Delhi's Commonwealth Games were supposed to bring India dramatically to the world's attention in a similar manner to Beijing's Olympics in 2008. And so they will. But not in the manner that India hoped. The preparations for the Games have been plagued by construction delays, tales of official incompetence and allegations of official corruption. And with just 12 days to go, the Games are degenerating into an outright shambles. Despite seven years of preparation and public expenditure of £1.5bn (almost six times the original budget) the facilities are still not ready.
Yesterday delegates of the international teams who will compete in the Indian capital complained about the state of the accommodation for the 7,000 athletes and officials due to arrive in the coming days. A statement from Team Scotland labelled the residential blocks as "unsafe and unfit for human habitation". Only hours later, a footbridge leading to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, injuring 19 workers. If it had given way a few weeks later, it might have been a catastrophe.
Serious consideration will – and should – be given to whether the Games ought to be postponed while improvements are made and safety concerns addressed. The head of the New Zealand delegation has even suggested the Games might have to be cancelled altogether. Whether or not this happens, this debacle has already been a public relations disaster for India.
It is tempting to make comparisons with China. The stereotype is that efficient China delivers first-class infrastructure and prestige building projects while chaotic India struggles. It is undoubtedly true that China has leapt ahead of its Asian economic rival in terms of the development of transport and energy infrastructure in recent years. But the stereotype can also be misleading. Despite the success of the Beijing Olympics, China's record on public infrastructure is hardly impeccable. A great number of schools in Sichuan province crumbled in the May 2008 earthquake, apparently because corrupt local politicians had instructed developers to cut corners on safety.
At least, in India, a noisy free press is able to point the finger at corrupt officials. Those who have attempted to investigate cases of official venality in China often find themselves harassed by the police, or even incarcerated. And India is not a total basket case when it comes to infrastructure. Delhi, it is true, has an abysmal reputation. But other cities, such as the IT capital Hyderabad, belie the stereotype of a country in which nothing works properly.
And not every aspect of China's drive to development is admirable. Economic growth there has come with terrible human and environmental costs. Chinese families often find themselves forced off their land and their homes demolished by executive order. Indian farmers, too, are often treated appallingly by the state, but property rights are far stronger in India.
The official cultures in the two countries are radically different. India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, recently rejected an application from Vedanta to mine bauxite in Orissa in order to protect the rights of the tribe living in the hills that would have been affected. It is inconceivable that such a decision could have been made in China.
The Commonwealth Games mess has been a blow to India's pride. And it has served to highlight a host of pressing national problems. India's political leaders plainly need to wage a war against official corruption. And the country should spend a greater share of its growing wealth on infrastructure. Yet India should not learn the wrong lessons from this trauma. India's strength lies in its free media, rule of law and accountable institutions. In the long run, India's chaotic democracy is likely to serve its people better than China's brand of authoritarian efficiency.