- Gateway House - https://www.gatewayhouse.in -

Commonwealth inaugural: The real message

The successful opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi on Oct 3 has silenced, for a while, the intense global and domestic criticism that has surrounded the organization of the Games. A new generation of youthful, exuberant Indian talent saved the day, exorcising through dance, yoga, art and sport the grim image of a developing country mired in the usual corruption and inefficiencies. Overlaid was a display of an ancient culture, confident in the contemporary and looking forward to the future.

For the new Indian middle class, the relief at not being shamed in front of a former colonizer and other fellow former colonials, was intense. Once again, it proved how the ordinary Indian citizen comes to the rescue of an inept and corrupt government apparently disregardful of global and local disgrace.

But there was more to this opening ceremony than the face-saving and the sporting spirit that will take over the event in the next few days. The dramatic showcasing of India’s heritage and arts, tired tokenism to some, is significant. Gone are the days when ‘culture’ was viewed as the sum of India’s global content. Now India has far more to offer the world than its heritage, but its culture’s multiple dimensions and multiple messages were on display at the Games’ opening.

To the international community, India was saying, look at us. We’re diverse, we’re distinctive, we’re creative, we’re non-Western, we’re rich, we’re poor, but we stand together – multi ethnic, multi cultural, multi linguistic, multi religious, and we’re all under the same electronic helium balloon, dancing to the same rhythm. The north-east was prominently represented by a young woman in Mizo native dress, who was the advance of the Indian team during the opening parade. The tea boys in the Indian Railways float and the brick workers are ethic migrants from across India. A Hindu convert to Islam who rocks Bollywood and Hollywood alike sang the closing song and opened the games. This is India’s soft power message: Don’t try and break us up, we’re one people. And don’t compare us with China. We’re different, we’re absorptive. Chak de, India.

To the Indian middle classes also, there was a message: You who have abjured the railways and now use an airplane to travel across your country, don’t be embarrassed by the tamasha of the train and all its accompaniments which chugged into the middle of the stadium in a cloud of smoke. This too, is India. The Indian Railway, true to its advertising, does connect the country by more than railroad tracks. In it travels the mass of India, and its determinedly riding on a rising aspiration for a better life. Besides, we are a nation of small entrepreneurs – services are an ever larger part of our economy. This is where the new service-providers are, traveling in the trains. To middle class, already-arrived India, remember the small guy – the one who laid the bricks for the grand Games stadia and placed the seats on which you sit. You ride on his back. He also makes India happen.

Finally, to the former British Raj and other members of the Commonwealth, India made a statement. Yes we are corrupt and inefficient and imperfect and often self-destructive. But we’ve risen from centuries of repression and instead of rejecting; we’ve reclaimed our heritage and culture. The English language and homogeneity of speech is very fine, but so is our diversity and our traditions. The train is representative of the chaos we still are, and in that state, we’re speeding along.

To our fellow ex-colonials, especially those in societies that are still struggling and underdeveloped, the opening ceremony showed that perfection doesn’t always win the day. You can’t do it as well as China, and maybe you don’t have to. For there’s another model on display. India is always chaotic, always colourful, never perfect and not always in harmony, but it does always try and often, it does succeed.

May more such Games begin.

Manjeet Kripalani is Co-founder and Executive Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, and is the former India Bureau Chief of Businessweek magazine.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2010 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.