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Opinion: At India's Commonwealth Games, shame might be a blessing

A wholesale cancellation of the Commonwealth Games might just be the best thing for India.

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EW DELHI, India — There's still a chance that Delhi will pull off the Commonwealth Games next month. In India, anything is possible. There's even a chance that people will call this futile exercise in mismanagement a success. But that would be a real shame.

Shame is the word of the week here, with 10 days left before the scheduled opening ceremony of what the erstwhile jewel in the British crown once hoped would be the largest and most impressive Commonwealth Games ever. Now, the growing fear is that the event may not come off at all, as the threat looms of a boycott by England, Scotland and Wales.

Even as organizing committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi struggled to persuade a skeptical and hostile press that the city and venues would be ready, the seemingly endless problems mounted.

Gunmen on a motorcycle shot two Taiwanese tourists in a possible terrorist attack over the weekend. On Tuesday a footbridge attached to one of the entrances for the showpiece Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, injuring 27 workers and leaving three laborers in critical condition.

As unusually persistent monsoon rain pounded on, a section of the ceiling fell in a few hours later. An epidemic of dengue fever, exacerbated by the delayed construction work, overwhelmed area hospitals. And, horror of horrors for India's fastidious Hindus and their stiff-upper-lipped onetime rulers alike: Inspectors discovered human excrement in some of the posh flats of the hastily built Games Village.

Several prominent athletes have dropped plans to compete — some making excuses and others citing concerns about health and safety. Scotland and Canada have delayed their teams' departure for Delhi and other teams have said they may cancel their plans altogether.

There has been a disquieting whiff of postcolonial satisfaction in the foreign reaction to rising India's comeuppance. Yet a wholesale cancellation might just be the best thing for a nation that — while it can lay claim to tremendous promise — is still struggling to be great.

Many observers will be tempted to see this failure as a fable of false pride ending in just humiliation. But apathy, not hubris, is India's fatal flaw, and a bracing dose of shame may be exactly what is needed to shake its incredibly capable, but politically inert, middle class into action.

The risk is that this shame will inject new life into the old argument that India suffers from too much democracy — a favorite hobby horse of this bunch. No, India is not China. But the Games fiasco was not the result of parliamentary gridlock or popular protest. The farce was scripted by cronyism, corruption and a complete lack of accountability — all aided by the Indian politician's complete disregard for the voter's disgust. Unfortunately, the most shameful are the most shameless.

Amid the clamor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in (too late) to rap knuckles on Wednesday, and an extra staff of 1,000 cleaners, sourced from private contractors, was brought in to give the "filthy" Games Village a good scrub. And Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit dismissed fears that the event was shuddering toward collapse, pleading, "There is no reason to worry ... . We should look at it as an opportunity. Please become positive." But however the Games turn out, Delhi has failed. It has failed to put on an effortless show of false glamor. It has failed to muzzle its muckraking press. It has failed to round up its poor and homeless and ship them into the countryside. And it has failed to persuade a skeptical public that costs skyrocketed to more than 10 times the original estimates simply because the organizers are committed to making this the best games ever. (Forgive me if I find some reason for pride in all that shame.) Now the question is whether Delhi can learn from those failures what Beijing could not learn from its success.

The lesson is not that a poor country should spend all its money on welfare programs, or that developing countries should be content to remain as guests, not hosts, at international events, or that dissent must be silenced to protect national pride. Just as India's costly space satellites have benefited farmers, the Commonwealth Games slush fund, if managed properly, might have created university dormitories, a functioning sewage system or housing for the poor.

The lesson is that it is futile to create islands of cleanliness and modernity for the rich, if they are to be surrounded by a sea of poverty, sickness and filth. Life will only get better for the wealthy when it gets better for the desperate poor. Until then, as long as there is no respect for labor, no one will take pride in his work, and the wage slaves will just be waiting for the chance to sneak in and take a dump on a rich man's mattress.

Double points if he's an elected official.

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