x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Games will go on and so will India's open society

In India, the words "warm" and "hospitality" seem to be like conjoined twins. And yet, the preparations for the Commonwealth Games have been an unmitigated disaster.

There is an old Sanskrit phrase, atithi devo bhava, which means that one's guests are like Gods, and should be treated as such. Anyone who has stayed at India's five star hotels would know the slightly embarrassing ritual of being greeted with garlands and having a dot placed on one's forehead as one checks in. In India the words "warm" and "hospitality" seem to be like conjoined twins.

And yet, the preparations for the Commonwealth Games have been an unmitigated disaster. A foot-bridge connecting the car park to the main stadium crashed, injuring over two dozen workers; the false ceiling of the weight lifting arena collapsed; and at least some of the rooms in a few photographs shown repeatedly in international media look appallingly filthy. It is worth remembering that the Delhi Metro meanwhile functions as a model of efficiency; the new airport terminal in New Delhi opened without the kind of gross mismanagement and lost bags that accompanied Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5; and the apartment complex in the athletes' village looks like a nice, well-designed space that would not be out of place in Singapore.

This is not to defend, even for a moment, the inefficiencies, incompetence, and disruption of lives in New Delhi for the past several years. To that, add corruption on an astronomical scale. Gold-plating contracts, cost overruns, and collusion between suppliers and government officials is surely not an Indian phenomenon. And yet, there is no justification for any of that. By the same token, there is no justification for the hysterical and utterly disproportionate response to the Indian chaos. The late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was then President John F Kennedy's ambassador to India, had called the country "a functioning anarchy". Most people focus on "anarchy", but the operative word is "functioning". With all the mishaps, false starts, and edge-of-the-seat heartburn, India somehow manages to pull together.

Call it a big fat Punjabi wedding. That's not a pretty sight; it is clumsy - when elephants dance it isn't necessarily elegant. But it works. Indian officials in charge of the Commonwealth Games deserve every brickbat hurled in their direction. They have managed to displease almost everyone: the long-suffering Delhi residents, the displaced poor, the underpaid workers, the overworked security forces, the taxpayers, the fearful foreigners, and they have allowed sports officials of marginal countries to issue ultimatums to the government of the world's most populous democracy. It can't get worse than that.

But India's strength has always been the software of things, not the hardware; it is what Joseph Nye of Harvard University has called "soft power", of colours, babble, sounds, fragrances, friendliness, going the extra length to make the visitor comfortable, and providing an experience that makes the visitor to wish to return. India evokes strong reactions: there are those who never return, and those who return again and again.

There is much that's filthy in India - when Katherine Mayo wrote Mother India in the 1920s, she was accurate in describing the squalor. And Mohandas Gandhi was right in calling her work "a gutter inspector's report", because she missed the larger truth. There are plenty of failures on display in India but these are the failures of an open society. We know of the collapsed bridge, the forced displacement of the poor, and the injuries of workers because of India's lively press and active civil society. There is this weird perception that China's organisation of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was seamless and flawless. In reality, dozens of workers died in building Beijing's Olympics infrastructure projects due to accidents, and thousands of people were forcibly displaced, but being a closed society, real statistics will never be known. Thousands of workers die each year in Chinese mines, making them the most dangerous mines in the world and by one estimate, four out of five mining casualties in the world occur in China. People around the world, including in India, who look admiringly at Beijing 2008 should pause and reflect over the cost of putting up such a show, if the cost includes so many unaccounted deaths and misery.

India's incompetence and accidents are visible because it is a democracy and has a free press. Those aren't hindrances for development, as some Indians erroneously think; they ensure that the development process is participative and fair. Comparing the millions of deaths during the famine that resulted from China's Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, and India's handing of near-famine conditions in 1960s, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen pointed out the virtue of democracy - that it forces governments to act quickly, because bad news travels to the capital, and the leaders are required to act. There are other countries under other systems, where there is no such compulsion.

The Commonwealth Games will run well - a terrorist incident being the outlier that can't be predicted; but that's something Germany in 1972 could not guarantee against either. The Games will be uniquely Indian - higgledy-piggledy at start, stumbling a lot in preparation, making avoidable mistakes, but getting its act together quickly and well by learning from others, like its economic reforms programme.

Ultimately, India's anarchy manages to function, leaving an enjoyable experience for those who look past their prejudices and fears. India has built - many will come. And they will return.

Salil Tripathi began his career as a journalist in Mumbai more than two decades ago and has written over 1,000 articles for publications in Asia, Europe and America