India: Challenging Perceptions, Modern Realities

By Brian Stoddart - 03 December 2012

Two current sports stories constitute something of an allegory about why India continues to present a policy and strategy challenge for those countries which in recent years have lined up as aspirant and willing partners, if they are accepted, for the apparently rising superpower.

The first concerns Sachin Tendulkar. Like his ageing cricket counterpart, former Australian captain Ricky Ponting, Tendulkar’s recent form has been patchy to say the least. His failures in India’s massive defeat in Mumbai at the hands of the touring England exacerbated calls for his departure. Ponting recognised his days were up and announced his retirement, to the relief of selectors and fans alike. Tendulkar, the game’s greatest ever run scorer, has yet to do so, which meant the national front page story was, ominously, that the Board of Control for Cricket in India was “right behind” the former captain. Those are the words all political leaders fear.

This goes directly to the Tendulkar twist. Such is the intertwining of Indian sport and politics, a couple of years ago Tendulkar was made a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house. The Congress Party, the dominant player in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, made the appointment which, in reality, is more decorative than substantive. However, in what has become a real test of ideological strength between government and opposition, the Rajya Sabha will vote on whether or not to approve the government’s proposals for a loosening of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) opportunities. The UPA desperately needs Tendulkar in the house to help get the vote over the line, but he will be playing test cricket in Kolkata against England in an effort to extend his career.

There are undoubtedly several European, African and Asian as well as other non-cricket country diplomats in New Delhi scratching their heads and wondering how it has come to this – a key piece of legislation the government needs to get passed in advance of crucial 2014 national elections is in some way dependent on a cricketer. The lesson here is that India is always different.

That stands out even more in the story of how Lalit Bhanot has become Secretary-General of the Indian Olympic Association.

The big backdrop here is that Bhanot was Secretary-General to the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, and was among the first arrested in connection with the orgy of corruption and controversy that surrounded the event. Delhi 2010 was supposed to be a major showcase for the “New India” and it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Millions of dollars went missing, the Games were very nearly taken away from India because of timetable overruns, overseas contractors went unpaid by the scores, and several audits and investigations were ordered by the government. Bhanot went to jail, along with his boss, Suresh Kalmadi who was the-then IOA boss and, significantly, an MP representing a party that is a key supporter of Congress in the UPA. To complicate things further, that party was and still is led by Sharad Pawar, national Minister for Agriculture and immediate past President of the International Cricket Council. The sport-politics nexus is a strong one.

Which is why Bhanot’s elevation to the post at the IOA is so startling, especially at a time when the IOA is at loggerheads with the International Olympic Committee. Put as simply as possible, the story goes like this. The IOC, more multinational than sports organisation, and fancying itself a parallel to the United Nations (in which it holds observer status), has taken the IOA to task for allegedly not observing Olympic Charter provisions governing election to national sporting bodies. Those provisions determine that governments should not intervene in such elections. In wake of the 2010 debacle, the UPA’s Sports Minister laid out some new rules for sports organisations, recognising that most such bodies have become simply another vehicle for political activity. Kalmadi and Pawar, really, are the proverbial iceberg’s tip – virtually every state and national sports body is headed by an elected politician, so the organisations are treated just like another vote bank. The IOA originally challenged the new Sports Act provisions, but the Delhi High Court upheld them and directed the IOA conduct its elections accordingly.

The IOC is especially exercised about the voting process by which Bhanot made his comeback, particularly because its Ethics Commission had already called for his suspension from the IOA along with Kalmadi. Bhanot beat all this by combining forces with yet another politician, himself facing corruption charges in another field, who will become President of the IOA.

Again, for the non-cognoscenti, this is an extraordinary situation. A man jailed for corruption in relation to sports organisations has now been elected to the most powerful post in Indian sport, and his President will be a politician already himself “charge sheeted” (as the term has it in India) on corruption charges. The international body overseeing sport, rightly or wrongly, has a view about how such a situation should be dealt with, but is effectively being defied. The defence from the incoming IOA President is simple: plenty of other prominent persons in India are facing charges of corruption but that has not hindered them going about their business.

The allegory here is not hard to find, of course, and it was on display during the whole of the Commonwealth Games saga when the local organising committee, let by Kalmadi, was in constant battle with the broader Commonwealth Games Committee. At issue is how India fits within the world system of governance and the conduct of international business and relations. There are still mutterings inside international cricket, for example, about how India was said to have “hijacked” the game and its players to suit its own purposes, to wit, the Indian Premier League 20/20 competition involving billions of dollars and upsetting international schedule programming – and where, incidentally, the original organiser, Lalit Modi, is still persona non grata for alleged corruption and where at least one franchise was stripped of its status because of financial irregularity.

Nervous investors and regulators looking at this in the broader scale get concerned. France, for example, has been in a serious stand-off with international steel king Lakshmi Mittal, boss of ArcelorMittal and, among other things, a major stakeholder in English football club Queens Park Rangers. A last minute deal avoided the Hollande government following through on a threat to nationalise a Mittal plant in retaliation for job closures. That spat followed a long history of Mittal having to pay fines for breaches of operating conditions and national laws.

Then there was the Rajat Gupta case earlier this year. The leading Indian-American, former boss of McKinsey and a GoldmanSachs director, was sentenced to years prison and a fine of $US5 million for insider trading in the United States. That, in turn, emerged from the Raj Rajaratnam conviction, also in America, that led to an eleven year prison term for insider trading with his Galleon hedge fund. The coalition of Indians in this case gave a distinct edge to media reporting.

In far off Western Australia, the spectacular rise and fall of nitrogenous fertilizer tycoon Pankaj Oswal, and the on-going activities there of his former partner and later rival, Vikas Rambal, was in many ways a lower level replay of the Mittal story. Much of that story revolves about the fit or non-fit of the pair in the Perth business scene, and why.

The point that needs to be made immediately, of course, is that the businesses and polities of any country will produce these and other stories as in, say, the Goldman Sachs matters, the Leveson inquiry, the BP oil disaster and other recent episodes. India may be no more nor less prone to such moments but, meanwhile, a myriad of other businesses and activities go on being conducted inside the normal bounds of international activities with companies like Infosys and Tata, to name just two, now global names. That is not at issue.

However, it does seem that India struggles continuously to overcome a stigma of corner-cutting, commission requirements, choking red tape, chaotic legislative processes, careerist free-wheeling and corrosive constraints. That is to say, one of India’s main challenges at operational and applied levels is the perception others have about it rather than its modern reality. It is sometimes difficult to see the hi-tech India, for example, when travelling through the crowded downtown streets in somewhere like Georgetown in Chennai where cycle rickshaws still transport vegetables and ox-drawn carts still provide transport. Those who know India get the difference, but others struggle and that is sometimes the case at the policy level.

It might be too wide a generalisation, but this appears to be very different in the case of China where the perception is of tough negotiation but reasonable expectation of delivery as agreed. And it might be said that the perception has strengthened since Tim Clissold’s adventures during the early phases of the 1990s. In some respects, India is in that position now where there is enormous interest but much apprehension from the outside world.

So there have been a stream of delegations and visits led by Prime Ministers and others from the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and all the rest but with the best will in the world, all seem to have a strained atmosphere about them which stems from this central issue that, effectively, goes to trust in the system. What happens next is largely in the hands of the Indian government and its ability to inspire trust as well as, probably, do without Sachin’s vote in at least the immediate future.

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