How Modi overthrew hierarchical, elitist Lutyens’ Delhi to democratise Indian politics as never before

Narendra Modi has been Indian politics’ Black Swan phenomenon. He has, in the past eight years, worked tirelessly to overthrow the old elite and truly democratise the corridors of power

Utpal Kumar September 17, 2022 16:52:06 IST
How Modi overthrew hierarchical, elitist Lutyens’ Delhi to democratise Indian politics as never before

(File) Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses inaugural session of First All India District Legal Services Authorities Meet in Delhi. Image courtesy: @BJP4India/Twitter

A few years ago, Lord Meghnad Desai, in an interaction with this writer, recalled an interesting incident of December 2007. The Gujarat Assembly election results were just out, and the mood was sombre among Left-liberal commentators in a TV studio. Desai was asked on live television to analyse then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral victory. Pat came the reply: “Modi is the next leader of the BJP.”

Desai’s statement evoked “surprise and some disgust” among co-panellists, to the extent that noted social scientist Ashis Nandy gave a terse one-liner: “Over my dead body!” To this, Desai recalled saying: “Ashis, you and I are young enough and it will happen in our lifetime.”

Desai was vindicated within seven years as Modi romped to power at the Centre with an absolute majority — a first in the last three decades. But, in Nandy’s defence, it can be said that his assessment was based on his life-long experience. The arrival of Modi in Lutyens’ Delhi was more on the lines of a Black Swan event which —in the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his highly engrossing book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) — are “nearly impossible to predict, yet after they happen, we always try to rationalise them”.

Modi’s rise, especially since 2014, has been a Black Swan event in Indian politics. Till then whosoever was in power at the Centre, it was invariably the Lutyens’ elite that ruled. Contrary to what most people believe, this power elite first came to power not in 1947, but in 1928 when Motilal Nehru’s term as Congress president was about to end. The buzz was that either Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose would take over the party reins. But then Jawaharlal Nehru’s mother, Swarup Rani, wanting to see “a king passing on the sceptre of the throne to his logical successor”, reached out to MK Gandhi seeking his intervention. The Mahatma, by acceding to a mother’s heart, unwittingly set in motion the foundation of a dynasty that was to rule India post-Independence.

So, what exactly is Lutyens’ Delhi? Sanjaya Baru writes in India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution (2021), “No one represented this elite better than the country’s first political family — the Nehru-Gandhis — and the many families cutting across professions that benefited from serving the family’s successive generations.”

This power elite has been a closely-knit group living in Raisina Hill and nearby posh localities of Jor Bagh, Chanakyapuri, Vasant Vihar, et al, where entries are fiercely monitored and outsiders are just not welcomed. Ranjana Sengupta writes in Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City (2008): “The celebration of Lutyens’ Delhi may be couched in the vocabulary of heritage, architectural aesthetics and history, but the values it asserts — consciously or not — are those of regimentation, hierarchy and exclusion.” This class is all about exclusion and hierarchy and it has till 2014 at least made rules that the rest of Indians followed.

This power elite—disdainfully called Lutyens’ Club or Khan Market Gang by those on the other side of the ideological divide — retained power and pelf bereft of who was in power. Even when Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed the first BJP-led NDA government at the Centre in the late 1990s, Lutyens’ Club still called the shots. Baru writes, “Vajpayee… was himself a long-standing member of the Lutyens’ elite and indeed belonged to what Modi and his groupies would dub the ‘Khan Market Gang’, so to speak. For, my own first glimpse of Vajpayee in the early 1980s was in, of all places, Khan Market. He was carrying a Pomeranian in his arms and walking into a veterinarian’s, simply smiled and walked on, as if he was running an errand in a familiar neighbourhood.”

Baru continues, “The ease with which senior BJP leaders, including Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and Brajesh Mishra, interacted with a range of the IIC’s usual suspects and then went on to become powerful members of the Vajpayee government further reassured Lutyens’ Delhi. Lal Krishna Advani and wife were frequent diners at the IIC dining room, and Arun Jaitley loved his walks around the Lodhi Garden and the long chat sessions with friends over tea and snacks at the IIC lounge. Jaswant Singh was a regular in the IIC’s seminar circuit. Even after Vajpayee became PM, one could find many PMO officials at the watering holes of the Gymkhana Club and the IIC.”

Nothing had changed for India’s traditional power elite. In fact, the Vajpayee regime reinforced a sense of invincibility in this class. When the traditional power elite would see Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, frequenting “the Lutyens’ cocktail circuit, making friends with cigar-smoking business barons and flashy journalists like Vir Sanghvi”, it was reassuring that governments might come and go but power centres would remain the same.

It’s not that Lutyens’ Delhi got everything on a platter. It took a lot of planning and plotting, and intense negotiations and lobbying sessions to get the “right person” for the job. NK Singh is a classic example. The son of an ICS officer, NK worked closely with different Congress regimes, but it was under Vajpayee that he came into his own.

“When Vajpayee was defeated and Manmohan Singh took over, there was a shake-up in the bureaucracy and many Vajpayee loyalists were moved out of important positions, but the Lutyens’ elite very quickly adjusted itself to the new dispensation, with ‘our friend Nandu’ (as NK Singh was called by his friends) replaced by a ‘our friend Montek’,” Baru writes.

But NK’s story in shaping the traditional Lutyens’ ecosystem doesn’t end there. He, in fact, to stop the Modi juggernaut, pulled up the Nitish Kumar card in 2013, the repercussions of which are still being seen in Bihar politics and which provides hope to die-hard old elites that it may be business as usual after 2024.

In his article, “Hour of ‘honourable’ option”, in The Telegraph (16 June 2013), senior journalist Sankarshan Thakur recalled an incident “three nights ago” when NK Singh, by then a Janata Dal (United) MP, was hosting a dinner at Cambridge. As the party was in full swing, NK asked Amartya Sen: “What, Sir, do you think are the options before Nitish Kumar?” The Nobel laureate “reflected a moment” and then said: “Well, Nitish Kumar has several options, but only one honourable one.”

That one message — “the honourable one”, of course — changed the mind of Nitish Kumar and with it the course of the BJP-JD(U) alliance. Kumar suddenly could see himself as the rightful inheritor of Lutyens’ tradition. The traditional power elite propped up Nitish, and in normal circumstances it would have been a masterstroke.

But then a Black Swan event strikes India.

Modi has been Indian politics’ Black Swan phenomenon. He has, in the past eight years, worked tirelessly to overthrow the old hierarchical elite and truly democratise the corridors of power. He has opened the gates of Lutyens’ Delhi for others. So, next time, when terms such as “autocratic”, “illiberal” and “Islamophobic” are hurled at Modi and his government, it should be obvious why and from where these abuses are coming.

Narendra Modi has changed the very rules of the game in the country, wherein the old, dynastic and hierarchical order has no place. This, by no means, is an ordinary contribution.

This is part 1 of a two-part series.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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