Close on the heels of the IPL controversy that rocked Indian cricket, the Commonwealth Games has been caught in a web of allegations of rampant corruption. It is too early to predict how the Games, scheduled for October in New Delhi, will be conducted, but there is little doubt that the snowballing controversy in the planning stages is another blow to India's reputation as an emerging global power.
The Indian Premier League debacle, which revealed unethical negotiations for teams in India's lucrative new Twenty20 cricket competition, saw a government minister toppled and the chairman of the league step down. By contrast, the Commonwealth Games controversy seems to be still gaining momentum, but both examples expose links between India's sporting industry and the top echelons of national politics.
At the centre of the controversy is Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the Games organising committee, a parliamentarian and an ally of the Gandhi political dynasty. Mr Kalmadi has said he is willing to face a judicial probe, and yesterday three of his aides on the committee were expected to step down. The most incendiary allegations stem from a letter written to the sports ministry by Rajesh N Prasad, India's deputy high commissioner in London. The letter references accusations made by the British government, saying that £25,000 (Dh146,000) sent from the Games organising committee to AM Films, a UK-based company, was unaccounted for. The letter eventually led to more questions being asked and a call for a broader investigation of the committee's shady financial dealings.
The Indian media has had a field day, exposing inflated sums spent to hire equipment and buy materials, as well as financial misconduct and nepotism in the tender of major contracts. To some extent, organisers admit that standard bidding procedures were bypassed, ostensibly in the interest of expediency in the preparation for the upcoming games. Defending the AM Films payments, Mr Kalmadi as good as admitted irregularities: "There was no written contract with the firm as the decision was taken at the last minute. We had to get logistics for London in a hurry, so there was no time."
While £25,000 might be considered a drop in the bucket for an undertaking as large as the Games, many in the Indian media expect this to be only a fraction of the misdealings that will be exposed as investigators dig deeper into sporting affairs. There is also the lingering belief that the political and business heavyweights involved will prevent a full investigation. While some heads may roll, few expect a satisfactory conclusion - just as the IPL investigation has failed to fully come clean.
In 2003, when India won the right to host the Games, the estimated cost was projected to be 6.35 billion rupees (Dh500 million). That massive expenditure raised eyebrows in a country where development budgets are sorely underfunded, but the sports ministry assuaged critics by claiming the Games would earn 8.4 billion rupees, and thus earn a profit. But costs have skyrocketed, with the latest figure reaching 20 billion rupees.
It is believed to be the costliest Commonwealth Games in history, with unofficial estimates projecting triple that amount. As the figure continues to climb, organisers are justifying the expense on the grounds of hurried preparations before the October deadline. But as more evidence emerges of nepotistic deals siphoning off funds - not to mention sport facilities that appear to have serious structural flaws - that explanation is growing harder to swallow.
Most Indians are inured to the scandals and corruption that are endemic in society, but the magnitude of the current events and the billions of rupees involved have raised serious doubts about India's ability to host such global extravaganzas. The Games, which are being organised under the "New India" brand, seem remarkably like business as usual. Amid all the media coverage there has been little attention paid to the preparations of athletes and their hopes and aspirations. Instead, the headlines have dwelled on the wastage of funds and resources, and lackadaisical work on construction sites.
The timing couldn't be worse. India is struggling to cope with the recession, inflation and the rising prices of essential commodities. Indian citizens are being asked to tighten their belts as subsidies on petrol and natural gas are being lifted, while at the same time taxpayer coffers are funding a seemingly endless boondoggle. Economists have said that the financial bungling surrounding the Games, if true, could have a substantial effect on the economy.
India has succeeded in hosting international sporting events in the past, most notably the Asian Games in 1982. Commentators have argued that the costs of the Commonwealth Games could have been greatly reduced if the infrastructure from that event had been built upon. In a serious indictment of the organising committee last month, the former sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyer said the patrons of these Games were "evil" because billions of rupees were being spent on "circuses" while many of the country's children were deprived of sport facilities.
If - as should be hoped - the October Games are a success, these scandals will recede into the background. But it would be a mistake to forget the massive budget overruns, highly dubious purchasing deals and poor transparency. The fate of the Games hangs in the balance, but India has already lost some of the sheen the Games were meant to confer.