The extent to which lutyens’ Delhi is a microcosm of India or exists as a rarefied enclave is the subject of endless and inconclusive discussions. Whatever be the reality, this tiny corner of India’s Capital is always an interesting case study since its social influence far exceeds its spatial limitations.
For the past three years, lutyens’ Delhi has been in the throes of a deep existential crisis. The departure of the Congress from the seat of power always affects it profoundly, not least because the beautiful people have a symbiotic relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family. This is understandable.
Whereas other political leaders can locate their roots and even their permanent residences to some other part of India, the dynasty established by Jawaharlal Nehru has been permanent residents of lutyens’ Delhi uninterruptedly since 1946. More to the point, in a unique record of sorts, this family has lived in Government accommodation ever since Jawaharlal Nehru became the head of the Interim Government in 1946. Sonia Gandhi’s entire stay in India since her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 has been in Government-provided bungalows; Rahul Gandhi has lived in a white lutyen’s zone bungalow throughout his life; and even Priyanka Vadra has been provided a Government bungalow after her marriage because she is protected (by law) by the Special Protection Group. In the case of the Gandhi-Nehru family, the term entitlement has been conferred a special significance.
Despite all the ups and downs of politics, the Gandhis have remained the first family of lutyens’ Delhi. Some even consider them the owners of the place. Others come and go, maybe even rename Government-owned bungalows to indicate long occupancy, but it is only the Gandhis who have remained permanent residents for four generations. Around them has developed a durbar comprising politicians, bureaucrats, fixers, socialites, journalists, academics and others whose occupations remain a source of enduring mystery.
The Congress has been out of power on a few occasions. There were the dark days in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s post-Emergency defeat in 1977. But the difficulties proved to be very short-lived. By 1979, it was clear that the Gandhis were back. Again in 1989, the Janata Dal experiment proved to be a passing show. There was a time during the Atal Behari Vajpayee era from 1998 to 2004 when it seemed that the Congress was in free fall. However, the social standing of the family remained largely unaffected. It helped that despite the loss of power at the Centre, the Congress controlled the local Delhi Government.
The victory of Narendra Modi in May 2014 was a great shock to the Gandhi family ecosystem in unexpected ways. First, the scale of the Congress defeat was spectacular. Secondly, Modi was a complete outsider to lutyens’ Delhi in a way Vajpayee was not. He not only shunned the existing social network that had been spawned by the Congress system, he dispensed with power brokers altogether. In fact, Modi attacked the roots of the patronage system that kept the lutyens system going, a process complemented by demonetisation and the wider attacks on black money generation. Consequently, a significant number of those who were fixtures on the lutyens circuit have taken steps to move a part of their families out of India to Dubai, Singapore and london. In three years, Modi hasn’t destroyed the lutyens circuit but he has undermined them as never before. This would explain the intensity of their anger against the present regime, an anger that goes well beyond political rivalry.
This drift towards irrelevance and possible extinction hasn’t gone without some resistance. Pushed to a corner, the lutyens circuit, still influential and extremely well connected, has fought back. First in their agenda was the reinvention of Rahul Gandhi, a process that can be dated back to the summer of 2017 when Rahul was re-launched in the American campuses. Supplemented by an energetic social media campaign that, for all that we know, may even have involved international expertise, there was a clear thrust to ensure that the credentials of Rahul as a serious leader capable of rejuvenating all the anti-Modi forces was established. The move was initiated with the active help and participation of a section of the media that was smarting under Modi’s wilful disavowal of its claims to be a stakeholder in the power structure. It is interesting to note how channels, publications and editors who were at best Modi critics just about a year ago have moved to becoming pro-Rahul and pro-Congress in their stance. This didn’t just happen; it was made to happen.
Where the lutyens mob cannot be faulted is for lack of perseverance. They have chipped away at different point and created a buzz around the country that Modi is extremely vulnerable and may lose the 2019 general election. The mood in the lutyens circle is extremely upbeat. They have worked themselves up to a point where the we-are-coming-back triumphalism can be detected. All they need is resilience to withstand another year.
The determination of the lutyens ecosystem to reverse and nullify all changes brought about by Modi should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, there is a section of the BJP that not only underestimates the challenge but sees Rahul as a pushover. Rahul personally may amount to not very much. But Rahul the individual is irrelevant, just as Sonia the individual was not the factor. The Gandhis are symbolic and titular heads of a network of privilege and entitlement. They must be relegated to the past tense.