say that the widely reported CWG mess has dampened the enthusiasm of international investors. “India’s challenge now is to convince ordinary people that although its state sector is not as ruthlessly efficient as China’s, the dynamic Indian private sector is becoming the country’s heartbeat,” says Lee.

“Let’s wait for the CWG to come to a successful conclusion and then introspect on the costs and benefits.”
Vivek Dehejia, Carleton University

However, Vivek Dehejia of Canada’s Carleton University feels the opening ceremony has had a positive impact on the mood worldwide. As he told Outlook, “It will go a long way in undoing or at any rate mitigating the harm done to our international image because of the earlier fiascos.” Through the opening ceremony, India also proved wrong not a few Chinese commentators who had begun to doubt India’s ability to pull off a global event. Dingli Shen of China’s Fudan University, though, told Outlook, “China wouldn’t have felt good if India hadn’t been able to host the games properly. We are neighbours and take pride in each other’s success.” Should the CWG pass off smoothly, Dingli feels India could grow in confidence, and with some more experience, even bid for the Olympics.

Dingli’s observation is bound to enthuse those who feel India ought to bid for the Olympics. Months before the CWG, Sheila Dikshit talked about the Olympics bid, as did the ever-ambitious CWG organising committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi. Says social scientist Yogendra Yadav, “After the botched up preparation, I had thought, well, at least India will now not try to bid for the Olympics, but it seems I was wrong. The elite are happy with the success of the opening ceremony.” Yadav’s implication is that the elite, indifferent to the grim Indian reality, will now root for staging the Olympics, to demonstrate to the world the country’s emergence. But no country can call itself a big power as long as nearly half its population lives below the poverty line, deprived of basic civic amenities. “You can’t build an international image simply by having a gala opening ceremony,” he quips.

“The elite are happy. But you cannot build an international image simply by having a gala opening ceremony.”
Yogendra Yadav, Social Scientist

Even Dehejia agrees, “Let’s wait for the CWG to come to a successful conclusion and introspect further as a nation on the costs and benefits before proceeding further.” He says India should first ensure that all its people get an equitable share in its economic pie before embarking on adventurous projects such as the Olympics. Dehejia and Yadav need not worry. The Indian government has woken up to the exorbitant costs inherent in hosting international games—it recently asked the Indian Olympic Association how it could bid without its approval for the 2018 Asian Games, noting that it needed to do a cost-benefit analysis before granting approval. This should abort the ioa’s plan as it can’t hold the games without the government’s financial backing.

Unless, obviously, the closing ceremony too is a grand success, providing those enamoured of images yet another chance to mount pressure on the government for harnessing sports to make a statement about being a power to contend with. So what, if it is a power unable to feed its hungry?

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