East to west, money defines politics in India’s double-income, no ideology city of ‘freedom fighters’

Delhi is driven by greed, ambition and arrogant, freebooting cynicism as no other city in the country. AAP has figured out the havenots, BJP its old, pushy made-gooders, and Congress none at all.

A view of India Gate
A view of India Gate in New Delhi | Commons

It has been more than a decade since I started travelling extensively during elections in diverse and distant parts of our country, and sometimes in its neighbourhood, to bring back these Writings in the Wall. Often enough, these are literally so. Graffiti, signboards, hoardings, advertisements that help you read and tell the story of a changing region. But it is also a wider metaphor for old-fashioned reporting, travelling, reading, talking, watching, eyes, ears and reporter’s nostrils all open. The series has chronicled change in all of the Hindi heartland, north, east, west and south, taking all major states in its sweep. The only exception is Delhi, where I live and vote.

But is Delhi a major state? Is it even a state, after all? It’s most prized Lutyens’ heartland is owned by the central government. Its land and police (the two things all chief ministers draw their clout from) are also with the Centre. It sends only seven MPs to the Lok Sabha, which is just over half of the small state next door, Haryana, and less than a tenth of the big neighbour, Uttar Pradesh. Within Delhi, much of the urban power and responsibility also lie with elected municipal corporations. The elected Delhi government, therefore, is a bit of a bonsai. It has all the trappings of a sarkar, but not the reach, the power of a genuine political entity. Yet, it is the government of Delhi and, as the popular song that played often on Akashvani in my early childhood in Delhi said, Dilli hai dil Hindustan ka…

The fact is, what was true of larger, intellectual ideas in the past applies to political power today. Just as we used to say what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow, we can now safely say, who rules Delhi today, rules India tomorrow, with some qualifications for the changing times, for sure. Barring the odd exception, since almost the mid-1970s, the party that won the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections also took most of these seven Lok Sabha seats. Again, it rarely happened that the party that won Delhi would not win India. Even in 1999, 2004, 2009 and now 2014, that pattern has been a firm, straight line. The qualification we need to add now is caused by the rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party as the other main contestant with the BJP. It will be ludicrous to suggest that the pattern will repeat, and if it wins Delhi, it will rule India any time soon. But it will then resurrect itself and grow as an alternative national force, replacing the Congress in the centreleft-populist ideological space and be more than a mere pesky nuisance for Narendra Modi. If the BJP wins, it will consolidate Modi’s power, confirm that his wave is intact and that he can push aside challengers more formidable than the Congress.

Delhi is so significant and Kejriwal such a tough opponent, it has forced Modi to change his script and formula. It is the first time under Modi that his party is going to polls with a chief ministerial candidate rather than just seek votes in his name. This serves a dual purpose. It gives Delhi a formidable choice in Kiran Bedi with an equally clean personal reputation, pitting Magsaysay versus Magsaysay. It also gives Modi a buffer, just in case.

If Delhi conformed to the broader patterns of national politics, analysing it would have been simpler. Also, then it would be no challenge for Modi. In the past 15 months, beginning with the four state elections, every significant section of Delhi’s electorate, by any measure, region, ethnicity, even caste, has voted overwhelmingly for Modi and his party. Most of Delhi now consists of migrants from the heartland, Haryana and indeed the old Punjabis. It is also the richest state in India in per capita income terms, and is the most pampered with the best roads (OK, the least worst), metro, tens of thousands of new buses, greenery, schools, colleges. But in Delhi, identity doesn’t count for so much. It isn’t because of the assimilatory cosmopolitanism of urbanisation either. It is because economics determines Delhi’s politics.

You need somebody with the brilliant sweep of Suketu Mehta’s observation and descriptive power, and the space of a nice, thick book to paint a fair portrait of Delhi. I am confined to reading Writings on the Wall, so I get my epiphany, or at least wisdom, on what makes Delhi so different looking up at a unipole in front of the Akshardham metro station in east Delhi. It is a developer selling shops with the message in bold: rupia pedon par nahin ugta, dukanon mein ugta hai (money doesn’t grow on trees but in shops). You fight your way through traffic and people deeper into the poorest, messiest and most thickly populated zones of eastern (trans-Yamuna) Delhi and speak to vegetable, ice cream, pakoda sellers, property agents, small shopkeepers, even many auto-drivers.

Almost all are doing this on the side, after office hours. They have day jobs, but these pay too little. The family, growing children, weddings and that insatiable ambition to live better need more money. It comes in one of two ways. Many, in fact a large majority, in government jobs, even peons, daftaris and door-men usually bring some cash home. This is a corrupt capital city where carrying a file, opening a door, putting a call through, all have a price.

Ask people in the property business here and they will tell you of corrupt low and mid-level government servants with “cash” to spend and invest. By one credible estimate, nearly 5 lakh government employees come home carrying an average Rs 5,000 a day in their pockets. They have to spend it. They can’t take it to the bank, and they can’t upgrade their lifestyle so visibly to rouse suspicion. Most of the rest, either honest sarkari employees, those in jobs that do not bring arbitrage, or lowly private sector employees, help the others spend that “cash”. In food, entertainment, fancy new phones, beauty parlours. Walk around the low, lower middle-class heart of Delhi and you find everybody is a trader, every other home has a business running, from food to tailoring to tuition and homeopathy. Delhi is a double-income city and if the second income doesn’t come from bribe and baksheesh, it comes from domestic enterprise, or simply trade. Trade, running shops, is Delhi’s biggest wealth-spinner and cash incomes fuel its clientele. Now you know why that unipole is such an eye-opener: money doesn’t grow on trees, but in shops. Delhi has very little industry or resources. Its cash cow is the government, and trading its biggest vocation.

Also read: New Delhi, new voter 

Babudom meets free-dom

Delhi is, therefore, driven by greed, ambition and arrogant, freebooting cynicism as no other city in India. “We are a city of freedom fighters, sirji,” says a class IV employees’ leader living in Mandawali, on Delhi’s eastern edge, and I had rather leave him anonymous, though he did not seem particularly bothered. Freedom fighter, in his book, means one who wants everything free, from commuting to electricity to education to water to, most stunningly, WiFi. Kejriwal’s rise in Delhi is rooted in the fact that he had understood the mind of Delhi’s underclass well: money is to them what identity is to voters elsewhere. And they want any goods or services the state provides, free. That’s why his brilliantly creative idea of free WiFi in the entire city. Of course he underlines the other benefits of this: every woman will have an app on her phone linked by WiFi so she can rouse the nearest police in case of a threat. Note the presumption, however: that every woman on a street or in a commute or workplace will have a mobile phone. This isn’t a poor city. This isn’t even givethem-cake politics. This is a can-I-havemy-cake-and-eat-it-too electorate. The Congress figured it first, and fed it by colluding with mafias that let millions steal government land and build illegal colonies where more than half of Delhi now lives. It swept 2008 on the promise of legalising these colonies, but had no fresh IOUs in 2013 when people were already furious with rising user charges on power, water and commuting, things they believe should carry a nominal cost, if any. Kejriwal understood this and cheap power, free water, education, a house for each family were the new currency for buying votes. Free WiFi only goes up the value chain. In fact, his hoardings read: degree, income, WiFi. So education, riches and connectivity are today’s roti, kapda aur makan in Delhi. Kejriwal figured it first, which is why he is such a formidable challenger. In the business of populism, he has left the old market-leaders, the Congress, way behind. It is now offering free sewer connections to households. Compare that with degree, income, WiFi!

If money is the strongest determinant of Dilliwalas’ identity, it also divides and grades the city geographically, architecturally and geographically. South rich and elite, south-central richest and most powerful, west rich, plain rich and hungry for more, and then the poorer north and east, with the tiring, declining Walled City thrown in between. Delhi does not have slums to match Mumbai. Even Kejriwal, who owns much of that vote, says there are half-a-million slums. By any reckoning, genuine slums, or what at one point were called J.J. (for jhuggi-jhopdi) colonies are about half as many. But Delhi has massive sprawls of colonies entirely illegal- Sangam Vihar in the south and Burari in the north-or legal only in name, as in Mandawali-Vinod Nagar in the east.

Also read: And a Gold for Delhi

Maximum sub-city

Searching for Writings on the Wall around our country and in Pakistan, I have happily taken pictures on my phone to help the illustrator draw and never attracted anything worse than amusement: who’s this nutcase taking pictures of hoardings, graffiti, and he isn’t even Japanese? But here, I draw suspicion any time I take aim. Almost everybody has made illegal constructions or extensions and worries I may be collecting evidence for some government authority or court-appointed monitoring committee. Lousy governance and Congress-style laissez faire populism with land have driven threefourths of the city’s population to living as illegals in some way. And then there are entirely illegal enclaves, the poorest like Burari and the toniest like Sainik Farms. The sub-legal, nonelite make Delhi’s vast underclass and it loves Kejriwal.

Illegal colonies are Delhi’s answer to Mumbai’s slums. Better than usual slums, but illegal, disenfranchising and mafia-run. Let us, for lazy convenience, invent a new term: superslums. In most of Delhi, as in large parts of its east, several economic strata exist shoulder-to-shoulder, with the richer ones literally imprisoning themselves behind bars, welding awful, ugly frames around their balconies and access areas to bar access to both, nosey, poorer neighbours and riotous stray monkeys. This is Delhi’s horrible, original concept of the gated community.

“Don’t mind my saying so, but you are wrong in calling it an underclass,” Kejriwal tells me as we drive from one rally to another. These are our first conversations in more than a year when we argued, first on the Anna movement and then on what I saw as his muddled, crimson populism and he my dislike for his personality and politics. But he is now a more complete politician, thick skin and all, and as I had optimistically predicted in the introduction to my recent publication, Anticipating India, has discovered mainstream calm. “There are two sections in Delhi. One that benefited directly in our 49-day rule with subsidies, drop in prices, reduction of petty corruption. This you wrongly describe as the underclass and they have forgiven us our recklessness in resigning the last time.” The other section, he says, middle and upper class, is still sceptical. “Nobody was prepared to accept that we should resign over the Lokpal Bill,” he says. That’s why his pitch is, panch saal Kejriwal.

He had done a brilliant job of building an organisation and attracting talented people who out-think and outgun even the BJP. His very young team has played a kind of electoral jiu-jitsu turning his weaknesses into strengths. He was mocked for his muffler but it is now a style statement. “My social media team came up with #mufflerman and it trended for a month,” he says. His persistent cough was made fun of. So he coughs freely into the mike, as if making a point. He is called a bhagoda (one who abandoned responsibility) so he begins campaign speeches by admitting to have been one and apologising for it. But basically, he has understood Delhi better than others. Think again of the contemporary brilliance in offering WiFi as a freebie.

Ironically, Delhi’s underclass is more cosmopolitan and assimilated than its elite. In the poorer areas, populations mix and share spaces and opportunity. You find halal (Muslim) meat shops facing jhatka (Hindu), Barkat Ki Roti serving Nihari (curried marrow) and Pahadi Hindu Dhaba next to each other. It has a fashion store, Baby & Babe (for babies and ladies, owner Anup Mehrotra tells me). As people add illegal floors and extensions vertically and horizontally, walking most lanes is like walking in a rainforest, albeit of concrete and steel. You can at best see a sliver of the sky, through the jumble of extended windows, balconies and (yes, this isn’t really a poverty zone) air conditioners. They want it all, including power for the ACs, but do not want to pay for it. They are also fundamentally anti-establishment. The traditional trade union movement is finished, so Kejriwal brings all three, freebies, empowerment and nose-thumbing defiance. Kejriwal has also fine-tuned his economics. Nobody wants to live in a slum, he says, but nobody wants to be moved 30 miles away. So he will carry out rehabilitation in situ after studying various models. “We will not slummify Delhi,” he says, “but we won’t exterminate slum-dwellers either.”

Also read: Delhi disconnect 

East is East, West is West

The contrast between east and west Delhi is as striking as between the candidates I respectively follow there. Kejriwal is all fire and assertion, Kiran Bedi all image and calm. Kejriwal has already risen, and Bedi has been launched by India’s most powerful party by far. That is why this is a formidable battle now, what in the heartland would be called kaante ki takkar. Contrary to the impression Kejriwal’s people give you, RSS/BJP support base and workers are fixated on Bedi. If they resent her as an outsider, it doesn’t show. But then, Arya Samaj Road in west Delhi, where I hop on to her campaign truck, is half a mile from the RSS headquarters in Jhandewalan.

You know you are in west Delhi when the arrival of the candidate is greeted by fire-crackers so intense it could be the BSF versus Pakistan Rangers in Jammu. And it’s all done in joyful celebration. Flowers are flung and exchanged between Bedi and her fans. I catch some too, riding shotgun with her (or more or less, if not exactly conforming to the dictionary meaning). Keora (perfumed water) is sprinkled as if it were a baraat and then somebody climbs the truck’s front carrying what looks like a box of mangoes. It is, instead, a boxful of doves. Bedi picks one at a time and sets it free to cheers as outriders on motorcycles honk and pillion-riders sit facing backwards, making souvenir videos on their phones. The symbolism of doves in a poll campaign is lost on me. But in west Delhi, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, and even if you haven’t got it, what the hell, flaunt it.

If Suketu Mehta called Mumbai our Maximum City, let’s call west Delhi our Maximum Sub-City. It is by no means non-diverse. But yes, style and subculture are both defined by the doughty Punjabi refugees of the Partition who were settled in its various enclaves, Patel Nagar, Kirti Nagar, Rajinder Nagar, Peeragarhi, Mianwali and Rajouri Garden, celebrated recently in the Kangna Ranaut-starrer Queen. The Punjabi refugees rebuilt their lives, riches and taught the rest of Delhi to live it up. This is kukkad (chicken), bhangra and cricket zone. A shop selling telephone chargers and batteries in Ghaffar Market (named after Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan because many refugees from Peshawar settled here) proudly announces: sirf akele, sab ko pele. It is tough to translate it in a family publication, but suffice it to say something like, my product, by itself, can demolish the competition.

Bedi says this is Asia’s largest market. I am not sure but I do not suspect Xi Jinping will raise this in his next meeting with Modi, so I let it pass. But I also see, across the road, I also see a monopoly-over gods. The signboard says Gods, Goddesses, of all religions from around the world, and sells images, framed pictures, gifts, including rumala scarves for gurdwaras and chadors for Ajmer Sharif. An all-godsin-one shop can only be a Punjabi refugee innovation. Another shop sells women’s apparel, saris, suits, lehngacholis and “Indo-Western”.

West Delhi has given Delhi its Punjabi flavour, laden as it is with food, riches, attitude, cholesterol, cellulite, muscle, talent, defiance. Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Virender Segwag, Gautam Gambhir, Ishant Sharma, what is common between all of them? They all come from west Delhi. The usual pattern of markets here is about fifty food shops, selling chaat to roasted sweet potatoes to knuckle and brain curries, then the odd slimming centre. As with east Delhi, each home has an enterprise and it’s been growing, diversifying for decades, investing in property in south Delhi and newer, modish suburbs, Gurgaon, Noida. Even here, the main determinant of their identity is also money. Generally, they have by now made a bit of it, so they want status, a move up in Dilli hierarchy. For them, Narendra Modi, with his Bulgari shades, Savile Row suits and “my friend Barack”, could be the most suitable Punjabi from west Delhi rather than an understated Gujju. The BJP should be in good hands here.

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