A host in haste

Written by fe Bureau | Updated: Aug 29 2010, 05:11am hrs
Commonwealth Games 2010 have inspired a lot of reportage, often for the wrong reasons. And now they have inspired a book. In an exclusive preview, FE takes a sneak-peek into Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games, by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, as it attempts to peel the layers of the Delhi 2010 story and goes deep into the origin, history and the legacy of the Games

Nehrus Commonwealth gambit

It was he (Nehru), as hard-nosed a critic of British imperialism as there could be, who drove India into the Commonwealth. Nehru has often been accused of being too much of a romantic and too little of a strategist, in the realist sense. This judgement is now, at least in this case, increasingly at odds with the historical record. As a newly independent country, dealing with the trauma of the greatest mass migration in history, India needed a practical diplomacy that could help it stay the course at a time of great turmoil. This was not a compromise. Nehru changed the old rules of the Commonwealth to Indias advantage. India could have opted out of the Commonwealth but it chose to join, albeit on its own terms, as a republic, free from even a notional allegiance to the Queen. This was a development that overturned the old balance of power and one that had to be forced down the throats of the older White dominions. At one level, Nehrus Commonwealth gambit reflected his larger ideological understanding of history. At another level, it was also an audacious cold-blooded manoeuvre, worthy of a Bismarck in its intent and implementation. As Nehru put it, the Commonwealth has given us certain advantages (and no) liabilities in return.

Nehru only saw the Commonwealth as a practical forum for propagating the new Indian Republic on the world stage.... Over and over againon the Suez crisis, on Korea, on Vietnam and on ChinaNehru used the Commonwealth forum to provide the rapier thrust to his independent take on the emerging power praxis of the Cold War, much to the indignation of the Americans and the British.


Speaking in the Constituent Assembly, his justification for joining the Commonwealth was typical: We joined the Commonwealth obviously because we think it is beneficial to us and to certain causes in the world we wish to advance The other countries of the Commonwealth wish us to remain there because they think it is beneficial to them. In the world today, where there are so many disruptive forces at work, where we are often at the verge of war, I think it is not a safe thing to encourage the break-up of any association that one has Its better to keep a cooperative association going which may do good in this world rather than break it. For India, the Commonwealth clearly offered a half-way house between an impossible aloofness in international affairs and participation in the Cold War on the Anglo-American side. For Nehru, keeping India as an independent force was paramount and the Commonwealth was ideal because it provided consultations, not commitments, and discussions, without limiting free action. This was purely a practical arrangement. Commonwealth membership also brought with it economic benefits. India, Pakistan and Ceylon gained substantially from the Colombo Plan, which started in 1950, and from other external sources. India received nearly GBP 200 million in loans and grants up to 1954. A further GBP 200 million was to be invested in the next two years....

Nehru was pragmatic about this. He saw the Commonwealth merely as a meeting once or twice a year and occasional consultations that could be put to Indias use, and brought no harm.

Mahathirs game plan

Somewhat like Indira Gandhi, who approached the 1982 Asian Games as an opportunity to showcase a new India after the Emergency, Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia looked upon the hosting of the Commonwealth Games as an opportunity to showcase a sophisticated, model Muslim state before the world. He used the Games as a propaganda tool for his government. With these twin aims in mind, the Malaysian state spared no pains in making the Games a success. Despite being in the throes of a severe economic crisis, Malaysia spent a whopping $555 million for the 6,000 athletes.

For the Malaysians, as Janis Van Der Westhuzien suggests, KL 1998 represented the biggest, the best and the most lavish showcase they have ever staged. The scale of spending becomes clear when we note that Bangkok, host to the 1998 Asian Games, spent only $42.3 million for 10,000-plus athletes, far less than 50 per cent of what Malaysia budgeted for just over half as many participants. As with most host cities, the Malaysian initiative was based on a series of calculations. The Games, it was hoped, would give tourism, both international and domestic, a significant boost. So much so that Malaysia wanted to use the Games to catapult itself into being the premier gateway to Asia, replacing Singapore. Inspired by this objective, Kuala Lumpur was provided with Asias biggest airport at a cost of RM 9 billion, an overhead rail transit system and also a much improved ground transport network. Other associated industries too received a boost. Hotel rooms went up from 16,000 to 20,000 and a light rail system was soon put in place. All of these initiatives fed into Mahathirs efforts of projecting Malaysia as the new voice for the Third world and the Commonwealth Games could be seen as a direct extension of Malaysian foreign policy. The successful staging of the Games also offered the Malaysian elite an opportunity for internal political mobilization. The ruling dispensation, led by Mahathir, used the aura created by the Games to clamp down on the dissidents led by then deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, culminating in his arrest a day before the closing ceremony.

Anti-apartheid diary

The role of the Commonwealth Games Federation in defying apartheid assumes heightened significance because in this realm, more than anywhere else, it was the example of sport that led the way for world leaders to devise policies to counter racism. Until South Africa was banned from participating in the Commonwealth Games, and the Federation adopted a firm stand against racially segregated sport, politicians, especially in the white Commonwealth countries, did not hesitate in continuing their existing ties with that country. ..


While there was no apparent connection between cricket and the Commonwealth Games, sports diplomacy resulted in the Games coming into close proximity with cricket in the years between 1968 and 1970. If the South African cricket tour of England in 1970 had not been cancelled, the Commonwealth Games could well have remained whites-only. Commonwealth countries used the Games to bear pressure on the British government and the English Cricket Board to shun cricket relations with South Africa, which had continued uninterrupted during the 1950s and 1960s.... Having realized that the Edinburgh Games were an opportunity to drive home their point, the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA), as Bruce Murray has documented, threatened that a slew of African countries would boycott the Commonwealth Games scheduled for Edinburgh in July 1970 should the tour go ahead: Cricket was placed in the awkward position of seeming to sabotage the Commonwealth Games if it stubbornly proceeded with the tour, but that was likewise resented at Lords as a crude attempt at political blackmail. As the Foreign and Commonwealth Office submitted in a note for the Cabinet, it could not be expected that the Cricket Council would back down in the face of the African threat: they would be criticized bitterly by their supporters for giving in to black blackmail after having held out against strong white pressures and threats. The real challenge of the African boycott threat was to the government, and it was this that put the whole question of the South African tour on the Cabinet agenda.

.... New Delhi, which had established itself as a key Commonwealth player by then, instructed all Indian cricketers playing in the county circuit not to play in any match involving a South African cricketer. The British government, it was later evident, would not have been unduly worried had the Indians not thrown their weight behind the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign. Soon after the Indians had made known their intention of boycotting the Edinburgh Games, the British Commonwealth Games Federation, under duress, appealed to the Wilson government to intervene. .With the prospect of a NorthSouth divide looming large, the government on 21 May 1970 asked the TCCB not to go ahead with the proposed tour. Encouraged by the cancellation of the tour and the success of their endeavour to bring the MCC to book, all of the Commonwealth countries sent in their delegations to Edinburgh in what ultimately turned out to be a spectacularly successful Games from the perspective of spreading the gospel of the friendly Games.