The rise of a power elite in the age of Modi
PR Ramesh | 29 May, 2014
The rise of a power elite in the age of Modi
When Dharmendra Pradhan walked up the red carpet covering the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan to take his oath as India’s new Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas on 26 May, he raised quite a few eyebrows among corporate czars in the audience. Given independent charge as a Minister of State, the diminutive BJP General Secretary, in charge of Bihar affairs, was an unknown quantity to many of them. In handing a high-profile portfolio to such a low-profile greenhorn, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sending out a clear message: the new regime would run this portfolio with an even hand, and there would be no bending over backwards to please any interest group.
There was more to the message. Pradhan is now an enrolled member of the brand new New Delhi Club of 2014. The 44-year-old leader from Odisha was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004, but lost in the subsequent election. Having joined the BJP through the RSS-affiliated student organisations Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), Pradhan is now a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar. He is credited with the party’s stunning victory in that state. Today, he is one of the new power elite that has replaced the old Left-liberal establishment.
In another age, Pradhan would have looked out of place. Modi’s storming of Lutyens’ Delhi made a Pradhan possible; and Modi himself was the ultimate outsider. His arrival in Delhi marks the definitive beginning of a new establishment, born of the wreckage of socialist ideals that dominated much of Independent India’s intellectual life. For almost six decades, Left-liberals dominated the country’s discourse. They have lost the argument this time—and with it, their apparent hold over India.
The genealogy of the new establishment is already known. Its members are not your average power dealers usually seen at the Taj Chambers or Gymkhana Club, dropping names and nursing pegs of Blue Label. They are not the Keynes-citing gurus of economics, updating their Marx in the age of globalisation. They are not the historians debunking the mythology of the aggrieved Hindu. The new order, though drawn largely from familiar circles of politics, bureaucracy, industry, academia and media, marks a cultural shift from the Nehruvian New Man, Indira’s Left liberal, Rajiv’s anglicised Camelot and even the right-winger of Vajpayee vintage. The new establishment is different in style and substance.
The geography of the new order is already visible in New Delhi; 10 Janpath and 23 Wellington Crescent (where Sonia Gandhi’s powerful political secretary Ahmed Patel resides) are no longer the preferred ports of call for the influential. A message or an idea to be passed on to the PM goes through a two-storeyed house in East of Kailash that is the private residence of the new Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley. Any new political strategy is first sounded out at a modest three-room apartment in Jangpura Extension that has become BJP General Secretary Amit Shah’s Delhi address. Unlike in previous regimes that thrived on gifts and presents, strict orders firmly discouraging both are already in place at both addresses. Also unwelcome are hangers-on, favour seekers and lobbyists.
The making of the new establishment has an unmistakable Modi stamp on it. When he picked up Nripendra Misra for the job of his Principal Secretary, Modi signalled that bureaucrats in key posts will not be selected because of their political affiliations or other extra-professional credentials (such as ‘family service’). In the past, Indira Gandhi leaned on PN Haksar because of his Leftist credentials; PV Narasimha Rao allowed a larger field of play to AN Verma as he could anticipate trouble from rivals; Atal Behari Vajpayee had Brajesh Mishra as a close associate for years; and Manmohan Singh had Pulok Chatterjee by his side at the PMO, a bureaucrat appointed by his party High Command largely as its minder-in-chief. Modi broke the mould by picking Misra.
After the election results were announced on 16 May, Modi met and interviewed a host of retired bureaucrats for the role, Anil Baijal, PK Mishra and Ashok Chawla among them. The PM-to-be found he had a high comfort level with Misra, and had an ordinance issued—overturning his non-eligibility, his having been chief of India’s telecom regulator—to clear the way for his appointment to the PMO only after associating with him on work-related issues for six days. Misra, a UP cadre IAS officer of the 1967 batch, had headed the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) before he retired in 2009, and it was his wide experience as a bureaucrat at the senior level in crucial ministries—including Commerce, Fertilisers and Telecom—apart from his work ethic and reputation of integrity that are understood to have got him India’s top bureaucratic job.
Choosing Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), for the post of National Security Advisor was a no-brainer for the PM. Currently heading a Right-leaning think-tank (see accompanying story), the well-decorated Kerala cadre official has been a hands-on intelligence man, with ample experience in all the Red areas, as well as Kashmir and the Northeast. He was also credited with the 1988 success of Operation Black Thunder in Punjab, in addition to spending six years under cover in Pakistan. In December 1999, it was Doval and diplomat Vivek Katju who had negotiated the release of hostages from the hijacked aircraft of Indian Airlines’ Flight IC 814. Doval has also spoken his mind on regional parties, whose pressure on the Centre tends to result in security risks for the country. That Modi has handled the Rajapaksa issue well, despite sabre-rattling by political parties in Tamil Nadu, would draw applause from Doval, who believes political leadership is ultimately tested by national security. Make no mistake. Doval, like Misra, is a powerful member of the new establishment.
Modi’s selection of his Cabinet members points to a radical shift in the power matrix of New Delhi. Pradhan’s appointment was not the only sign that Modi meant business. The BJP’s national spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman, who joined the party in 2006, was anointed MoS (independent charge) of another meaty portfolio, Commerce and Industry. BJP National Treasurer Piyush Goyal was chosen for the Union portfolio of Power, which observers see as yet another sign that the Modi regime would work even-handedly and not distribute favours to select and influential interests. The 49-year-old chartered accountant has been put in charge of the omnibus Ministry for Energy (encompassing power, coal and new and renewable energy).
Thirty years of coalition governments at the Centre had forced the hand of Prime Ministers and their political parties to nurture an appeasement regime. Desperate for survival, the Rao regime rang in a climate where large sums of money were transferred to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs during his tenure to ensure his government’s survival. Again, Delhi political lore has had it that the Manmohan Singh regime bought similar support in Parliament for its Nuclear Liability Bill.
Prime ministerial aspirants, too, have made the best use of a bad system in the past. VP Singh, who rode to power on the Bofors scam, was known to have pinned his poll campaign on the basis of a little piece of paper that he claimed had the names of kickback recipients. During the NDA’s stint at the Centre, LK Advani’s ambitions were contained by the ruling regime that held the Ayodhya cases against him as a Damocles sword over him. In more recent times, the Taj Corridor and undue-assets cases were commonly known to have kept two of the UPA’s ‘friends’, Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, reined in by the Congress at the Centre.
It was such a political climate that made Delhi a playground for wicked legal minds. They worked the system through the interstices, in a highly non-transparent manner, and were valued for that particular quality. The capital’s political ethos had changed, a far cry from the earlier years of probity and decorum. Backroom boys and ‘fixers’ thrived and created conditions for the existence of a parallel culture of shadowy ‘fix it’ men getting to influence and even fashion public policy. “In the process, legitimate business shrank. In many cases, business leaders took to working the grey areas of policy implementation against an administrative backdrop that encouraged this to its advantage; rather than make legal space for lobbying, as is the case in other countries such as the US,” says an observer of that ethos, one that was perfect for crony capitalism.
Modi’s view on the role of big businesses vis-à-vis the Government’s policy priorities has been evident in his administrative agenda. His Gujarat Model of development is an example of this. “There is a legitimate and valued space for industry and big business in the nation’s economic growth goals,” says a senior minister. The Modi regime, he avers, is only directing businessmen and entrepreneurs to that valued place. The core of his message is this: let them flourish and create wealth and employment, but they should not dictate terms to the Government or work the system to their sole advantage.
By constituting his Cabinet with deliberate care, with a clear strategy, even going to the extent of bringing in administrative newbies to take charge of powerful ministries, Modi indicated to opportunists of all sorts that the PMO planned to keep close tabs on critical policy issues across portfolios, allowing little leeway for independent and unaccountable decisions by individual ministers. Effectively, ‘all important policy issues’ would be under his direct charge, and he, along with Finance Minister Jaitley, would vet all core decisions made by the Government. The buck would stop with the PM.
The PMO is all set to become a government within a government. The power it wields and the fear it evokes make this part of South Block the vital centre of the new establishment.
When the full extent of the Naval War Room Leak case burst into the public domain some months ago, the media—fed by investigative agencies—went to town with astounding details of first strike meetings at coffee shops, poolside parties, clubs and dimly-lit bars in top hotels where serving officers and their retired defence counterparts (who doubled up as freelance middlemen for arms manufacturers) met and sealed the deal for the Scorpene sale to the Indian Navy, clinching for themselves commissions of $165 million for their troubles. The modus operandi of the fixers, middlemen and wheeler-dealers, complete with a honeytrap to lure defence personnel, exposed the murky underbelly of New Delhi. In the hub of the nation’s capital, a charmed circle of powerful and influential men from industry and the corporate world—politicians, middlemen, journalists and others—functioned as part of a synchronised and tight-knit network, influencing policy and striking commercial deals with elan. Their tentacles reached deep into Raisina Hill, the policy core of the country, and both fashioned and directed policy in various sectors. An entire network of ‘facilitators’ was entrenched in Lutyens’ city, and deals worth thousands of crore would change hands with every deal signed, sealed and delivered.
Investigations have shown that the terms of reference for these covert deal-makers, who moved in the gaps and shadows of the capital’s power matrix, had changed drastically from the days of Bofors in the early 90s. The priciest commodity being sold for a commission was not merely a meeting with decision-makers, it was classified information on a particularly relevant deal: how far the file had moved, where the competition stood, what offer to which officer could nip it in the bud, and so on. The end may have been the same as in earlier decades, but the means included a widely and intricately networked ecosystem of wheeler-dealers and info-mercenaries who lived on easy cash and Scotch-on-the-rocks, their shady deals negotiated over power dinners and cocktail swills choreographed to perfection for the purpose of pelf.
All the world’s A-list metros have their favourite dining and watering holes for the influential to meet, size each other up and clinch deals—in fields ranging from politics and art to publishing, banking and fashion to trade. Manhattan has its Four Seasons Grill Room, where captains of industry flock and where the phrase ‘power lunch’ was coined; Washington DC has The Oval Room; Paris has its Maison Blanche; and Beijing has its Imperial Club. Many of these are business-preferred hangouts, where legitimate takeovers, mergers, manoeuvres, sales and buy-outs have been executed over dinner, drinks and the clink of colourless cubes.
Lutyens’ Delhi was a late starter in the game of power wining and dining. But over the decades, from the era of Nehruvian innocence and austerity through the age of economic liberalisation (the pixelisation of the licence/ quota raj) and at last into the current world of globalisation and celebration of conspicuous consumption, cosy power dining places only proliferated in palate and multiplied in number for the rich and influential. At once sufficiently intimate to cut to the chase and discreet enough to be impersonal, these luxurious meeting places lulled the senses and serviced all the tiers of high-stakes power brokering in the Capital. An intricately knit network feeding and dining off the Beltway politics of New Delhi had entrenched itself, and many thought this could go on forever. (The people and institutions located in the area bounded by the Washington Beltway are seen as politically and socially out of touch with the rest of America and highly given to political intrigue.)
Just like DC’s Oval Room, the watering hole for the power brokers and corporate honchos of New Delhi had two prerequisites: one, it lay within shouting distance of the corridors of power on Raisina Hill, and two, it was conducive to multimedia communication, an imperative for the go-to boys of industrial giants.
THESE TONY SPOTS for the powerful, ensconced in New Delhi’s emerging power corridors, had their institutional beginning with Nehru. Ashish Bose, who was once India’s Chief Statistician, writes in his book Head Count: Memoirs of a Demographer: ‘Apart from being the prime minister, Nehru was also the foreign minister, and enjoyed his international image. There were about 100 embassies in Delhi in those days, and every other day there would be a diplomatic dinner in honour of somebody or in celebration of a national day. Nehru invariably attended these parties in the initial years after independence, till somebody advised him to appoint a deputy foreign minister.’
Bose’s uncle, Anil Kumar Chanda, was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister after he won Birbhum seat on a Congress ticket in 1952. ‘I knew my uncle enjoyed working with Nehru and I used to tease him: ‘Your job seems [to be] to attend diplomatic parties every night.’ Sometimes, I accompanied him to the diplomatic parties. The novelty of these parties was fun for me, but I found my uncle and aunt getting rather bored with the banal parties,’ Bose writes. Those were initial days, and social meetings were relatively simple affairs, by and large, only aimed at getting to know each other and staying up-to-date on developments around the world.
Things have changed drastically in other fields as well. Consider the role of media ‘professionals’ in the deals that are brokered in Delhi. If an expose not too long ago—that of the so-called ‘Radia Tapes’—was all about how media members jostled to play kingmakers in key appointments, helping slot the ‘right’ man in the ‘right’ ministry on behalf of corporate interests, it was perhaps the outcome of a cronyist culture that Delhi’s power brokers have spawned.
It has long been suspected that various special interests have journalists who bat overtly or covertly for them on issues of public debate, but revelations that so many media people are intricately wound up with much that happens behind the scenes came as a rude shock to observers. Gone are the days that journalists put in legwork in the corridors of power, downing unpalatable tea in sundry government officers as they hunted for that big news break. News breaks—including minutes of classified meetings—would now be leaked selectively to those who had been recruited to a special cause.
The vice-like grip of Delhi’s entrenched elite and ideological cliques extended to institutions—educational, and those dedicated to historical research. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), set up in 1966 after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in his converted official residence, spreads across 30 acres of land next to Rashtrapati Bhavan. It has a library added to it, containing the private papers of the nation’s first Prime Minister and of luminaries of India’s freedom struggle. The objective was to promote ‘original research’ in modern Indian history, with ‘special reference’ to the Nehruvian era. Under the Ministry of Culture, the library had for decades been controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Congress President Sonia Gandhi was its chairperson until 16 May. Many of its council’s members were either Congressmen and women, or those considered close to her. In the dying days of the UPA regime, however, the three-year term for NMML Director Mahesh Rangarajan was quietly extended to a longer term—until he turns 60 years of age, ten years from now. But after the death blow that the 2014 polls dealt the Congress, Sonia Gandhi had no option but to cede power at the institution. Prime Minister Modi is now set to function as its head; under the previous NDA regime, it was Vajpayee who headed it.
Another institution over which an entrenched clique held sway for decades is the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), created on 23 acres of prime land in 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi in memory of his mother. Pupul Jayakar, who oversaw its establishment and had reigned as a cultural czarina for years, was especially close to the Congress’ First Family.
Over Rs 134 crore of the taxpayer’s money has thus far been allocated to the IGNCA, but its decision-making bodies are chock-a-block with Congress-leaning members. Its Board of Trustees is led by former diplomat and IGNCA President Chinmaya Gharekhan and includes Kapila Vatsyayan.
Yet another fiefdom for those of Congress persuasion or close to the Family is the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), set up in 1991 by Sonia Gandhi, also its chairperson. This, again, occupies prime real estate that was once planned for the Congress headquarters, currently at 24 Akbar Road. The RGF was converted to a private trust by Sonia Gandhi. In 2012, its audited accounts were sought by the Delhi High Court, but in 2009, the RGF refused to reveal its accounts in response to an application filed under the RTI Act. It stated that ‘only 4 per cent of our overall funding is from the government’, dubbing this an ‘insignificant’ amount.
There are several other set-ups in New Delhi that have for decades been governed in a manner seen as servile to interests on only one side of the political spectrum: the Left-liberal one.
For an outsider to Delhi like Modi, breaking an old power matrix of more than six decades may seem like a difficult task. But as Richard Nixon—the man credited with coining the idea of ‘Beltway politics’—found out to his utter dismay and downfall, the Beltway was breakable. The new New Delhi order under Narendra Modi may be a work-in-progress, but it has already breached the capital’s Beltway.