Commonwealth Games Could Backfire On India's Goal

Reports of chaos, corruption and delays surround India's effort to host the Commonwealth Games. Sadanand Dhume, a columnist with The Wall Street Journal Asia, talks to Steve Inskeep about how the problems could hurt India's reputation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk a little bit more about this now with Sadanand Dhume. He's a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Asia. He's in our studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. SADANAND DHUME (Columnist, Wall Street Journal Asia): Good to be here.

INSKEEP: People must have felt optimistic a few years ago that this was going to be a great moment for India. That they were going to have these games, they were going to have people from all over the world, they were going to be able to show off.

Mr. DHUME: Well, that was the general idea, to host this event as a sort of coming out party. And in fact, it's turning out to have quite the opposite effect.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

Mr. DHUME: Well, in the sense that it's hurt India's image, rather than helped it. And it has highlighted some of the mismanagement and corruption in public life that many Indians, particularly the middle class, are quite upset about it.

INSKEEP: Were there any voices from the very beginning saying, you know, this is a really nice idea but I'm not sure that we're really competent, we're really ready to take on this big challenge and step onto the world stage in this particular way?

Mr. DHUME: There weren't any voices of opposition of that kind. There were voices that said that this was poor use of public money. That this ought not to be India's priority, because even though India has a booming economy, it still remains a largely poor country. But you didn't have opposition saying that India can't pull this off.

So, the mood in the country has been very optimistic and it was optimistic when India won these games. And only now, when they look as though they're careening towards disaster, has some of the gloss of that optimism been chipped.

INSKEEP: Who's been most frustrated by whats happened?

Mr. DHUME: Well, probably the middle-class, 50 million to 300 million is the estimate of how large that is. And these are the people in India who, frankly, care about athletics or hockey or triple jump, or whatever. Most Indians are still worried about much more basic things, such as food, shelter and clothing. So it's the middle-class, particularly the new middle-class, which would like to see India take its rightful place in the world, that is most sorely disappointed by this debacle.

INSKEEP: Now, I think of the comparison with China which saw the Olympics in 2008 as a big coming out party for China. And there were embarrassments having to do with pollution in Beijing and so forth - we shouldnt overlook that. But a lot of things were built. A lot of things were built well. And a lot of people were impressed.

Are Indians looking at their efforts in the Commonwealth Games and making comparisons with China?

Mr. DHUME: Yeah, you can't avoid the comparison, because the Beijing Olympics was so recent. And also, in so much international commentary, it's become fashionable to compare India and China. So the comparison is impossible to escape. And the comparison, unfortunately, shows India in a poor light in this regard.

INSKEEP: How does India stack up in other ways right now?

Mr. DHUME: Well, if you're looking at it purely in terms of development, if you're looking at it in terms of infrastructure - bridges and that sort of thing - India does not stack up well compared to China.

But if you look at other aspects, for example, the freedom of the press - I dont think that something like this would have happened in China. But had it happened, you wouldnt have been able to report it nearly as freely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DHUME: So look at it that way.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I suppose so. Now, of the stories that have come to light about problems - construction problems, collapses, disasters in the Commonwealth Games - is there one event or one moment that symbolizes whats gone wrong?

Mr. DHUME: Well, there's more than one. But of my favorite are the $80 toilet paper rolls, which the games' organizing committee apparently bought. And that...

INSKEEP: What do you get for $80, when it comes to toilet paper?

Mr. DHUME: I haven't seen it myself, but it had better be very special.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DHUME: I mean that kind of, you know, it encapsulates the mismanagement and gross corruption that these games have come to symbolize.

INSKEEP: Has anybody's political career being ruined by this?

Mr. DHUME: No, not yet. And thats really another one of the big differences between India and China. I mean, China, you could lose your head for corruption. In India, you dont even lose your job.

INSKEEP: Is this actually a fair representation of the way India is being governed right now - $80 toilet paper rolls?

Mr. DHUME: No, not entirely, of course. But it is a representation of the kinds of things that can happen, and the kinds of things that do happen. This is not to suggest that all of India is being governed in the $80 toilet paper roll mode.

INSKEEP: Do you think these games are going to work out, after all these problems?

Mr. DHUME: Well, there's a great metaphor doing the rounds, which is that to compare the games with a big Punjabi wedding; which is just completely disorganized and it's maddening, but in the end it will work out and people will have a good time. So thats your benchmark: Will there be a games, will people participate and will there be victories to be savored. I think so. I think it will.

But if you want to measure it against how much better it could have been, if you want to measure it against how public money could have been better spent, then of course it's a different matter.

INSKEEP: Sadanand Dhume of The Wall Street, Asia, thanks very much.

Mr. DHUME: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of an Indian nationalistic song)

INSKEEP: And the outcome of The Commonwealth Games may be in question, but there is no question that they do have a theme song which we bring to you now.

Unidentified Men: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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