India worries that troubled Commonwealth Games wounded its reputation

The Commonwealth Games revealed lax security, poor sanitation, and shoddy building in the capital of India.

Lee Jin-man/AP
The Indian national flag is projected on an aerostat during the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, India, on Oct. 14.

Indian press was quick to proclaim the 19th Commonwealth Games the "best ever" following a spectacular closing ceremony Thursday, but the 12-day event also begged the question: Did the games cause lasting damage to India's reputation?

After years of breathless coverage of the country's economic miracle, negative elements made international headlines as a chain of events unfolded ahead of the Oct. 3 opening ceremony: a drive-by shooting in Delhi injured two Taiwanese tourists, foreign delegates were quoted describing parts of the athletes' village as unlivable, and a footbridge near the main stadium collapsed, injuring 27 people.

The worst-case scenarios didn't take place. There was no terrorist attack, no buildings collapsed, and there was nothing but praise for the athletes' village after widespread condemnation of its "unhygienic conditions." But while athletes and spectators were safe from harm, the same might not be true for India's image.

The 'worst face' of India

“Yes, India has suffered reputational damage,” says Nalin Mehta, author of “Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games,” a book tracing the preparations for the events. “These games were always supposed to be about the projection of Indian soft power. What they have done is showcased the worst face of the Indian public sector."

About 20 government departments were charged with organizing different aspects of the games, but there was no oversight body. The budget blew up to 17 times the original estimate, but with much waste and alleged corruption. A roll of toilet paper was reportedly expensed at $89. The lack of preparation, accountability, oversight, and efficiency frustrated many private citizens.

“At the heart of the despair and anger over the Commonwealth Games is a disconnect between Old India, which represents the time when bureaucrats ran people’s lives and there was no accountability, and New India, which has seen the prosperity of the last two decades and is used to a certain ethic of efficiency and transparency,” adds Mr. Mehta.

Two government agencies have launched probes into allegations of corruption surrounding the games, but few expect any real results because of the government's legacy of inefficiency.

Fundamentals are strong

But some analysts say multinational companies look at other things, namely India's young, educated, cheap, massive workforce. "People who invest money in India will do so not on the basis of a newspaper report, they'll do it on other things," says Aakar Patel, a Mumbai-based columnist with the financial newspaper Mint.

If one of those things is governmental efficiency or accountability, however, then the Commonwealth Games did little to help India's image. Authorities had hoped the event would showcase a new, modern, and dynamic India, but rather they've showcased the worst of the bumbling and dysfunction that exists at that level.

"The biggest problem with the Indian public sector is that it is opaque and not open to outside scrutiny," says Mehta. "There is a real bureaucratic resistance to change."

Thankfully, India has other avenues apart from the Commonwealth Games to showcase itself to the world. This week, in a coup for New India, the country gained one of the five revolving seats on the United Nations Security Council. India has long pursued a seat at the table, arguing that its status as an emerging economic superpower means it should be admitted into the exclusive club on a more permanent basis.

India – along with Colombia, South Africa, Portugal, and Germany – will take its seat in January.

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