There was something horribly apt about the metaphor that India's authorities used last month to soothe concerns about the Commonwealth Games. It's just like one of our unruly weddings, they said: it will all fall into place at the last moment. That may be true. But nobody enjoys a wedding if the guests boycott it en masse.
That scenario, thankfully, is yet to materialise. But it remains possible. Images of collapsing footbridges, dustbowl stadiums, bug-infested accommodation and child labourers suggest that the £2bn invested by India's government has been mis-spent. Walls bubbling with mould, pools of stagnant water – remnants of the annual monsoons – and fears over dengue fever, typhoid, and terrorism all reside unhappily in Delhi.
It is true that the Games are a public-relations disaster, and the humiliation rises in proportion to how much the Indian authorities – rather than the common folk – talked up this event as an advertisement for their new maturity. What has shocked the sporting world, and some Indians too, is the gulf between what was promised and what has been delivered.
And yet, long before an abiding fealty to the land of my birth kicks in, I detect something a little distasteful in the ceremonial wringing of hands that has accompanied its travails, as well as ignorance of the Indian sensibility. The interpretation of this crisis as a metaphor for the irrepressibility of the old India – corrupt, dirty, poor, with dodgy infrastructure and unable to match China – is wilfully myopic about the new India, home to extraordinary economic growth and social development, albeit too exclusively so.
I suppose modern India is rather weak when it comes to large infrastructure projects, if you discount the Bombay-Pune highway, the virtual invention in just two decades of whole cities like Gurgaon, the Delhi Metro, and the still functioning near-40,000 miles of railway system. I suppose too that, compared with the eerily efficient Beijing Olympics, the mis-organisation of this much smaller event is shameful. But in China, the government kills you if it wants your land, and woe betide those who belong to the wrong minority, want to read an independent newspaper, or would like to vote. Doing things democratically takes longer. But fewer people get hurt along the way.
Nor is the crisis in Delhi the fault of the people pictured outside the shacks and dustbowls adjacent to each venue – people expressly chosen by picture editors, incidentally, to convey the impression that poverty and sport are irreconcilable. Of course security threats should be taken seriously, and athletes need to be put up in comfort if they are to perform at their best; but next to the lives of these destitute souls – desperate to profit from a Games they did not choose to endure and which has caused massive disruption to their lives – there is something vulgar about Phillips Idowu and his ilk demanding pickle with their breakfast bhaji.
The triple jumper's withdrawal (on security grounds, he says), like everything else about this torrid affair, is a displacement exercise. The corruption and incompetence of a small group of technocrats is recast as the fault of all Indians. But then, that is the cruel irony: most Indians don't care about the Games, because it will have such little effect on them. And in any case, they care about cricket, not athletics. To them, the event is above all an expensive nuisance, and a distraction from the daily grind.
On the day that negative stories about the Games first surfaced, the Bombay Stock Exchange hit a new high. India is led by a man who has probably emancipated from absolute poverty more people than anyone else living today. Awaiting the latest Gandhi-leader (Rahul), and hoping for a return to 9 per cent growth, its people are embarrassed by this episode rather than irrevocably damaged. Far from the reaffirmation of patronising and ignorant misconceptions, what Indians want and deserve from us is solidarity, and patience. They'll survive this PR disaster, even if the received wisdom on India doesn't.Reuse content