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The 2010 Commonwealth Games – A Systemic Indicator of India’s Democracy

Koustubh Parulekar

The 2010 Commonwealth Games, hosted in Delhi this October 3-14, are touted to be India’s answer to Beijing’s 2008 Olympic extravaganza; a vehicle to announce India’s arrival on the world stage as an economic, cultural and political powerhouse.

However, reports trickling out reveal an unfolding disaster: two days before athletes were scheduled to arrive at the facility, dengue fever broke out from at the flooded facilities; The New York Times reported that the Commonwealth Games Federation president, Michael Fennell, called the Games village “uninhabitable”, adding, “there is dust everywhere … the flats are dirty and filthy. Toilets are unclean;”(i) The Times (of London) reported a “deadly fever” at the “squalid Games site;” The Guardian (UK) reported “corruption scandals, huge cost overruns, shoddy construction,” (ii) after a bridge collapsed injuring 20; top athletes, including the fastest man in the world, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, pulled out, while entire national contingents threatened to do so (iii).

However, these are all descriptions of what is happening. Here is why this is happening:

1. No downward accountability: Most Indians are too poor, illiterate and destitute to care. The failed Indian State has resulted in some of the world’s worst illiteracy and poverty rates. Up to 60% of most urban populations live in squalid slums; most are there trying to escape even worse rural poverty. The UNDP reports that 8 of India’s poorest states have more abject poor than those in all the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. India’s voting patterns reveal that the educated classes have withdrawn from the voting process, and from those that do vote – less than 45% turnout – almost all are the poor and destitute. Leaders know that the Games don’t matter to these constituents and that they will not be held accountable at the next polls for any mismanagement.

2. No upward accountability: With policies that keep a majority of the population deprived, basic necessities have become instruments of voter control. With all such utilities rationed out, these masses of deprived voters are turned into controllable voting blocs; valuable commodities sold upwards in a structure that resembles a gigantic political patronage pyramid. Within this structure, blocks of votes are the currency to buy graft opportunities (such as the contracts totaling about US$ 4 billion for the Commonwealth Games). The upper echelons of the pyramid pass down such opportunities and look the other way as long as these votes are delivered, while the voting majority is too poor and deprived to care if the promised goods and services materialize. Accountability vanishes when India’s demographic reality tries to co-exist with its form of parliamentary democracy.

To India’s national leaders, parliamentary support from the Member of Parliament (and his coterie) managing the games is more far more important than the fact that he has a long history of large scale graft while managing multiple sporting events, including, most recently, the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games. Graft at the 2010 Delhi Games was expected and will be condoned as long as the necessary votes are delivered to support the shaky coalition running parliament.

This Pyramid, composed of countless Faustian pacts, not only ensures that the 2010 Commonwealth Games will be a disaster, but it also further cements a mockery of democracy and ensures widespread underdevelopment, deprivation, and misery in India.

3. No legal accountability: India has over 45,000 cases pending in its Supreme Court, about 3.7 million cases pending in its High Courts, and a staggering 25 million cases pending in the lower courts.(iv) Current delays of over 20 years are expected to worsen as up to a third of judge seats remain vacant. Parliamentarians, the people who appoint judges, are themselves increasingly made up of criminals – over 100 Members of National Parliamenthave serious criminal casespending in courts, while up to 80% of some state parliamentarians have criminal cases pending (v) – and hence see no incentive to correcting this shortage.

It comes as no surprise that the World Bank’s 2010 Doing Business Report ranks India 182nd out of 183 countries on contract enforcement. In other words, even if a civil lawsuit is brought about by private citizens against the Games organizers, they will enjoy at least two decades of impunity.

This unfolding disaster is not a nascent democracy at work. It is another consequence of the systemic failure of Indian democracy.

For most, India is the poster child for democracy in the developing world: its IT industry seems to beworld class; its graduates are highly visible in medicine, engineering, banking and upper academia; it has a free and vocal press; its media industry entertains the world; and the facts that the country is essentially led by a foreign-born Catholic, has a non-Hindu prime minister and female president highlight the success and equality of its democracy.

As these results become barometers of the success of Indian democracy, the fervent optimism surrounding them serves to steamroll other development indicators that have been steadily worsening over time; India’s ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index has steadily dropped from 126th in 2006 to 128th in 2007/08 and to 134th in 2010. (vi) Rankings in percentage terms are bad enough, but get much worse when considered as whole numbers; India’s 55 million malnourished children under age 5 are equal to 2.5 times the entire population of Australia.

These aren’t the growing pains of a young democracy struggling forward with a population problem. These indicators reveal a society sliding backwards from the development gains that it enjoyed in thefirst few decades of its independent existence.

The Commonwealth Games disaster is just another systemic indicator of a failed socio-political system that is keeping hundreds of millions locked in multigenerational poverty and deprivation. The Games might soon be forgotten. But in the game of life in India, the rules have been so distorted by this form of democracy that hundreds of millions of Indians have already lost before they could even begin to compete.

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Koustubh Parulekar, a Fellow and M.A. Candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is working on a book length manuscript, “Smoke, Mirrors & Democracy: A Personal Journey through Modern India.” He can be reached at



iv DhananjayMahapatra, “Vacancies in HCs rising alarmingly,” The Times of India, June 19, 2008.

v Special Correspondent, “138 Candidates have criminal background,” The Hindu, December 2, 2007, p.13.


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