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From Indira Gandhi to Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made & Unmade PMs

Like Modi, almost all “target PMs” of India have dismissed Lutyens’ Delhi as a cabal that is habitually contrarian.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Prime Minister Modi is making the same mistake that his worthy predecessors have grievously suffered for in the past. He too is underestimating the power of “Lutyens’ Delhi” (LD) to create the political narrative that convinces India’s electorate.

In a prequel column and video, I have argued that LD – 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 LD 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.
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Lutyens’ Delhi Writes in English But Is Patriotic & Utterly Indian

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 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 writer, 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 argument and criticism is 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:

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Girilal Jain (Late Editor of The Times of India)

  • 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
From Indira Gandhi to Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made & Unmade PMs
(Image: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

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 the Janata Party (1977-79)

  • Vidya Subrahmaniam: “My personal high point was an election rally I attended at Ramlila 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… The rout surpassed our wildest expectations. Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay, and their factotums in government and party were decimated. We were incredulous; this was revolution; this was the people’s stinging slap to an arrogant dictator.”

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

Instead of Sanjay Gandhi, the government now had to contend with Kanti Desai, (prime minister) Morarji’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.
Kuldip Nayar
From Indira Gandhi to Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made & Unmade PMs
(Image: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

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 and slow motion.
B G Verghese
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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 life-long opponent of the Nehru-Gandhis, memorably commented that he could die in peace knowing India was in Rajiv’s safe hands.”
From Indira Gandhi to Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made & Unmade PMs
(Image: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)
  • Inder Malhotra: “Because of his age, he would be the instrument of much-needed change. His good manners, contrasting with Sanjay Gandhi’s brashness, combined with his “Mr Clean” image, added to his popularity. His penchant for hi-tech and determination to “propel India into the 21st century” were applauded by the people, especially the youth.”
From Indira Gandhi to Modi, Lutyens’ Delhi Has Made & Unmade PMs
(Image: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)

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:

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.
Vidya Subrahmaniam 
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.
Arun Shourie 

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.

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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.

Click here to read Raghav’s Take in Hindi.

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