Formula 1, undercurrents many

By Rajdeep Sardesai
04 November 2011 19:37 IST

Two of the country's biggest sports events in the last 12 months mirror two Indias. The Commonwealth Games last October were organised by an older India of the cosy neta-babu nexus. The Formula One Grand Prix was staged by a newer India through a happy marriage of local private entrepreneurship and global business.

The Commonwealth Games, blighted by a string of corruption allegations, are seen to have dented India's image. Formula One, on the other hand, is seen to have only confirmed India Inc's arrival on the world stage. So has the newer India of corporate and showbiz power scored over an older India of political and bureaucratic largesse?

Well, yes, and no. There is little doubt that the Formula one event was a spectacular success in terms of event management. Barring the stray dog who wandered on the race track, and a rock concert that never was, the event ran with clockwork precision. All those who attended the race were unanimous in their praise of the arrangements and the drivers too seemed pleased. Certainly, we didn't have the embarrassment of unclean toilets, missed deadlines and last minute construction that marred the Commonwealth Games build up.

Whereas the Commonwealth Games were organised by a vast army of politicians, bureaucrats and sports officials, Formula One was driven by a small team of management professionals.

For the Games organisers, the event was an opportunity to distribute political patronage to friends and clients. For the Formula one organisers, the race was a business opportunity aimed at brand-building and profit-making. The money spent on the Commonwealth Games came from the ubiquitous tax-payer, with the result that there was little accountability in the process. The money spent on Formula one came from publicly listed companies who needed to show tangible benefits to their shareholders.

And yet, it would be simplistic to see the success of Formula One as a sole triumph of private enterprise. Let be honest, organising a Formula one in Greater Noida would not have been possible without the solid support of the UP chief minister. It was no surprise that even while Sachin Tendulkar was given the honour of waving the chequered flag, it was Mayawati who was asked to give away the prizes. After all, without the UP government playing facilitator in land acquisition, it is unlikely that the organisers would have been able to build the infrastructure so speedily. There have been allegations of farmers being underpaid for the land sold but the undiluted support of the UP government ensured that the organisers could conquer all criticism.

Formula One, in that sense, was a good example of private-public partnership at work. It might even be seen as further evidence of modern day crony capitalism where the state favours select corporates in a manner that is mutually beneficial. What is apparent is that the model works, especially in states run by strong, individualistic chief ministers. The reason why auto majors find Gujarat a convenient destination is not too dissimilar to why UP became an ideal Formula One destination. Chief ministers like Narendra Modi and Mayawati can provide single window clearances to large projects in a manner that other states perhaps cannot. Indeed, the very fact that Delhi was host to the Commonwealth Games added to the nightmare: a multiplicity of authorities in the national capital was always a recipe for chaos.

Can this private-public partnership work in other sports, or indeed, other sectors beyond sport? Formula One, in many ways, is exceptional.

Few sports have been able to dovetail as effortlessly with the marketplace as Formula One. From auto companies to tech bluechips, Formula One provides the ideal platform for aggressive product marketing. The Commonwealth Games had to survive on the benevolence of Public Sector Undertakings and the odd private company, while Formula One had a rush of marquee sponsors.

If the Commonwealth Games offered old-style 'nationalism' as its unique selling point, Formula One was selling 'aspiration' to a consumerist, affluent new India, an India where a poor man from Motihari can become a crorepati overnight on a TV show. You could get tearful when an Indian won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games but there was visible fan excitement in spotting a film or sports star in a Formula One paddock. A Narain Karthikeyan may have come only 17th but the race itself appeared incidental to the hype and buzz around it. Which is why the after-dinner parties with a Lady Gaga as star performer was as important to the spectacle of Formula One as the person who won the race.

Which is also why the success of Formula One offers a glimpse at both the strengths and weaknesses of new India. At one level, it showcases the dynamism of a nation on the fast track, a country whose soaring ambitions cross geographical boundaries. That the Formula one boss, Bernie Ecclestone, was desperately keen for India to be on the Grand Prix map is a tribute to India's growing global importance. But at another level, the craze for international recognition through a formula one event reveals a certain lack of self-esteem which is sought to be compensated through a heady mix of ersatz glamour and big money.

Maybe, our problem is that we have moved from the bullock cart to the Formula One age in a relatively short span of time even while large parts of India are left hanging somewhere in-between. If Greater Noida is at one end of UP, at the other end of the vast state is Gorakhpur where almost 500 children have died of encephalitis because of poor healthcare facilities. When will we see a private-public partnership that builds hospitals in remote corners of UP with the same enthusiasm as a Formula One event is organised?

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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