Hoarding the common wealth

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The recent spat between Suresh Kalmadi and Mike Hooper is only the latest manifestation of the veteran politician’s legendary ego and obsession with controlling the purse strings. Shantanu Guha Ray reports

Village chief Suresh Kalmadi at a Commonwealth Games site
Photo: Reuters

BARELY A week before the contretemps between the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) and the Games Organising Committee (GOC) assumed alarming status, a researcher made an informal presentation to GOC Chairman Suresh Kalmadi on the state of preparedness of two cities – Glasgow (2014 Commonwealth) and Amsterdam (aiming for the 2028 Summer Olympics).

In that seven-minute presentation, which actually lasted for four minutes before others trooped into his room with files requiring clearance signatures, the 65-year-old Kalmadi was told that the two cities’ preparedness was, in fact, better than the Indian Capital – which has less than a year to host the Commonwealth Games. Those present in the room say that Kalmadi, a four-time president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), wasn’t amused.

Weeks ago, someone had told him that a book on the Commonwealth mess will hit the stands next March and it could blow up in his face. A few months ago, he drew flak for handing the Formula One contract to his son-in-law, squarely bypassing the IOA (intended recipient). And then there are charges that always accompany his marathons: that he has a hand in every contract signed to organise the show.

But Kalmadi, a veteran of many battles, kept his cool. Uppermost on his mind, perhaps, was the note sent by the coordinating commissioner of the CGF that found the GOC lacking in as many as 20 out of 34 functional areas. In private conversations with confidants, Kalmadi has boasted that the crisis number on the list will be reduced to zero by the end of this year.

That Kalmadi is troubled is amply clear. Days after his public spat with CGF CEO Mike Hooper made headlines across India, and in countries that still view the Games with some amount of seriousness, he has a government watchdog — former bureaucrat Jarnail Singh — scanning almost anything and everything going in and out of the imposing NDMC building that is home to the CGF in New Delhi. The joke doing the rounds in the GOC office is that even the gigantic fibreglass statue of the mascot, Shera the tiger, which towers imposingly in front of the building, is wondering whether it too will be up for a scan.

At the heart of the crisis is a lot of bruised egos and the race to control the humongous budget that stands at a whopping Rs 75,000 crore. On paper, Kalmadi, as chairman of the organising committee, is seen as actually having the right to sanction budgets only for a measly Rs 1,620 crore. But he also has a budget of Rs 1,000 crore that the government has sanctioned to train athletes. The funds are actually loans from the Centre and — till date — no one knows how it will be refunded. The rest is, actually, in the hands of various ministries and, of course, the Delhi Government, that is spending more than Rs 60,000 crore to upgrade the city with 36 flyovers and facilities such as 24-hour power and water backup. But Kalmadi’s word is still supreme because he is the GOC boss and a lot of funds — directly linked to the games — will pass through his table.

It is the very fear of misappropriation that has caused tensions within the government. As an initial checkmate, it has been decided that any sanction from the Rs 1,620 crore purse crossing the Rs 50 lakh mark must be vetted by a panel of experts drawn from a host of agencies. And everything, of course, will now be overseen by Singh, the new CEO handpicked by Union Sports Minister MS Gill (with ample backing from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh).

So why is Kalmadi in a mess? It is mainly because he wants to control all the strings and refuses to accept the fact that delays have happened. That’s discontent number one, and it’s been aggravated since a pompous Kalmadi has never felt the need to explain the reasons: that funds came inordinately late from various governments. Interestingly, the main tranche of funds for the games was received only after the UPA Government came to power this year – before that, no one pushed the files. And Kalmadi made little noise in the public domain.

KALMADI’S SECOND sore point is with Hooper. Many call it the main point. The New Zealander — with his lavish farmhouse lifestyle and salary that would put any decent CEO to shame — is frustrated because Kalmadi wants his own favourites to handle some of the projects, and not the 44 global consultants that have descended on New Delhi with the thought of making the Games a super success. Kalmadi’s argument is that the foreign consultants’ salaries could cross Rs 120 crore, something that can easily be halved if locals are employed. Damn it, global experts with vast experience are better, argues Hooper, with some solid backing from the CGF chief, the Jamaican Michael Fennell. On paper, Kalmadi appears weak because after the Asian Games in 1982, India has not organised anything of such magnitude. What if the locals fail – will you call the Army then, ask both Hooper and Fennell. Kalmadi — in his typical style — has looked the other way. His ego is legendary. Once, Kalmadi, a former Air Force pilot, walked out of a government function to honour Indian medallists at the 2008 Summer Olympics because he was not offered a chair next to the Vice-President, Hamid Ansari.

Caught in the crossfire of darts are those working in the building. In some cases Kalmadi has won — the worker always wins, he tells his friends — and in some he has been embarrassed beyond shape by Hooper and his men.

Consider this: Hooper favoured a marksmanships consultant, Greame Hudson, also from New Zealand, to handle that part of the games, but Kalmadi castled Hooper, saying the equipment Hudson favoured was sub-standard. Kalmadi won here. He again won brownie points when he pointed out, in a presentation to the prime minister, that Sports Marketing and Management Private Limited (SMAM), an Australian agency, could not get the required sponsors and that he had to rope in companies like Reliance, Dabur, Hero Honda, Sahara and even cash-strapped Air India.

But Hooper bounced back when he told the CGF that the Australian consultant, Steve Doran, who was handling the baton relay, was also facing teething problems created by Kalmadi’s men. He also complained to the CGF that Kalmadi was obstructing Hooper’s initiative to bring in a global company to provide insurance and was, instead, suggesting that the games be insured by an Indian company.

Delays have happened.  And they have been aggravated since a pompous Kalmadi has never felt the need to explain the reasons

 

There are other tussles as well. Up for grabs is the lucrative deal – any journalist would love it – to run the Games News Service (GNS) that would offer reporters news of the games. Kalmadi wants an Indian (or a team of Indians) to get the contract, but is facing protests from Hooper, who wants an international outfit to handle the news. Kalmadi wants to play the Indian vs foreigner card to boost his political as well as public image. In the recent Maharashtra polls, he could muster only a slender 25,747 margin of victory from Pune, down from a 1 lakh margin in 2004.

On a parallel level, the prime minister is extremely upset with the mess. He has often asked the finance minister how the initial bid budget of Rs 330 crore shot up to Rs 75,000 crore. Delhi’s development, replied the FM. Someone has slipped a note to the PMO that the offer to provide hostels for students from Delhi University in the Games village after the games are complete is bogus – the real estate developer could sell the flats for big bucks. Singh, to checkmate Kalmadi, the former railways minister, once even considered promoting Rahul Gandhi to handle the crisis, but the proposal was shot down by 10, Janpath. But that 10, Janpath is unhappy with Kalmadi is fairly clear. In fact, under clear directions from the PMO, Sports Minister Gill intervened in the Kalmadi-Hooper spat and offered to mediate between the two during the Games’ baton ceremony, to be conducted at Buckingham Palace in late October.

Manmohan Singh considered getting Rahul Gandhi to handle the crisis but the proposal was shot down by 10, Janpath

Does that mean the bearded Kalmadi is totally down and out? The answer is no. This master operator, who wishes to be known as the Indian equivalent of Juan Antonio Samaranch, earned his gold during the Commonwealth Games general assembly in Delhi when he got overwhelming support from the African nations that unanimously backed him against what they called the racist attitudes within the Commonwealth nations. In fact, legendary Kenyan runner Kipchoge Keino gave some examples of how such acts from white nations have often marred the games. Added to this mix were Hooper’s reported racist remarks to Indians working in the GOC. Kalmadi himself told reporters how once an infuriated Hooper flung a bunch of keys at him.

So, in all probability, ‘Operation Scalp Kalmadi’ will have to take a back seat. It is reliably learnt that Kalmadi will eventually have his say, ease Hooper out and replace him with someone from the ‘global South’, a term coined for developing nations. If that happens – and, chances are that it might, during the baton ceremony – criticisms against the Pune strongman will fade. Until, of course, the next controversy hits the headlines.

WRITER’S EMAIL
shantanu@tehelka.com

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