India should exit the Commonwealth pronto

October 31, 2010

A version of the following was published by DNA on Oct 19th at:

India should exit the Commonwealth altogether

Rajeev Srinivasan looks at the lessons to take away from the games

The Commonwealth games – admittedly not the world’s most exciting sporting contest – are finally over, and they should have put paid to any vanities that India had about holding the Olympics any time soon. The Olympics were a coming-out party for Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988, China in 2008; but it would be unwise for India to rashly attempt to emulate them.

I must admit that there were moments of epiphany: for instance, the brilliant running of Ashwini Akkunji in the third leg of the 4x400m womens’ relay – she caught up with a surging Nigerian, and enabled anchor Mandeep Kaur to pull away to an unexpected, and well-deserved, win. This was a moment when I, too, held my breath, cynical as I am, and despite the fact that I watched the video later on youtube after I knew India had won.

But such sublime moments were few and far between. The persistent images that remain are the collapse of the foot overbridge just days before the event started, and the muddy pawprints of a dog on the mattress in the athletes’ village. The question is, how long do you actually expect these structures – built at such great expense – to survive? The answer: not very long.

There are several questions: why was India able to hold the 1982 Asian Games – a much bigger and more significant event – with less fuss and more competence? That was at a time when India was sort of hermit-like, insulated from the world, yet it wasn’t a fiasco. Why was it so much worse in this globalized era?

Speaking of the Asian Games, the Chinese, who are going to run the next edition in Guangzhou, have already handed over the entire infrastructure to the games committee some three months ahead of the actual start of the games. Whereas in Delhi, they were still repairing things the day of the opening ceremony.

It is not the case that emerging nations cannot, or should not, run large sporting events. South Africa, by many measures worse off than India, did a splendid job with the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Brazil will host both the soccer World Cup 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. I expect all of these to be done much more professionally than Delhi 2010.

Is there tangible economic value to hosting such major events? The Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 did much for Spain’s economy; but Los Angeles in 1984 just about broke even, and it is believed the Athens in 2004 almost caused Greece’s subsequent near-bankruptcy. These games are risky: no wonder there are only three bidders for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In Delhi’s case, estimates are that Rs. 70,000 crore (about $15 billion) were spent, and the official claim is that the games will have an ‘impact’ of $5 billion. Note, it is ‘impact’, not ‘profit’. In other words, $10 billion vanished! That’s the difference between the 1982 Asiad and the 2010 C’wealth Games: the professionalization of theft.

Furthermore, given past experience, it is likely that the construction has been so shoddy (materials and techniques would have been much below specifications, and corrupt officials would have siphoned off the money) that the chances of these facilities being re-usable are fairly slim. It is money simply stolen and wasted.

And it is money that this country could ill afford to waste. The new Global Hunger Index suggests that India – 67th in the list – is worse off than eight of the poorest African nations, including Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. How many schools, universities, and kilometers of road could Rs. 70,000 crore have built? Where is the government’s touching concern for the alleged aam admi?

In a sense, the absurdity of India’s so-called ‘hybrid economy’ is in full view: the uneasy synthesis of capitalism and socialism that the usual suspects laud as revolutionary. It is no such thing, and in fact it combines the worst elements of both – crony capitalism and the dead hand of central planning, with neither the exuberant vigor of the one or the discipline of the other.

There is more: a combination of large-scale corruption and incompetence. This is the true downside of the ‘mixed economy’, that wonderful brainchild of the left. People will tolerate corruption if there is competence – for instance, China is very corrupt, but they do get things done. India is unique in being extremely corrupt, and extremely inefficient at the same time.

The inefficiency and incompetence have become systematized in the celebration of things like ‘jugaad’, that is ingenuity in the face of obstacles. But this is not innovation, because it comes with a guarantee of inefficiency and lack of scale, repeatability, institutionalizability and measurability – all the things that have made Toyota’s manufacturing advances so formidable.

In fact, jugaad is the enemy of progress, because it lulls you into a false sense of complacency. It is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter on the eve of the exam, while the more organized student would have systematically finished their studies earlier and got a good night’s sleep. Yes, the all-nighter person may get good grades, but that is still a big risk – what if, as is often the case, the power fails?

The last-minute heroics may make for good copy, but it is an efficient use of resources, and will lead to burnout. I have seen this in the Indian IT industry, where not only do people try to do superhuman things at the eleventh hour, they don’t tell others about problems early on – on the day the delivery, they confess that the work is three months late. This the customer cannot deal with: if you had told them three months prior, when you knew it, they could have dealt with it much easier.

The inability to plan is endemic in India. It is a clear result of the one notable lacuna in India: the lack of leadership. And it leads to panic and non-optimal outcomes. For instance, the government for years ignored the serious problem of the lack of energy security. Then, one fine day they woke up to find that China had locked up energy supplies all over the world.

In their panic and new-found enthusiasm, they decided, non-optimally, that the answer would be nuclear energy. Hence the whole sorry saga of the so-called ‘nuclear deal’ with the US, which has turned out to be the worst-case nightmare scenario: nothing useful has come out of it, nor will it ever; and India has surrendered its puny nuclear deterrent – no wonder China is running rampant all over the region, and extending its tentacles into Kashmir.

This is what comes of not having a systematic planning process, combined with a  clear set of objectives or strategic intent. Unfortunately, the strategic intent displayed by many is their own personal enrichment, with the resultant accumulation of wealth in numbered Swiss and other offshore accounts. Observe the noticeable reluctance on the part of the government to pursue holders of these numbered, secret accounts, even when the Swiss have in fact said they have no objection.

This is at the core of the issue: British imperial rule has been replaced by the rule of brown sahibs who are as adept at looting India as the whites were. India, as always, continues to be a cash-generating machine, thanks to its hard-working and dirt-poor people and its highly productive land. As invaders have always noted, expropriating this surplus is highly profitable for them. This is why it makes a weird sort sense for India to continue in the British Commonwealth: the empire continues, except that the dramatis personae have changed.

Otherwise, there is a good question as to whether India should be in the Commonwealth at all. It is, after all, a club that celebrates perhaps the most brutal empire the world has ever seen: it is astonishing how callously the British caused 30 million famine deaths in the 1890’s (see Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis) or several million famine deaths in the 1940’s (see Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II by Madhusree Mukherjee).

Why on earth would India want to be part of this club, when we were victimized the most by this empire? India, which used to account for 25% of the world’s GDP just before the Battle of Plassey brought British inroads, ended up accounting for perhaps 0.5% of the world’s GDP by 1940 (see The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective by Angus Maddison). By being part of the Commonwealth we are accepting this massive loot. Intriguingly, almost all of Britain’s ‘wealth’ is the loot from India – they otherwise produce almost nothing the world wants to buy, other than Scotch whisky and plummy British accents, along with some supercilious journalism.

Why does India need this club at all? India has other connections with many of the major countries there. Britain, after World War II, counts for increasingly little: it is a non-entity. Canada is important for its mineral wealth, so is Australia, but let us note that both are refusing to provide uranium for India’s misbegotten nuclear plans.

South Africa is a potential great power, but India is already engaged with them in the South-South palavers. Then, going by the medals table at the CWG, there’s Nigeria, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, Scotland, Samoa. Surprisingly, no New Zealand? Anyway, several of these are already engaged with in the Group of 77. It is not necessary to have the Commonwealth to be friends with them.

There is a school of thought that India needs to ally itself with other Anglophone nations (well, India is sort of Anglophone). This makes better sense than associating with the assorted banana republics of the late lamented Non-Aligned Movement: that much I admit. On the other hand, does India need these Commonwealth countries, or do they need India more?

In any case, the major white countries in the Commonwealth have a different relationship with Britain – genes and blood ties. They are populated largely by people of British origin, and right there, India cannot help being an outsider. Besides, given India’s bewildering complexity, India is unlike any other country – there has to be a recognition of Indian exceptionalism: it is truly a unique country.

Woody Allen quoted Groucho Marx once: “I would not wish to be a member of any club that would have me.” India has clearly outgrown the Commonwealth; the only club that India needs to belong to is the G3: the US, China and India. Which eventually India needs to turn into, in order of GDP: India, China and the US.

Even the UN Security Council is not all that desirable. Many Indians are ecstatic that India has been elected to a non-permanent, rotation slot by a massive margin of 187/191 votes. But one could argue that these 187 countries are giving India a big message – that they only view India as deserving of the non-permanent seat. How many of them would vote for India to get a permanent seat? Not many, I fear. Or it would be for a diluted type of seat, a permanent seat with no veto. Some years ago, when the seat was offered, India, in a fit of misguided generosity, suggested that it be given to China! Which it was, with disastrous consequences for India.

However, I have to give credit to the Financial Times, which, some time ago, suggested that the British seat be given to India, and the French seat be given to the European Union, to better reflect realities – the British and the French are increasingly marginal.

All in all, the very idea of India willingly embracing an empire which treated it most brutally is abhorrent. It is time to exit the Commonwealth: India gains little from it. Moreover, it is time the government stopped wasting taxpayers’ money on quixotic projects that end up merely fattening the offshore accounts of the well-connected. It is time to demand accountability and performance, not mere slogans, from the government.

2000 words, 15th oct 2010


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