Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi waits at Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi, on January 8, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

BloombergQuintOpinion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making the same mistake that his worthy predecessors have grievously suffered from in the past. He too is underestimating the power of ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ to create the political narrative that convinces India’s electorate.

In a prequel column and video, I have argued that Lutyens – defined as that ‘insufferable’ (for powerful politicians) group of erudite, English-speaking thinkers/writers who believe in social/cultural liberalism, human rights, religious/gender equality, small state, constitutional remedies, freer enterprise, and a dollop of efficient welfarism – has the power to make and unmake prime ministers.

Unfortunately, almost all ‘target PMs’ have dismissed Lutyens’ Delhi as a cabal which is ‘habitually contrarian’, sitting in ‘swank air-conditioned cabins’, spewing venom in an alien language, totally cut off from the travails of the ‘ordinary villager’. In one word, these are armchair intellectuals who can safely be ignored. But nothing could be farther from or more lethal than the truth.
From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

Lutyens’ Delhi Writes in English But Is Patriotic And Utterly Indian

Yes, Lutyens’ Delhi thinks and writes in English because that is the natural Indian language in which they got educated. It’s a legacy of 250 years of British rule, not a willing or conscious choice made by members of this “elite sect” (that’s PM Modi’s label). But this definitely does not make them ‘aliens’. They are as Indian and patriotic as any Hindi or Kannada or Bengali or Tamil writers, or any other thinker in any other Indian language.

So, it’s a huge folly to belittle their intellect or power just because they are ‘English medium’. In fact, these writers are among the sharpest minds in India. Their arguments and criticism are nuanced, intelligent, and pregnant with actionable insights. Any politician who heeds to them can actually strengthen his power.

After all, doesn’t—or perhaps, shouldn’t—a sensible leader always keep his trenchant critics closest to him?

Now I shall quote from history to prove my hypothesis. I have chosen the two turbulent decades from 1969 through 1989, when India transitioned from a domineering one-party rule to a vibrant multi-party democracy, riddled with competing social coalitions and speaking in several regional dialects.

The Rise Of Indira Gandhi And Split In Indian National Congress (1969)

It’s difficult for millennials to believe now, but Indira Gandhi started out as an anti-establishment crusader. She dismantled the right-leaning conservatives in her party, plumping for hard socialism by nationalising banks, abolishing princely privileges, and packing the Supreme Court with left-liberals. When she vanquished Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh in 1971, she hit her peak popularity. She became the darling of Lutyens’ Delhi. I will quote from the editorials written by Girilal Jain, who was an early admirer of Mrs G, and perhaps the most influential Lutyens voice of that time:

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

As is scathingly evident from the above editorials—i.e., the phraseology moving from “sham radicalism” to “black laws”—Indira Gandhi’s political graph fell, almost in perfect sync with the rising criticism from Lutyens’ Delhi. She was eventually trounced by the hastily created Janata Party in 1977, who then became the new darlings:

The Rise And Fall Of Janata Party (1977-79)

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

But soon, the Janata Party became a prisoner of internal intrigue, and was duly slammed by Lutyens’ Delhi. Here is Kuldeep Nayyar, once imprisoned in the Emergency and a natural supporter of the Janata government, now turned virulent critic:

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

Another Lutyens stalwart, BG Verghese, had this to add (May 15, 1979):

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

The Rise And Fall Of Rajiv Gandhi And VP Singh (1985-90)

Unsurprisingly, the Janata experiment failed and Mrs Gandhi returned to power in 1980. But before she could be felled by critics, she was tragically assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, scripted the biggest mandate in India’s history and took charge under a rapturous welcome from Lutyens’ Delhi:

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers
From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

Once again, inevitably, Lutyens’ Delhi turned on Rajiv Gandhi and he was defeated by his confidante-turned-adversary, VP Singh, in 1989. Now this Thakur from Uttar Pradesh was the new Lutyens icon:

From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers
From Indira Gandhi To Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made And Unmade Prime Ministers

VP Singh barely lasted a few months in power. As always, his honeymoon with Lutyens’ Delhi was aborted and slashed. Yet again, Lutyens’ Delhi had unmade a Prime Minister by the sheer force of its publishing ink.

So, Mr/Ms Next Prime Minister Of India…

Listen to Lutyens’ Delhi. Read their columns and editorials directly, yourself. Don’t allow aides and intermediaries to send you sanitised excerpts. Don’t flinch at their sharp commentary. Learn from it. Internalise it. Don’t become hostile or retributive.

Believe me when I say that that shall be the biggest guarantor of your ability to stay in office.

PS: I know I have used very few editorial snatches to capture the political twists and turns over two decades of vicious politics, but these are honest/representative facsimiles of what Lutyens Delhi was talking and writing at that time.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.