The Commonwealth Games concluding in New Delhi last week were supposed to do for India what the Beijing Olympics allegedly did for China: Prove to the world that it had truly arrived. But through a back-flip and a double twist, it accomplished the opposite—showcased India's dysfunctional side while masking its real strengths.
The lesson of it all is not that India should redouble its efforts to win the world over next time around. Rather, it should shun such exercises whose artificial metrics have nothing to do with its ability to deal with its real challenges—the only thing that will earn it the lasting global respect it craves.
After a series of snafus and scandals during the run up to the Games, India saved itself from complete national humiliation by an opening ceremony that was genuinely spectacular. Still, the whole affair has entrenched India's image as a bumbling power whose lofty ambitions—as columnist Sadanand Dhume pointed out—far exceed its messy reality.
Barely weeks before the Games, a major metro line meant to transport spectators to the various sporting venues had yet not been opened, one of the many unfinished projects. Athlete accommodations were still in such a state of filth and disrepair that Commonwealth inspectors declared them "not fit for humans." A major pedestrian bridge leading up to the main sports stadium collapsed, injuring scores of workers. And the ceiling of a newly built weight room caved, throwing into doubt whether the Games could even proceed as scheduled. A frenzied eleventh hour push saved India from this ultimate ignominy, but it shouldn't have come to that.
That it did is not because India is a poor country and therefore not able to match the spending of its richer Western sisters. Estimates vary widely but reliable sources project that the final price tag for the 12-day jamboree might be close to $15 billion—about 34 times more than the $440 million that India had originally budgeted and 15 times more than what Melbourne spent in 2006, making these the most expensive Games ever. And this doesn't even begin to account for the human cost to the tens of thousands of slum dwellers whose homes, schools and livelihoods government bulldozers uprooted to make room for Games-related roads and stadiums. Meanwhile, the revenues generated by the Games are falling way short of the expected $400 million, thanks to poor TV viewership in participating countries and empty spectator stands.
Many have compared New Delhi's preparations to a Punjabi wedding where utter chaos reigns till the nuptials begin. Then things miraculously fall into place and everyone has one heck of a party, as depicted in the movie Monsoon Wedding. But there is another—more tragic—aspect of the wedding metaphor that is in fact more apt in this situation: After the guests depart, the bride's father, who is required by custom to foot the bill for the party—as well as a hefty dowry—finds himself buried under bills that he spends the rest of his life paying.
Indeed, even host cities that don't spend like drunken sailors typically need 25 years to pay off the debt incurred for such mega events. How long it'll take New Delhi to pay for its profligacy is anyone's guess. But precisely how does it plan to do so? Partly by raiding funds reserved for poor, backward castes and public employee pensions. In addition, it is hiking: bus and metro fares, school fees, water and electricity rates, property taxes—and all at a time when annual food inflation is touching 16 percent. For less than a quarter of what the government has pumped into the Games, notes Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sanjay Kaul, founder of the non-profit People's Action, all the slum dwellers in New Delhi could have been given proper houses and a better quality of life.
In short, the Games represent not just completely lopsided national priorities but a regressive transfer of wealth from the poorest of poor in New Delhi—many of who couldn't even afford the metro ticket to see them—to its nouveau riche—whose aspirations such extravaganzas reflect.
The fault for the poor handling and cost run ups lies squarely on India's abysmal governance and corrupt bureaucracy that India's media, its fourth estate – the only functioning estate in the country—has been diligently exposing for years. (My favorite expose: $80 a piece toilet paper rolls in a country where almost half of the population lacks private toilets.)
But suppose that India's hapless ruling class had pulled off the shindig without a hitch. What precisely would that have proven about India? Would the world have stopped associating India with poverty and destitution when 420 million people—more than in the 26 poorest African nations combined—live below the official poverty line? Or 46 percent children under five remain malnourished? Or 55 percent of Mumbai's population remains crammed sardine-like in slums covering 6 percent of the city land with little access to basic amenities like drinking water, electricity and toilets?
If Indians doubt that a glitch-free Commonwealth would have made no lasting difference to their country's international image, they need only consider China's experience. The warm glow from its autocracy's impeccable execution of the Beijing Olympics lasted not even a nanosecond in historic terms before the world went back to hammering it on its pollution, human right abuses and mistreatment of dissidents. The Olympics did nothing to prevent the Nobel Peace Price from being awarded to China's imprisoned dissident Liu Xiabo last week in a stinging rebuke to its communist regime.
In fact, these public extravaganzas, in striving to convey an impressive collective national image, detract from the issues that affect the ordinary lives of ordinary individuals that determine the true worth of a nation. Western countries too vie to host the Olympics and other similar mega-events—although there is some rethinking going on right now precisely because even with less waste their cost-benefit analysis does not pan out. But they do so more in the original Greek spirit of celebrating individual excellence. Countries like India and China with a more nationalistic agenda, by contrast, use such exercises in the Roman fashion to trumpet their state's capacity for grand public works.
But India's state never has had that capacity, so it sets itself up for failure by such undertakings. Its true economic genius—and the reason for its recent economic miracle—lies in the scrappy entrepreneurship of its individual citizens. Consider, for example, the story of Mumbai's dabba wallas, the uneducated tiffin carrier, who daily pick up hundred and thousands of lunch boxes from workers' homes and deliver them to their offices with nearly 100 percent accuracy. Their super-efficient supply chain has become the talk of management gurus the world over earning them all kinds of accolades including the prized Six Sigma certification that many long-established corporations in the West can't get. It is such stories that India needs to recognize, cherish, celebrate and – above all—nurture. That requires keeping its government bureaucracy out of their way. But events like the Commonwealth Games do the exact opposite. They give bureaucrats a reason to exist—strengthening precisely the worst element in society.
The problem is that India is in much too big a hurry for international recognition and is losing sight of its real challenges. The way forward might require it to reabsorb the core lessons of it own ancient wisdom that the dabba wallas intuitively live. The Bhagvad Geeta, the holy book of Hindus, counsels that one's dharma (work) should be undertaken not for honor or external praise—but because it offers its own rewards. This doesn't mean that India won't ever get its due on the world stage. It only means that just as with the dabba wallas, such recognition will come as a by-product of dedicating itself to its core task—addressing the genuine needs of its people.
If India wants to escape its image as a poor country, it has to stop being poor—just as if China wants to stop being viewed as a repressive country, it has to stop being repressive. Sporting extravaganzas—successful or not—won't change that simple truth.
Shikha Dalmia is a Reason Foundation senior analyst and a columnist at Forbes. This column originally appeared at Forbes.