(The News International, 14 November 2011)

by Praful Bidwai

Monday, November 14, 2011

“Vettel is the Champ, India the Winner.” “Vettel Wins, World Raises Toast to India.” Thus screamed the headlines in India’s leading newspapers reporting on the first-ever round of the Formula One (F1) motor-racing championship held in the country. The race – to watch which India’s tycoons and sports and film celebrities travelled in private jets, thus creating congestion at Delhi airport – was over in less than 91 minutes.

Having burned hundreds of millions on building the special Grand Prix track at the Buddh International Circuit, sunk tens of millions into generating publicity, and hyped up the 60-percent stall occupancy as an unprecedented success, the organisers declared victory “for India,” no less.

India, they claim, has finally entered the global league of elite high-technology sports, with a premium on money, glamour and monstrous power derived from the “spine-tingling, ear-splitting, high-octane” effects of the pollution-intensive combustion of enormous quantities of petrol.

Yet, it’s difficult to comprehend how Formula One can be an authentic sport. All sports essentially involve exertion of the human body and mind to lofty heights of physical performance and endurance, with deftness and grace of movement, intense concentration, some muscular strength, and great willpower.

Thus we admire great athletes for running at lightning speeds or performing great feats on parallel bars or long-jump tracks. It’s a pleasure to watch a Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer, Shoaib Akhtar or Lionel Messi for their graceful style, accuracy and swiftness of judgment, and creative strategising.

All these attributes involve the exercise of human abilities. Technology, sophisticated devices or artificially-generated power are essentially peripheral to sports. Thus, the new lightweight helmet that many batsmen use as protection against bouncers is a simple aid. Even in equestrian sports, the abilities of the rider and the trainer matter beyond a point much more than the horse’s body.

F1 racing is mainly about technology – about how much power automobile manufacturers can put into engines and how much lightness they can achieve in the vehicle’s weight through the use of carbon fibre. Human prowess and abilities come a low second and are limited to concentration, ability to quickly read high-tech gauges, and enduring high levels of acceleration.

These physical and mental abilities aren’t trivial. Fighter pilots also have them. Indeed, they are trained to withstand even higher levels of acceleration, several times the earth’s gravity. But we don’t regard fighter pilots as sports champions who must be rewarded with million-dollar prizes.

When someone like Vettel or Schumacher wins an F1 championship, it’s not an individual’s or a team’s victory, but the victory of companies like Mercedes and Ferrari, which supply engines, or of Honda and Renault, which make entire sports cars, Pirelli, which makes high-performance tyres, or brand owners like Red Bull (a high-energy drink manufacturer) and countless corporate sponsors.

The speed of F1 cars is in any case limited to 360 kmph, and much of their performance depends on electronic driving aids, aerodynamics, suspension and tyres. So technology remains overwhelmingly powerful in this so-called sport.

To make it still attractive (F1 had a global television audience of 527 million people during the 2010 Championship), F1’s organisers in the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) added glamour and male-chauvinist appeal via the sleek, long racing car shaped like a phallic symbol. Skimpily clad models are posted along the track circuit, and world celebrities are recruited to endorse the event.

Bernie Ecclestone has dominated the F1 scenario for decades by subordinating it to his own business empire by unethical methods. Ecclestone opposes women drivers and once said women “should be dressed like all domestic appliances.” He is reportedly an admirer of Hitler for “efficiency” and said in 2009 that he prefers totalitarian regimes to democracies. The FIA’s Max Mosley was recently involved in a Nazi-style sex orgy.

Such sleaze-balls have been joined in India by shady businessmen and playboys. Quintessentially, F1 is a millionaire sport, which draws people as voyeurs of power, money and speed. With annual spending totalling billions of dollars, F1 commands enormous power and a “merchandising environment,” with huge investments from sponsors and hundreds of millions for car constructors.

F1 celebrates irresponsibly high petrol consumption. This sends out a perverse message in the climate-change era, when reducing emissions from fossil-fuel burning has become imperative.

It’d be fine if millionaires indulge in this tawdry entertainment, provided society doesn’t subsidise it. But as happens with many sporting events, like the India Premier League and other Big-Money-driven spectacles, F1 received entertainment-tax exemption. This is unacceptable.

The argument that big events like F1 will promote a sporting culture been repeatedly negated by India’s actual experience with the Asian Games (1982) and the Commonwealth Games last year. No country that hosts such spectacular events recovers its massive investments.

India’s corporate media, which stands to make a killing from advertisements for fancy brands of champagne and wristwatches, has gone euphoric over F1. This is part of its self-assigned role as a worshipper of corporate wealth (however acquired), promoter of elite interests, and booster of high consumer spending.

The just-released Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index says that 64 percent of consumers in 56 countries believe this is not a good time to spend money, and one-third of Americans and one-fifth of Europeans say they have no spare cash. But in India, with its elite consumption-led growth, consumer confidence was the world’s highest for the seventh consecutive quarter, and stands at 121, compared to 88 for the globe, 104 for China, and 77 for the US.

Contrast this with the latest National Crime Record Bureau figures that farmers’ suicides in India crossed the quarter-million mark between 1995 and 2010 – the highest such number in human history. Among the worst performers here is India’s most prosperous and industrialised state, Maharashtra.

Or take the urban development ministry’s disclosure that more than one-half of all cities in a dozen major Indian states have no access to piped drinking water or sewerage. Four-fifths of their households get water for less than five hours a day. Over 70 percent have no toilets.

India’s health statistics tell a similar story, with collapse of primary health centres, overcrowding of public hospitals and mounting healthcare costs, three-fourths of which the poor must pay from their pockets. Illness has become the third-biggest driver of poverty in India. Corporate hospitals, which got public land dirt-cheap on the condition that between 20 and 50 percent of their patients would be poor people, and treated at concessional rates, are in blatant non-compliance with that condition

The public-private partnership healthcare idea, to be promoted through a foundation sponsored by former McKinsey CEO Rajat Gupta, hasn’t taken off. Gupta has been charged with serious corporate fraud and insider trading in the US, like his collaborator Raj Rajratnam, who was sentenced to 11 years in jail.

Gupta continues to have close links with the Indian government despite this. Indeed, he remains a role model for many middle-class Indians as someone who rose from a humble background right to the top of the corporate ladder.

Globally, a major antagonism is visible between capitalism and democracy. But the Indian elite and media continue to glorify capitalism, with all its sleaze. Their celebration of F1 is part of this.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in