Open Essay

Fear and Loathing in Lutyens’ Delhi

Tavleen Singh is a leading columnist and writer.
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Intimations of a New Establishment and the Return of Real India
As I begin this essay on the feudal nature of political Delhi and why Narendra Modi is sending shivers up the spines of those who constitute the Durbar, the first thing that comes to my mind is a conversation from long ago. It was late summer in 1980 and Rajiv Gandhi had just announced his intention to enter politics. I was at a dinner party in a lavish Lutyens’ Delhi garden in which the scent of French perfume and expensive cigarettes mingled gently with the scent of summer flowers.

Ladies in jewels and saris of muslin and chiffon languished on cane chairs, their men drank and chatted at a cane bar. I was drifting about as one does at these parties when a close friend of Rajiv pulled me into a corner to tell me in tones of high excitement that a famous industrialist from Bombay (not yet Mumbai) had approached him. When I asked what he meant, he said, “He wants an introduction to Rajiv, silly, and he hinted that I could benefit from the introduction, I am trying to decide what I should ask for.”

The details of what he asked for are irrelevant. What is relevant is that when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister four years later, this friend acquired the reputation of being a gatekeeper to the Prime Minister’s household. And, like a lot of Rajiv’s other friends became suddenly very rich.

This conversation has come back to me often in the past decade. Not only because crony socialism has caused scandal after scandal to fall out of government closets, but because I remember it as the first time that I became aware of the feudal nature of political Delhi. I had known Rajiv by then for some years, and in all that time had never heard him talk about public service or what he would like to do to make India’s political future better. His brother had not been motivated by high ideals either, but had shown a taste for political power while Rajiv had always been happy as a family man and a pilot. So for him to suddenly be in a position to become India’s future Prime Minister was reminiscent for me of feudal days of yore and a warning that Delhi, more specifically Lutyens’ Delhi, was now the capital of a new socialist kingdom.

No sooner did Rajiv become a politician than a group of his close friends became the most powerful people in India. In those fully socialist times, they could hand out contracts, appoint bureaucrats to high and low office and make a lot of money for themselves through government contracts. It was in Rajiv’s time that the foundations of the crony socialism that has flourished in the past decade were laid.

Anyone who calls it ‘crony capitalism’ has not understood the feudal nature of Indian politics. If we had even a semblance of real capitalism, India’s economic growth rate would not have plummeted the way it has and you would not have had so many billionaire politicians who have never built real businesses. It is true that crony socialism and dynastic succession now flourish from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, but it all began in Lutyens’ Delhi.

As someone who has spent most of my growing years and most of my career as a journalist in this socialist haven, I should know. My grandfather was one of the contractors who helped Edwin Lutyens build his city, so to me this part of Delhi was always home. In my childhood, it was a place of wide empty avenues and roundabouts with flowering trees, and really the only Delhi there was. Sometimes we went to Chandni Chowk to buy things like ittar, silk saris, trinkets and silver but the only colonies that existed were Golf Links and Sundar Nagar. They seemed like faraway places.

When we came home from boarding school in the summer holidays, my mother would bring us to stay a few days at her childhood home on Jantar Mantar Road, where my grandfather lived with her five brothers and their families.The older brothers lived in the main house, a place of dark, high ceilinged rooms that smelt of khus and that were built around a large sandstone courtyard in which we spent hot, uncomfortable summer nights. The younger brothers, and all sorts of other people, lived in roomy cottages in a compound that seemed so big to me that you could get lost in it. In the evenings we went with our ayahs to India Gate where we ate Kwality ice cream while they ate spicy chana that came wrapped in cones made of old exercise books. Sometimes my sister, brother and I would be taken up to South Block where our grandfather’s name engraved in a stone plaque would be pointed out to us proudly.

It was Lutyens’ Delhi’s age of innocence. No VIP enclaves, no roads blocked off, no high security. So unimportant were security concerns that the Prime Minister could be spotted driving around in an Ambassador car. And, because I had friends who were in the same class as Sanjay Gandhi in The Doon School, I remember playing Holi with him in the garden of a house in Teen Murti Lane. Rumours of his having a wild streak and a taste for pretty women abounded and he could often be seen at dinner parties and in Delhi’s first discotheque, the Cellar, that opened in the late 60s.

When during the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi became the second most powerful political leader in India, it came as a shock to those of us who had known him in his more louche years. It was in that long-ago summer of 1975 that Lutyens’ Delhi first became the centre of total political power in India. How could it be otherwise when Indira Gandhi became personally the centre of all political power? Drunk with how much power she had, she got rid of judges who did not kowtow and transferred disobedient bureaucrats to primitive outposts of the new empire. Journalists who dared to criticise her were locked up along with opposition leaders. No feudal ruler could have hoped for more power.

When India’s first non-Congress government took power in 1977, things could have changed, and may have had the Janata Party Government lasted a full term and had there been a serious attempt to investigate the misuse of political power during the Emergency. But this did not happen and when Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay returned to power in 1980 with a huge majority, it was inevitable that democratic feudalism should become the most important and most toxic feature of Indian politics.

Until her tragic death, Mrs Gandhi remained more powerful than the political party she led, and after her assassination her son was handed her job as if this was a normal democratic transition. By the time Rajiv was assassinated in 1991, India had totally accepted democratic feudalism, so it surprised nobody that the Congress Party’s Working Committee announced that the only person worthy of taking Rajiv’s place was his apolitical Italian widow. There is no question that since then, she has more than proved her mettle. But for obvious reasons she needed to keep democratic feudalism alive. Under her leadership, more than 30 per cent of younger Congress MPs are those who come to the Lok Sabha for dynastic reasons. Mini-dynasties now flourish from Kashmir to Kanyakumari not just in the Congress, but in almost every other political party as well. The idea of feudal succession is now so acceptable that it has trickled down to the grassroots. No sarpanch likes to gives up his job these days, unless he can hand it to a relation.

It is a disease that has spread from the tree-lined avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi, where it now thrives, bringing into electoral politics the usually unemployable children of major and minor political leaders. This trend that can be seen across party lines often happens only to keep possession of houses that if rented at market rates would fetch a minimum monthly rent of around Rs 50 lakh each. Those who live in this part of the city get so used to its salubrious surroundings that retiring bureaucrats and judges do their best to find a post retirement job to keep living in Lutyens’ Delhi. This has had a deleterious effect on public life in general and India’s tragedy is that it has become increasingly impossible to change things.

A second chance to change a political culture that has done India immense harm came when the Bharatiya Janata Party had its brief shot at ruling India under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Sadly, he behaved exactly like Congress Prime Ministers had done. So the socialites and courtiers merely moved from one court to the next, and fawned over the new prime minister’s daughter and son-in-law in the same way they once did over the Gandhi family. The high walls of Lutyens’ Delhi remained secure.

Democratic feudalism has put down deeper and stronger roots in the past decade because Sonia Gandhi’s main political purpose appears to have been to ensure that her son is able to claim his heritage: India. It is no secret that the Prime Minister has acted mostly as a regent for the young prince and this became so obvious during his second tenure that it has felt in the past two or three years as if India has drifted leaderless in no clear economic or political direction.

The worst consequences of democratic feudalism have been economic because when the economic boom began as a result of Dr Manmohan Singh’s reforms, political leaders, big and small, quickly realised that they could use their discretionary powers to make lots and lots of money. The political and economic infrastructure to do this is so vast and so unshakeable that perhaps not even Narendra Modi will be able to change anything if he becomes Prime Minister. But, behind the high walls of Lutyens’ Delhi, these days, I sense panic wherever I go.

In government offices, I meet gloomy officials who admit without hesitation that things are going to change. By this, what they mean is that there is likely to be a prime minister who will not be from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or from the political ethos to which they have become accustomed. Modi is seen as a brash outsider from another world and nobody is sure what he is likely to do, but there are fears that he could bring drastic changes like putting an end to the lavish lifestyle of the denizens of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Ministers, high officials, judges and more privileged Members of Parliament live at taxpayers’ expense in a style to which they should never have been allowed to grow accustomed. No modern democratic country pays through its nose to accommodate its officials and elected representatives in homes that only billionaires can afford. Will Modi notice this? Will he notice that the only private citizens in Lutyens’ Delhi are billionaires who have paid between Rs 100 crore and Rs 150 crore to buy a bungalow on Amrita Shergil Marg or Aurangzeb Road? Will he notice that if the bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi were sold to private citizens, it could bring in thousands of crores to the national exchequer? Will he notice that it is also time to end the socialist perks and privileges that we provide our officials like free airline tickets, cheap domestic gas and a long list of other things?

These are questions being asked discreetly in Delhi’s corridors of power these days. And, not just in government circles even in the homes of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders who have become just as spoiled by the luxuries of Lutyens’ Delhi. One big reason why the veteran battalion in the BJP, led by Lal Krishan Advani, has been publicly opposed to the rise of Modi is that they would rather be in opposition than have someone like him break down the high walls that conceal the lifestyle of those who live in Lutyens’ Delhi. They fear him perhaps more than anyone else because he might start clearing deadwood in the BJP headquarters, and where would they go then?

At a more frivolous level, there is another group that fears the advent of Modi and they are those who constitute the drawing room set. This includes socialites, English-speaking journalists, writers of Leftist persuasion and a motley group of secularists who consider themselves guardians of the last bastion of India’s pluralist traditions. What they all have in common is that almost not a single one of them speaks an Indian language, so how will they deal with a man who speaks almost no English? It is from this drawing room set that diplomats and foreign correspondents routinely get a description of India as a country that is in serious danger of breaking up if Modi becomes Prime Minister.

It is a story I have heard often before. When I was very young I heard people talk of how India would be finished once Jawaharlal Nehru died. When the Babri Masjid came down, I heard once more that India was finished, and now once more I hear that India is finished. Personally, as someone who has spent most of my life in the most privileged enclave in the whole of India, I cannot wait for the walls of Lutyens’ Delhi to be torn down. If Modi can just bring with him a scent of the real India that lies beyond, more power to him.

Tavleen Singh is a political columnist and the author of Durbar