Freedom Issue 2016: Essay

Out of Socialist Delhi

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The evolutionary story of power

MY FIRST REAL encounter with Delhi was in the winter of 1966-67 when the family chose it as a holiday destination. I understand that my parents had taken me to Delhi once earlier, when we stayed with my maternal uncle who was then an Additional Solicitor General. But the memories of a five-year old remain hazy.

This time, we stayed in the official accommodation of my grandfather’s formidable sister who was married to a Member of Parliament from Andhra Pradesh. They were away, busy with the election campaign for the fourth General Election and, consequently, we had the bungalow on Rajendra Prasad Road in Lutyens’ Delhi all to ourselves for the three weeks we spent in the Capital.

Delhi fascinated me. Apart from the imperial buildings such as Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhavan, which seemed to complement the majestic Red Fort, there were two other facets of the city that appealed to me. First, the sunny winter mornings and the cold nights were novel. Yes, there was a winter of sorts in my home town Calcutta, but it came and went in a blink. In Delhi, I experienced a winter for the first time, and I loved it. Secondly, there was the food. My father, who was a foodie, insisted we dine at Moti Mahal in Daryaganj where the tandoori chicken tasted better than what we had been used to in Calcutta. Then there was the street food in Bengali Market, the wicked, ghee-soaked sone halwa from Chandni Chowk and the mutton from Kakeda Hotel. The so-called ‘continental’ fare at Volga and United Coffee House in Connaught Place—oh, how I was fascinated by the circular market—was a shade inferior to what I was accustomed to at Skyroom in Calcutta, but it was nevertheless tasty.

I fell in love with Delhi for another reason. It was unquestionably the seat of political power. In Calcutta, we were all too accustomed to power. The 1966-67 period saw unending political agitations on the streets, and soon the terms ‘hartal’ and ‘gherao’ would come to be firmly etched in our consciousness. But politics is different from political power, and Delhi resonated with power. The conversations I recall of that visit seemed far more knowledgeable than what I had experienced in Calcutta. There were people who spoke about their previous conversations with Indira Gandhi. Others referred to mysterious but seemingly all-powerful Secretaries who, in my juvenile imagination, seemed somewhat more relevant than the Miss Nimbupani immortalised by cartoonist Mario Miranda. Somehow the political culture of Delhi, it seemed to me, appeared more purposeful and glamorous than what we were experiencing in the provinces. I was even fascinated by the exotic tales of rampaging sadhus who had entered the Parliament premises and prompted the resignation of Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda.

Many of these early impressions of Delhi were reinforced when, in a spirit of rebelliousness, a few school friends decided that we had had enough of the turbulence of ‘revolutionary’ Calcutta and that we would move to Delhi. There were four of us from the same class of La Martiniere who took the Rajdhani Express in the summer of 1972 to start a new chapter in Delhi. Three of us joined St Stephen’s College and one registered across the road in Hindu College. Quite by coincidence, three of us ended up in the media and one went on to become a professor in Delhi University.

In many respects, St Stephen’s was like an extension of the elite English-medium schools that proliferated in India since the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the students reading History, for example, shared the same cultural assumption. Whether we had come from Jaipur, Patna, Lucknow or Calcutta, we understood each other culturally. There were a handful who were less comfortable in English and the cruel among the elite boys dubbed them the ‘Jhumri Tilayya type’ after the town in Bihar that specialised in sending song requests to Vividh Bharti.

Then there were the day scholars, only a few of whom I really got to know since social interaction invariably happened post-dinner or on Sundays. While most of the day scholars lived in either the old city or in colonies such as Greater Kailash and Defence Colony, there was a handful that commuted to college from Lutyens’ Delhi. Invariably, they were the sons of senior bureaucrats, many of whom had written their civil services examination after five years at St Stephen’s.

Despite the cultural commonalities, there was a divide between those of us who had come to the National Capital from the provinces and those who had lived most of their lives in the government colonies of Delhi. There was a distinct Delhi sense of entitlement that marked the Lutyens’ boys from the rest.

The India of the 1970s was the high noon of socialism, the needlessly respectable name conferred on the shortage economy

In those days, Delhi was essentially a city of three parts: the bureaucratic Lutyens’ zone at the centre, the refugee colonies surrounding it, and the Jat-Gujjar dominated rural badlands on the periphery. Each of these three Delhis had their own socio- cultural and political ethos that was apparent to outsiders.

The Lutyens’ boys, as I mentioned earlier, carried the baggage of privilege. This was not the privilege associated with flashy, chauffeur-driven cars or terribly expensive clothes. There was a certain drab uniformity linked to outward appearances— although the discerning could easily identify the ‘U’ from the ‘non-U’ quite effortlessly. However, the children of bureaucrats (and particularly diplomats) had easy access to blue Levi’s jeans that was denied to us, the children of parents who didn’t habitually travel overseas.

In hindsight, this may appear trivial and hardly worthy of mention. But the India of the 1970s was the high noon of socialism, the needlessly respectable name conferred on the shortage economy. In practice, this meant that more or less everything was either shoddy or in short supply. As a student this meant having to write notes on paper that would immediately leave a big smudge, scouring the libraries of the University and sometimes the city for basic books that were in short supply, and looking in despair at the references to journal articles that were not available for either love or money.

Under the ‘Garibi Hatao’ socialism that I experienced in my undergraduate years, serious study literally involved burning the midnight oil. The St Stephen’s College library, for example, provided the facility of overnight loan of any book in the Reference section. This meant borrowing the book at 7.30 in the evening, ploughing through it all night and ensuring its return to the library by 8 the next morning. I don’t know if this extra genuflection before Goddess Saraswati helped the process of character building. However, it can be said with certainty that one of the reasons any academically inclined student was desperate to run away to a university overseas was due to the paucity of academic resources and the consequent hardships. The pure pleasure felt by us at opening the pages of a book we had always wanted to read but somehow couldn’t was equal to the happiness felt by cinema buffs on seeing a new film within a week of its release. But the pleasure was rarely experienced. We sustained ourselves intellectually through unending peer group interaction—an oral dissemination of cleverness—that compensated for the fact that we were always many steps behind keeping up with the frontiers of knowledge.

Socialism either dulled two or three generations or forced them to vote with their feet and emigrate. The shortage economy was always a deterrent to young people being able to live up to their potential. No wonder the period witnessed unending— and sometimes purposeless—youth unrest. Rebellion became a way of life simply because there was a low glass ceiling constructed on ambition.

Today, India has come a very long way, though we are still many miles from becoming a developed economy. The dismantling of the licence-permit-quota raj, a process that began in 1991, was a landmark event. For the first time, the political class understood the importance of the need to create an opportunity society. Yet, 25 years later, I am struck by the appearance of seemingly scholarly interventions that look back with wistful nostalgia at the world that began evaporating in 1991.

Yes, the pre-liberalisation world was not all bad. There were certain simple pleasures of life such as queuing for a matinee show or, more likely, buying tickets from the black market tout, which seem all very touching. There was also a sense of adventure, coupled with discomfort, at travelling long distance by train. Air travel was unaffordable and out of the question. But the sheer torture of going to the railway station a month earlier to buy tickets was an associated hassle.

Delhi is still at the heart of political India but its reach and power has shrunk significantly. More importantly, babudom is no longer the crème de la crème of the productive world

The world of socialism was really for the privileged. But privilege in the Indian sense was not merely assessed by income. What mattered was status: where you stood in relation to the world of government. For that world, life was relatively easier. From subsidised and (more important) readily available food and consumer goods to easily organised travel, it was the babus and the political class who were first in the queue.

What distinguished them from the others were two things. First, there was a fierce and fanatical determination to secure the lion’s share of privileges for themselves and their families. When the Indian rupee was devalued in 1966 and prices skyrocketed, the only significant step taken by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to relieve popular suffering was the establishment of a six-storied Super Bazar off Connaught Place. According to that mindset, Delhi was at the centre of the world, and within Delhi, government servants were the privileged elite. Secondly, the determination to safeguard and enhance its own privileges was supplemented by a visceral loathing of everything connected with business. Unlike the post-Mandal era when the elite abandoned the civil services for the private sector—a move that also coincided with liberalisation— the ultimate aim of the meritorious student was to take the civil service examination and enter either the IAS or IFS. The reason was obvious: the bureaucracy in the 1970s was the equivalent of merchant banking today. This also explains why the bid to foster minimum government leads to such spirited bureaucratic resistance.

IN THE 69TH year of Indian Independence, I can feel a measure of smug satisfaction that I persevered with India and kept my faith in it. This is unlike a large number of my contemporaries who bought a one-way ticket out of the country. In the short-run they did well, prospering both intellectually and materially. Many of them sympathised with the plight of those who had chosen to remain. Today, as retirement beckons, the boot can be said to be on the other foot.

We may not have attained large personal fortunes, but life in today’s India for the middle-classes is infinitely better than it was 25 years ago. More important, we can smell an even better future as the country climbs the ladder of economic prosperity and global relevance. And it all happened because we jettisoned the shortage economy and the perverse mentalities associated with it.

Delhi, alas, is still at the heart of political India but its reach and power has shrunk significantly. And more importantly, babudom is no longer the crème de la crème of the productive world. Babus are increasingly looking elsewhere and their children aren’t likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps. After all, the babus have ensured that membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club passes on to their children, regardless of what they do in life.

Having seen Delhi over a lifetime, I can smell the change. And it is a sweet smell.