Perhaps the oldest occupant of a Lutyens’ bungalow is Sonia Gandhi. Her 10 Janpath bungalow was allotted first to Rajiv Gandhi as ex-PM in 1990, and then to her even for all the years she was in political exile, and she continues to occupy the same address that has become synonymous with power.
She has never had to move out of 10 Janpath whether her party wins or loses elections, whether she is the Congress president or not. This is unlike other Lutyens’ bungalows whose occupants frequently move in and out, as per the wishes of the people of a vast country.
In the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won a good number of seats in alliance with the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress party. A member of the RJD told me then that its leader Lalu Yadav’s first thought was to get one of his family members a Rajya Sabha seat. “He doesn’t even have a place to sit in Delhi,” he said.
Lalu’s daughter Misa Bharti became a Rajya Sabha member in 2016.
If you are a politician who wants to be taken seriously, you seek to have a “sarkari bangla”, a government-owned bungalow in Delhi. If not a bungalow, even a flat will do. At least it will have a powerful-sounding address. These official residences become large offices where political deals are struck and political patronage is dispensed.
The other thing many politicians desire as part of their lifestyle is a “gunner”, a policeman with a conspicuous gun. In the Hindi heartland, the rise and fall in the political fortunes of a leader are visible through the amount of security they have. Let’s say the government of the day is threatened by a pesky ally, and it desperately needs the support of an independent MLA, the independent MLA will immediately get a “gunner”. If they already have one, they might get another. The threat perception depends upon political necessity.
And one more thing – an SUV. In Uttar Pradesh, it is said that you become a politician when you acquire an SUV.
Sarkari residence, security guard, the right car — these are the symbols of power. When a politician goes out of power, their worst nightmare is to lose these trappings of power. From time to time we see news headlines about how former MPs, MLAs and ministers refuse to vacate their official residences, sometimes for years. The courts have quashed laws in UP and Bihar that entitle former chief ministers and deputy chief ministers to hold on to their posh bungalows.
Over time, these trappings of power become a personal motivation for politicians to win elections. No amount of money, in white or black, can get you these symbols. You can buy a car, but not a sarkari one. A humble flat in central Delhi’s South Avenue will speak more for you as a politician than a farmhouse on MG Road. This memorable account of Amar Singh leaving his Lodhi Estate bungalow will tell you what it feels like for a politician to lose their sarkari accommodation. It feels like being at the receiving end of a revolution. You have been dethroned. You are no longer king.
These trappings of power are a matter of honour. Losing them is dishonour.
The sun will never set
In the case of the first family of the Congress party, the Gandhis, it is different.
The arrogance of the Congress party comes from the idea that the sun can never set on their empire. Even if they just sit home and do nothing, the people of India will turn to the Congress when they get fed up with whoever is in power. This idea is reinforced by the fact that mother, son and daughter have a posh Lutyens’ bungalow by virtue of being SPG protectees.
Through a law meant to protect their security, they made sure they will forever have the trappings of power at public expense. This includes Priyanka Gandhi, who has never held any public office. She only pays nominal rent for it.
They have, or rather had for all these years, a fleet of high-security BMW, Mercedes and Range Rover cars to travel in and an ambulance behind them, just in case. And they had the same security cover as the prime minister of India.
There may or may not be good security reasons for them to have had SPG cover for 28 continuous years. After all, the VP Singh government hadn’t extended Rajiv Gandhi the SPG cover after he lost his prime ministership, and he was assassinated. And the Congress party pointed out that to the Narendra Modi government very recently.
But that is not the point here. Even if threat perception demands SPG cover for the Gandhi family, its privileges have helped isolate them from that feeling of being dethroned. Whether they won or lost elections, it made sure little changed for them. They were still exempted from being frisked at airports and could ignore questions from the press. They have lived in the same posh Lutyens’ bungalows forever. They never get to personally experience what loss of power feels like to other politicians.
That’s how the SPG Act helped destroy the Congress party. By giving its first family the illusion that the sun will never set on the empire. Now that their SPG cover has been removed, they will be frisked at airports like commoners. Priyanka Gandhi might lose her bungalow, perhaps forcing her to get herself a Rajya Sabha seat.
Success is the best revenge
If and when Sonia Gandhi steps down as Congress president, her 10 Janpath address could be threatened. This might jolt her into realising that establishing her son’s career should not be her only priority. There have already been hints that Rahul Gandhi may lose his 12 Tughlaq Lane bungalow for a relatively smaller one.
Both inside and outside Parliament, the Congress party is protesting the withdrawal of the SPG cover for the Gandhi family more vociferously than they are protesting about the economic slowdown, air pollution or even the incarceration of two senior Congress leaders on corruption charges.
If the only thing the Congress party cares about is the SPG privileges for the Gandhi family, then this is the thing that could jolt them out of the slumber, their meditative inaction, their unwillingness to do the job of the opposition and put the government on the mat and check its excesses.
Perhaps the Congress party is right that the Modi government’s decision is political vendetta — though the Modi government wouldn’t take the risk of doing this if security assessment demanded SPG cover. They wouldn’t want to be blamed like V.P. Singh. There’s no need to panic: the Z+ CRPF security cover is pretty elaborate and arguably offers more than the threat perception demands.
Yet, if it seems like political vendetta to the Congress, they better realise that success is the best revenge. If the Gandhi family does not want to be frisked at airports, they should stop abdicating their responsibilities as the main opposition party. They should have the hunger to fight to win every single election.
If the downgrade from Range Rovers to Tata Safaris of 2010 vintage feels like a humiliation for the Gandhi family, they should know it’s a reflection of their dwindling power. And power comes from the people. As the economy tanks and India becomes a de facto Hindu Rashtra and Kashmir remains in lockdown, the Congress party keeps perpetually postponing its promise to hold public protests.
Modi and Shah don’t think they would ever be humiliated like this because they think they will never go out of power. Why don’t Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka prove them wrong?
Views are personal.