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Modi versus Lutyens

Indian prime minister's failure to win over elite highlights national divide

The members of Modi's Lutyens elite includes those who can enter privileged watering holes like the Gymkhana Club. (Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

The Indian elite is nothing if not clubby. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the quintessential outsider.

Born in a nondescript town attached to a wayside railway station, in a tea-seller's backward-caste family, Modi left home when he had barely finished school.

He surfaced as a bottom-rung volunteer in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist movement that is the antithesis of the urbane Indian establishment.

After five years heading a government led by the RSS-inspired Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi has, in a candid moment, admitted that this gap bothers him. He said in a recent interview that his one regret in a term that is now ending was that he had not won over the "Lutyens elite."

The reference was to the English architect Edwin Lutyens, appointed a century ago to build for the British a new capital in the imperial city of Delhi -- home to successive Muslim dynasties.

Modi's disappointment reflects the outsider's perspective on India's deep divides -- urban versus rural, city versus small town, modern versus traditional, and English versus Hindi or Tamil.

Modi has said repeatedly that the relentless opposition to him from the urban elite comes from the fact that he has given no space to the entitled and focused instead on the underprivileged.

What he would really like to do is not so much gain acceptance as change the elite out of all recognition. That shift has already taken place in cricket, as big-city boys in the national team have made way for hungry players from small towns, enlarging the talent pool. The BJP's rise reflects the same trend, as provincial India moves into the limelight, making the Lutyens elite ever more uncomfortable.

The next test comes in the April-May election. A Modi victory would almost certainly improve his chances of making further inroads into the establishment. Defeat may prove to be only temporary, since the opposing multiparty coalition is riven with contradictions.

The phrase 'Lutyens elite' has great resonance. The India that the British left in 1947 was led by Indians created in their image: brown sahibs and spit-and-polish army officers. They saw RSS members as distinctly unfashionable if not mildly ludicrous, from their uniform (flared khaki shorts for grown men, recently abandoned for trousers) to their xenophobia.

Now the old elite views Modi and his cohorts with a mixture of dislike and fear.

The British "New" Delhi was designed for rulers, while the crowded pre-existing city was left undisturbed. Lutyens and his compatriot Herbert Baker conceived the grand government buildings and laid out a city with tree-lined avenues, and white bungalows set in green hectares, arranged hierarchically to reflect each resident's place in the bureaucracy.

The rest of New Delhi is the usual urban sprawl. The British-built segment remains a carefully-preserved oasis. Lutyens Delhi still exudes power in an imperial way.

Today's Lutyens elite are not necessarily bungalow residents, most of whom are transient. Parliamentarians come and go. Bureaucrats eventually retire and move out.

Modi's metaphorical Lutyens Delhi, therefore, refers to those who are a more permanent feature of the capital's power corridors: party officials, lobbyists, diplomats, top journalists and wealthy business people. Those with private residences away from the power center can still populate privileged watering holes like the Gymkhana Club and Golf Club.

When the prime minister speaks of the "Lutyens Delhi," he means this wider elite where he feels a stranger, not least because he is more comfortable in Gujarati and Hindi, than in English.

Delhi as a whole, with 15 million people, has a heavy complement of migrants from all over India and tends to follow national voting trends -- for example, backing the BJP in the last national election in 2014.

But the 300,000 denizens of Lutyens Delhi are different. Their opinion-leaders debate values like liberalism and secularism, issues somewhat removed from the realities of the lives of most Indians' lives, who have to worry about unviable farms, poor jobs, and even their next meals.

The Modi government is not without Lutyens Delhi-ites such as finance minister Arun Jaitley, a successful city lawyer. But the prime minister is right in believing the dominant views are not aligned with his. His party has still to gain respectability, though its adherents are growing in number.

This reflects the larger political battle over the "Idea of India." The traditional concept, articulated by Sunil Khilnani in a 1997 book by that name, is reflected in the country's 1950 constitution, which is democratic, inclusive, liberal, and secular, while giving caste and religious minorities special rights.

The BJP disliked the European Enlightenment-inspired constitution from the start. "There is nothing Indian about it," was the criticism.

The party now wants to work around the constitution until it gets the parliamentary supermajorities required to change it -- a distant prospect. It is, for example, focused on "Indianising" school textbooks to reflect a Hindu-centric worldview and introducing Hindu prayers in government schools -- a move that faces court challenge. Modi has also embraced an autocratic style, contrary to the constitution's intentions.

But the BJP lacks top-rung academics who could give it intellectual respectability and win over the Delhi elite. Under the first BJP-led coalition government (1998-2004), those who posed as the party's economists provoked a famous wisecrack from the Indian-born Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati: "If they are economists, then I am a Bharata Natyam dancer!"

Today the party has better-qualified economists speaking for it, and Hindu nationalist views are expressed more freely in Delhi drawing rooms. Still, those who speak for the BJP on academic matters are often accused of confusing myth with fact, for example in questioning evolution.

A Hindu holy man ties the sacred thread on the wrist of Modi at Allahabad on Dec. 16, 2018.   © AP

Modi has skillfully managed to shift the political center toward the "Hindu Right." He has forced the Congress opposition leader -- the quintessentially-entitled Rahul Gandhi -- to respond to the challenge by visiting temples and wearing the sacred thread of the upper-caste Brahmins. It is more powerful symbolism than Obama being forced to pin the U.S. flag on his lapel.

Congress has also been pushed into accepting traditional BJP issues, like banning the slaughter of cows, a holy animal for many Hindus.

The coming election will in part be a contest over the BJP's idea of India. Opinion polls show no party getting a majority, but with the BJP well ahead of all others. If it manages to retain power for a second five-year term, expect even Lutyens Delhi to start looking and feeling more like a BJP town.

T N Ninan is a columnist and former editor of Business Standard.

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