How Lutyens Delhi Made & Unmade PMs From 1969-90
From Indira Gandhi to VP Singh, Lutyens Delhi’s writers can make and unmake a PM by the sheer force of their ink.
Video Editor: Mohd Ibrahim
Video Producer: Sonal Gupta
Cameraperson: Sumit Badola
In a prequel video, I have argued that Lutyens Delhi – 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, including Modi who harbours an implacable hostility, calling them an elite, microscopic minority – ie, armchair intellectuals who can safely be ignored. But nothing could be farther from or more lethal than the truth.
Yes, LD 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. But this definitely does not make them “aliens”.
They are as Indian and patriotic as any Hindi or Kannada or Bengali or Tamil writer, or any other thinker in any other Indian language. In fact, these LD writers are among the sharpest minds in India.
Their arguments and criticism are nuanced, intelligent, and pregnant with actionable insights. Any politician who heeds 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. Just look at these editorials written by Girilal Jain, who was an early admirer of Mrs G, and perhaps the most influential Lutyens voice of that time:
- 9 December 1970: It is equally absurd for anyone to suggest that Mrs Gandhi is paving the way for communism or subordinating the country’s foreign policy to that of the Soviet Union.
- 12 July 1972 (on the Shimla Agreement with Pakistan where Mrs Gandhi was accused of being soft by returning 5,000 square miles of territory conquered in the 1971 war): She is [not] only proclaiming the essential unity of the sub-continent but also taking steps to create, as far as it is within her power, conditions which can effectively bar external interventions.
- 23 August 1972 (as unrest and inflation rose in India): A competition in sham radicalism can prove disastrous for the country.
- 6 November 1974 (as Mrs Gandhi became increasingly authoritarian in dealing with Jayaprakash Narayan’s Nav Nirman, or Renew India, movement): The situation need not have taken this ugly turn.
- 20 November 1975 (in the thick of Emergency excesses): There is no question that the presidential order of November 16 falls in the category of black laws.
As is scathingly evident from the above editorials – ie, 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 Janata Party’s Rise & Fall
- Vidya Subrahmaniam: My personal high point was an election rally I attended at Ram Lila Maidan. It was an opposition show, and the star speaker was the Jan Sangh’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose slow drawl, pauses and wit had the crowds in raptures. I returned home wanting Vajpayee to become the next Prime Minister …
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:
“Instead of Sanjay Gandhi, the government now had to contend with Kanti Desai, (Prime Minister) Moraji’s son, who was equally ruthless and wanting in integrity. Morarji rang me to warn that my writings were actionable and that he could put me behind bars.”Kuldeep Nayyar, Journalist
Another Lutyens stalwart, BG Verghese, had this to add (15 May 1979):
“The psychology of change is absent. Instead, there is a sense of political indecision, pulling apart in slow motion.”BG Verghese, Journalist
The Rise and Fall of Rajiv Gandhi & 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:
- Vidya Subrahmaniam: Rajiv’s victory sent the commentariat into a swoon. Ramnath Goenka, the proprietor of The Indian Express and lifelong opponent of the Nehru-Gandhis, memorably commented that he could die in peace knowing India was in Rajiv’s safe hands.
- Inder Malhotra: Because of his age, he would be the instrument of much-needed change. His penchant for hi-tech and determination to “propel India into the 21st century” were applauded by the people, especially the youth.
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 UP was the new Lutyens icon:
- Vidya Subrahmaniam: VP Singh was the nearest to a hero I ever had, because of his integrity and incorruptibility. Singh’s swearing-in was like a celebration for most journalists in Delhi. (But) the Singh government ran into a storm of protests over the Mandal Commission recommendations.
- Arun Shourie: I supported VP Singh despite the warnings of Chandrashekhar, who told Cho Ramaswamy that “you tell your friend that he is supporting Singh but he is a very dangerous man, he believes in nothing”. But at that time, we had so many cases against us in the Express so I told Cho there is a proverb that when your house is on fire you cannot wait for Ganges water. Cho said to me, are you sure it’s not petrol. That’s what it turned out to be.
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.
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.