Mr Modi’s regret with Lutyens’ Delhi is perhaps that the BJP is still cast as the subaltern in this enclave.
The prime minister says that his regret has been his inability to win over “Lutyens’ Delhi”. The term referred originally to the government buildings and surrounding bungalow zone that the British built as their new Indian capital a century ago. Edwin Lutyens was one of the chief architects, but (fortunately) many of his ideas for the new capital were shot down. Lutyens’ initial ideas did not include the choice of red sandstone, traffic roundabouts, trees and bushes, and placing Rashtrapati Bhavan atop Raisina Hill. Most of the buildings in the new capital (including the bungalows) were actually designed by other architects, not Lutyens. But Lutyens’ Delhi it is, though he had an active dislike of most things Indian, including its people.
So who lives in this anti-Modi centre of town? More than 90 per cent of the original 1,000-odd bungalows spread over some 19 sq km are owned by the government, and house ministers, MPs, senior officials and the military brass. They could not be the source of Mr Modi’s regret. But Lutyens’ Delhi has been expanded in stages to 28 sq km so as to include the diplomatic enclave and tony residential areas like Golf Links. These are among the country’s most sought-after addresses. Chief ministers wangle Lutyens bungalows. Parliamentarians past their term are reluctant to leave. Businessmen from other cities acquire Lutyens residences. Retired government officers hang out in the Gymkhana Club. Yet, the area’s population would be under 300,000, less than 2 per cent of a city of 16 million. Why would any politician, let alone the prime minister, bother with them?
One could call it “the establishment”, except it is not certain that India has an “establishment” – a small, mostly self-selecting elite group that commands long-term authority. In Britain, the short form for this was Oxbridge, whose alumni ruled the country and ran London’s all-important financial centre irrespective of who was elected to office. Delhi’s educational elite, comprising the English-as-first-language alumni of half-a-dozen colleges and institutes, does not qualify in the same way, though many of them are in government in one way or the other and easily spotted in the city’s watering holes.
In Washington, they talk similarly of the Beltway, a large ring road. Those who live within the Beltway are often said to be politically divorced from the rest of the country. That’s not true of Delhi, which, with its mix of people from the north, south, east and west, tends to vote with the all-India swing: eg. with the BJP in 2014. But Lutyens’ Delhi is different. Its opinion-leaders debate liberalism and secularism, while voters worry about unviable farms, jobs and now stray cattle, none of which Lutyens’ Delhi-ites have to worry about. Yashwant Sinha, as finance minister, used to say that the questions he was asked in post-Budget interviews had nothing to do with the concerns of his voters in Hazaribagh.
The Modi government is not without its eminences from Lutyens’ Delhi, like Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Puri. But Mr Modi is right in believing that the dominant views in this enclave (a favourite Delhi word) are not aligned with his. So what exactly is the regret? That perhaps the BJP is still cast as the subaltern. It has managed to rewrite some text-books, squeeze or raid seditious NGOs, induct intellectual storm-troopers like Subramanian Swamy and S. Gurumurthy, get retired generals on its side, gain its share of voice on news TV, and take control of places like Jawaharlal Nehru University, but it does not yet constitute the establishment, or what passes for it. Will the subalterns eventually storm the Bastille? Ironically, it is the voter who may decide.
By Special Arrangement with Business Standard