Narendra Modi's barb at the Lutyens' cabal during his wide-ranging, exclusive interview with CNN-News18 will have blistered some skin and churned some single-malt stomachs among a small yet powerful clique in the power corridors of Delhi.
This amorphous yet tight-knit brotherhood (or sisterhood, if you will) of elite brokers — which by way of its uninterrupted proximity to power and ability to set the narrative constitutes the real 'establishment' instead of the ephemeral political clout enjoyed by parties — has been forced to finally grapple with a self-proclaimed 'outsider' in Delhi who understands the game.
Parties must seek public mandate every five years but this group suffers no such compunctions. It knows how to survive political upheaval.
This entire Lutyens' conglomerate of mutual back-scratchers including sundry members of the media, babus, lobbyists, authors, filmmakers, historians, social activists and a few public intellectuals is — as Modi mentioned during the recent interview with Network 18 group editor Rahul Joshi — "dedicated to only a few" in return for assured benefaction. Given India's political history, it is not hard to imagine who "the few" are. The British may have left India almost seven decades ago but the fealty of these power brokers has merely shifted from occupiers to the dominant political force.
And because these elites belong to a carefully nurtured ecosystem, they are fierce status-quoists, an order that has been threatened with the arrival of Modi at 7, Race Course Road. Ever since assuming office, Modi has interfered with their network. He has swiftly plugged a leaky PMO, made the power corridors largely inaccessible for media and has changed the flow of power from multi-directional to a unidirectional system.
There have been other steps as well.
The complex relationship between power-mongers and power brokers relies on a curious exchange of quid-pro-quo. The Modi government, as this Hindustan Times report points out, has so far evicted around 1,500 squatters from plush Lutyens' bungalows since it came to power in May 2014. No appeal for extensions has been entertained. Most reluctant VIPs have been ejected from their leafy abodes.
Not surprisingly, there has been a backlash. Due to their iron-grip over the narrative set by a largely English-speaking mainstream media, the government has been at the receiving end of phony campaigns to return awards, allegations of majoritarianism, loaded reports on communal violence unsupported by data and cherry-picking of facts to suit the narrative. The much-publicised attacks against the churches, for example, were later found to be random events of petty criminality instead of a "grand persecution of minorities".
Very often, these attacks have crossed the barrier from collective to personal and the prime minister has been targeted. Modi has engineered a bold change in foreign policy but his lack of foreign education, thick Gujarati accent, the fact that he can't sort a chardonnay from cabernet sauvignon and even his sartorial preferences have been frequently ridiculed. This points to a nauseating sense of entitlement that has somehow been internalised over the years and is being challenged only now.
Modi wasn't alone to be targeted, as he pointed out during the interview — mentioning the names of some of the great sons of the soil who have suffered similar derision due to their humble backgrounds.
In reply to the question whether he has started liking Lutyens' Delhi, Modi replied: "As you know the position of Prime Minister of India is such that there's no question of liking or disliking Luteyns' Delhi. But there is a need to deliberate on this.
"In Delhi's power corridors, there's an active group of people which is dedicated to only a few. It could be because of their own reasons or personal gains. It's not a question of Modi.
"Look back at history, what happened with Sardar Patel. This group presented Sardar Patel as a simple person from a village with simple intellect. Look at what happened to Morarji Desai. This same group never talked about his abilities, achievements. It always talked about what he drank. What happened with (HD) Deve Gowda? A farmer's son became prime minister, yet they said he only sleeps.
"And what happened with the supremely talented BR Ambedkar, whom they are praising today. They made fun of him. What happened with Chaudhury Charan Singh? They again made fun of him. So I'm not surprised when they make fun of him.
"These 'custodians' who are dedicated to a select few will never accept anyone who is linked to the roots of this country. So I too do not want to waste my time addressing to this group."
In Delhi's power corridors, there's an active group of people which is dedicated to only a few. It could be because of their own reasons or personal gains. It's not a question of Modi.
Soon after the airing of Modi's interview, former prime minister Deve Gowda told News18 that he, too, shares Modi's pain and slammed the Lutyens' cabal.
"I have seen Modi's comments. He has spoken the bitter truth. I wholly agree with what he has said. During my prime ministership the elite and powerful ecosystem of Lutyen's Delhi was hostile to me just because I am from a humble farming background. I thank the prime minister for exposing this despicable culture," he told News18.
Interestingly, Modi's views about this entitled 'club-class' seems to have undergone a transformation from the time he was a prime ministerial candidate in 2014 to an incumbent in 2016.
In a Times of India interview conducted on 6 May, 2014, shortly before his rise to power, Modi had expressed hope that the Lutyens' elite won't be hostile to him were he to become prime minister.
"I don't think anybody wants India to remain poor. They will all be contributors to this journey of progress and prosperity rather than being an impediment as you seem to suggest," he had said then.
The subsequent hardening of stance suggests a sense of futility in Modi who understands and is perhaps resigned to the fact that he won't be able to stitch up even a working relationship with this elite group of power-brokers, much less dismantle their network. But his barbs indicate that he remains fully aware of their machinations and isn't likely to be intimidated by the bullying.