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India’s image problem: organisation and transparency February 27, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must wonder what he has done to deserve the current concatenation of circumstances putting his government and country in such a poor light for overseas observers mesmerised by the “new India” but unused to its complexities. Having over the past few months been further and energetically courted by Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama and a string of other world leaders (but not Australia, at a time when it counts), within just a few weeks organisational glitches, old and new, have combined to undermine confidence in India’s ability “to do things”, at least in the way that the outsiders might expect.

The Commonwealth Games fiasco will just not go away.  While CWG boss Suresh Kalmadi has now been largely isolated politically, he has still not been charged with any formal offences, unlike his two main operatives. They have already appeared in court accused of graft in the letting of a timekeeping contract to a Swiss company.  As the revelations from this become public, the picture will likely become ugly, because there are inevitable political and civil administration links with a wide range of companies that gained contracts under profitable conditions.  Many such links have already been revealed by journalists -they remain to be proven in court, of course, but the image of the “great” Games is taking a drubbing.

There were, for example, a myriad of Kalmadi/CWG jokes.  One of the best was an anagram of Suresh Kalmadi: “Sir, u made lakhs”!

The concern all along was that the murky side of official contracting undertaken with public money might become too revealed via the CWG investigations, but the government was under such pressure on the matter from NGOs, opposition figures like Arun Jaitley and international agencies that it could not ignore the calls for investigation.  There will be nervous moments for a good many officials and others as the court cases line up and tell their stories.

Australia has already had a slant on this, with several service providers complaining loudly and publicly about not being paid.  While some or most of that is now apparently resolved, one issue remains as a “sleeper”.  In laying charges against Kalmadi’s aides, CBI officials let it be known quietly that the contract involving “Swiss-based” company EKS was still under investigation.  EKS, with a strong set of Australian connections, was brought in late in the piece to help “save” the Games when things looked grim.  Critics of both the Organising Committee and Kalmadi picked this as one to work on, and the criticisms and inquiries have continued unabated.  EKS also has a very strong “in” with the Olympic movement, and is in fact a privatised offshoot of the official IOC organisation.  If India has any vestige of interest in staging an Olympics, this matter will require delicate handling, but the public clamour for clarification might make that difficult.

Well, with the IPL and its licensing/legal/financial shenanigans sidelined for the cricket World Cup, nothing could go wrong with that promotional avenue, could it?  Unfortunately, yes.  First of all, Eden Gardens was declared unfit for play just days before the start of the competition.  This is one of the world’s great cricket venues, but its refurbishment was not completed in time for its opening matches.  That was doubly unfortunate because the Kolkata venue has been off the scene for some time, mainly because of the well-known power struggle between the national cricket authority and the Bengal association or, more especially, between Sharad Pawar, beleaguered Union Minister for Agriculture and International Cricket Council President, and the powerful Jagmohan Dalmiya who single-handedly made India the cricket power it now is financially and competitively.

That was bad enough, but then a riot broke out in Bangalore because more tickets were issued for one World Cup match than there were seats available.  Charge and counter-charge erupted, the “corruption” word much used.  How did this happen?  Who was responsible?  And who made a profit?

Therein lies India’s theme and problem, because the “corruption” issue is now out in the open after a whispering campaign of long duration.  Long term friends of India hate this, but there is a problem to be dealt with as India becomes increasingly involved with the world, and Australia is part of that.  There is undoubtedly bad blood abroad in Perth, for example, as the essentially failed Pankaj Oswal venture details emerge with questions about the whereabouts of perhaps well over $100 million in assets while the debts pile up.  In short, the suspicion is that as the business plummeted, Oswal spirited away a very large sum of money leaving creditors with unpaid bills for boats and planes.

Which is where the smouldering 2G scam swings into view.  It is now India’s 21st century Bofors scandal.  Briefly, Government auctioned off licenses to the 2G spectrum which had enormous financial implications in a country so mad about mobile telephony as India.  Government should have made a fortune as major and minor providers scrambled to gain access.  It made a tidy sum, certainly, but it appears that a lot of people made far more money than they should have amidst loud musings about the role of the Minister in this, Tamilnadu’s A. Raja.  The mutterings grew, then along came a deeply involved publicist who just happened to have taped her conversations with all the key players, and she made those tapes public.

As a result, Anil Ambani of Reliance has been “helping investigators with their inquiries”, the house of Tata is protesting its innocence, many other major players are ducking for cover, and Manmohan Singh had no option but to sack his Minister who could well face several charges in relation to the affair.  That act in itself was no simple matter, of course, because with Congress stocks softening electorally, upsetting any southern alliance partner is problematic – that, perhaps, quite apart from the considerations of the Telangana issue, helped persuade Congress high command to bring Telugu movie star and political party leader Chiranjeevi into its fold.

Inevitably, Manmohan Singh has launched a war on corruption.  He had little choice, but he and his colleagues must surely have in mind the old adage about never setting up any commission unless you know its findings in advance.  The problem in all this is simple: India’s intricate political/business/organisational interlinking produces alliances that elsewhere in the world are effectively controlled or, at least, scrutinised and approved. As the deeper nature of the Indian condition emerges, western political and business leaders become more sceptical about what they see, and that is bad for India as it takes its place in a wider world.  At the very least, along with removing the wilder excesses in the system, the Manmohan Singh government might very profitably consider ways to help better explain all of this to the wider world because, if they do not, the results might be unpalatable.


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