When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a swipe at the ‘Khan Market Gang’ while talking to a leading English daily just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it caused a major stir in entitled circles. Those who live in Lutyens bungalows and in nearby posh locales like Jor Bagh and Golf Links felt targeted. Those outside the charmed circle felt vindicated, the catchy phrase giving them a chance to name and shame the entrenched elite.
Earlier, under decades of Congress rule, Lutyens bungalows—colonial-era low-rise buildings surrounded by verdant greens—housed the powerful elite. It was not just a question of just having a residence in the heart of Delhi, it was a question of having access to the Gandhi family either directly or via power brokers. The chosen ones were politicians, businessmen, lawyers, journalists and even members of the artistic community—dancers, painters and musicians. ‘Lutyens Delhi’ was not just a geographic entity, it was a state of mind.
With the breaking of this monopoly by newly elected politicians, the old order had to change and it did, causing pain to those who now feel marginalized. During Modi’s first term, they thought the hold of the BJP over power would be tenuous, but some five years and 100 days later, they find their very foundations shaken.
They are opinion-makers and deal makers who dominate the intellectual life of the capital. They are suave English speakers from powerful, rich families, educated in foreign universities. They are critical of MNC clothing brands like Levi’s, wear designer clothes and patronise the country’s indigenous handloom sector. They eat organic food and write essays on poverty and hunger, are fairly judgemental and liberal in using adjectives to describe adversaries as ‘fascist’, ‘Nazi’ or ‘authoritarian’. They are Modi’s ardent critics in drawing-room conversations and on TV discussions. They have reasons to make a clarion call. It’s an existential issue.
Why did Modi choose the Khan Market sobriquet? On lazy afternoons, local journalists, politicians and young homemakers frequent Khan Market to discuss their latest acquisitions. Khan Market is also a venue where government officials clandestinely leak official secrets to their trusted journalist over a cup of coffee—a practice that has become rare in the last few years. Top civil servants often come for a stroll after attending a session at the neighbouring India International Centre.
Elitism is not dead
In the words of Mitali Saran, a newspaper columnist who calls a spade a spade, with Modi’s coinage, Khan Market “has been anointed the symbol of financial and cultural power”. She makes a pertinent point: “If its place in the power structure had been erased, that would have been a revolutionary paradigm shift, and a welcome one.”
But that hasn’t happened. “The pyramid of power has not been broken, it has merely been re-populated with another set of people; and because power is more centralized in this dispensation, it is possibly even more inequitable than before. Nah, it’s just another set of people having a swing at elitism,” says Saran and adds, “Politics is a power grab between team A versus team B, and the spoils go back and forth. The truly revolutionary thing this government has achieved is majoritarianism, and that’s revolutionary, not in a good way.”
She feels there’s hardly anything to distinguish between the past and the present dispensations as both are “deeply neoliberal.” She adds, “I’d be surprised if the old ‘Khan Market Gang’ didn’t keep its head down and quietly protect its previously consolidated interests until this stage of the political power cycle is over (which could be a while). In general, people stop protesting where their interests start.”
This explains why many of the old power elite do not dare air their grievances publicly. Despite the fact that they have been consigned to a corner, some are looking for newer career options, exploring the possibility of settling abroad. Under the cover of anonymity, they talk about past affiliations and present afflictions and simply deny that a ‘Khan Market gang’ even existed.
For instance, Karan Thapar, noted talk show host, wrote a book, Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, where he describes in detail why Modi walked out of an interview he was hosting way back in 2007. Now he’s a pariah in the BJP, does not want to respond to The Patriot’s questions on how the intellectual, social and political life of the capital has changed ever since Modi took the reins. He says, “I’m not an expert and wouldn’t hazard a half -baked response. I perhaps go to Khan Market once a year and therefore, I’m the wrong person to ask this question to.”
Senior lawyers who are Congress sympathisers, inside and outside the court and some party members as well, decided not to comment on record. But they did not refrain from giving an inside picture as long as the picture was not attributed to them. They admit that paranoia has set in, especially after the arrest of P Chidambaram. No one feels safe. The entitlement that was a shield has been busted. “Amit Shah is the home minister. People should stop living in any false delusion,” says a veteran lawyer who has served as senior government counsel.
He names many of the ‘BJPites’ who will fit the description of ‘Khan Market gang’: MJ Akbar, Varun Gandhi to name a few. Articulate, anglophiles, with an interest in the finer things of life—art, poetry, and literature. “They are opportunists to the core, their worldview is determined by self-interest,” he says smoking a cigar at his farmhouse in the southern peripheries of Delhi—a venue for wild parties frequently attended by the gen-next leadership of the Congress party.
Though a Congress sympathiser, he was also friends with Arun Jaitley. “They are not very different people—Jaitley and Chidambaram,” he says, “They got along famously well.” Jaitley was a regular at Lodhi Gardens and a confidante of many of the so-called ‘Lutyens crowd.’
Political commentator and editor Hartosh Singh Bal is fairly egalitarian and non-partisan in his criticism. He says, “There were multiple channels of influence, now very few pull strings. There were visible manifestations of them, now it’s no longer visible. The situation has not improved.” He talks about think tanks like Vivekananda Foundation—from where most of the senior functionaries at the all-powerful Modi’s PMO are sourced from—and the India Foundation headed by English-speaking, RSS ideologue and BJP leader, Ram Madhav. The latter is considered as “Modi Sarkar’s quasi-National Advisory Council (NAC)” where NSA Ajit Doval’s son Shaurya Doval, an alumnus of the London School of Business and Chicago University, is an important functionary. “Corruption hasn’t disappeared but has increased, if electoral bond law is any indication. Large payoffs were made, judging by election funding,” explains Bal.
“The winds of change have had a detrimental effect on the self-serving English-speaking elite who owed their loyalty to the first family of India,” says a retired secretary of the Government of India, a Stephanian and a socialite. “I don’t want to be named for I don’t want to disappoint my friends in the Congress party and pick a fight with the BJP.” Over lunch at Delhi’s Gymkhana Club, he gives a historical perspective of how Delhi’s elite had political patronage that made them very powerful.
A cosy, back-scratching, self-serving arrangement that was operational for decades has been disturbed forever. Their entitlement has been withdrawn. For instance, the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Congress supremo, Sonia Gandhi, could, for all practical purposes, dictate the government’s policies. They were cultural tsars, and their influence was coterminous with their bonhomie with the Gandhis—Modi calls them ‘naamdaar’. “They were capable people, but they wielded influence because they were close to the Gandhis—people like Pupul Jayakar and Mohammed Yunus who founded the Trade Fair Authority of India,” says the retired bureaucrat in his late 70s who has worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi. The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was created out of corpus money of hundreds of crores contributed by taxpayers’ money. Later, in 2009, it was deemed ‘not a public authority’ and therefore was kept out of RTI purview.
The same is true for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, formed up by a Cabinet resolution as an autonomous public trust in 1987. The government had given it a corpus of over a hundred crore rupees and the Comptroller & Auditor General was to audit its accounts. When Rajiv Gandhi died in 1991, Sonia Gandhi was allowed to replace him as president of the board of trustees; and was later made president for life. Finally, in 2016, the Modi government changed the Board of Trustees, and asked Ram Bahadur Rai, former news editor of Jansatta, to head it. “There was a big hue and cry. Supreme Court lawyer and the Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who didn’t respond to The Patriot’s queries for this story had said, “There is a vast difference between appointing a person of your choice, even less than suitable, and terminating an appointment well before its completion…is wrong, ethically and legally, and suggests a pressing insecurity to keep altering institutional structures merely because you are in power.”
“Some backdoor operators, powerbrokers, wielded more power than the people in the government,” says a senior lawyer and Congressman, “Let’s face the fact!” Now he advises them to find jobs. He talks about defence deals being negotiated on a cruise in the high waters of Europe; bureaucrats’ children’s education funded in Ivy League Universities by rich corporates and their agents to curry favour; a former CBI’s director’s daughter was helped by a power broker in Delhi and would flaunt this fact in informal meetings with journalists.
“Why talk about others,” he checks his own thoughts, “when even ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to look over his shoulder for approval from Congress President Sonia Gandhi.” The former PM’s trusted aide Sanjaya Baru in his book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh has spilt the beans. In the second term, much to the embarrassment of Manmohan Singh, Baru writes, “He was defanged bit by bit.” The real power centres were outside the government. The network of people was determined by their proximity to 10 Janpath. Modi likes to mention an incident where Rahul Gandhi tore a cabinet note in a press conference when Manmohan Singh was in Washington getting ready to meet US President Barack Obama.
New power centres
The change is for everyone to see. Last year, news anchor, Arnab Goswami was nominated as a member of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) Society by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta and economist Nitin Desai were given marching orders. In 2015, a week after the then Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, dubbed the appointment of Mahesh Rangarajan as the director of NNML as “unethical and illegal”; the latter resigned. Shakti Sinha, a retired bureaucrat who had served in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO was appointed the new director.
The intellectual elite who was part of the ‘Khan Market Gang’ is also under siege. Interventions in the academic life of colleges and universities has become a norm, JNU being an outstanding example. Pramod Kumar, the JNU registrar sought historian Romila Thapar’s C.V so a committee appointed by the university could “assess [her] work and decide on [her] continuation as Professor Emeritus.” The list is long.
Meanwhile, there are many old-timers who still cannot digest the fact that Khan Market was named and shamed. Suman Sahai taught at Heidelberg University (Germany) for 10 years before she returned to India and founded Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation dedicated to food and livelihood security of rural and Adivasi communities, the rights of farmers and local communities. A regular at India International Center, Sahai remembers the Khan Market of yesteryears, where “Youngsters met friends with pocket money saved up to buy treats from Empire Stores at the corner and music tapes, later CDs from a little hole in the wall shop. And you could spend hours browsing in bookstores where gracious owners let you read as long as you wanted. Nothing elite about that.”
She says, “Mr. Modi seems to have missed the irony of his statement.” It’s the dawn of a new reality in Delhi that no one is confused about. “Mr. Modi and his trusted aide Mr. Amit Shah are the new power elite of Lutyens Delhi, very much the insiders,” says Sahai. “If ‘elite’ is the class that controls political, corporate, cultural, academic and almost all other decision making, then members of the new dispensation with its 300+ mandate are decidedly the new power elite of Lutyens Delhi,” she adds.