This column has campaigned for more than 20 years to end the practice of reserving Lutyens Delhi for politicians and bureaucrats. There are many reasons why I consider it a bad practice to give the people’s representatives and the people’s servants this sense of entitlement.
One of them is that the moment a normal human being occupies a colonial bungalow, his worldview changes. This has begun to happen to our new ministers who now affect airs and graces they never exhibited in their humbler days. As someone who has deep contempt for politicians who get above their station, I was starting to become disenchanted with the Modi sarkar until I attended a session at last week’s World Economic Forum.
It was a BBC debate in which the three participants were Piyush Goyal, Aruna Roy and Sunil Mittal. And while listening to the Minister for Power, Coal and Energy defend himself against bizarre charges flung at him by one of Sonia Gandhi’s closest advisors, I was jolted into remembering why India threw the Congress out.
Ms Roy, who was an important member of Sonia’s kitchen cabinet, did not open her mouth once without making it clear that, in her view, India was a truly hopeless place. She said religious tensions were dangerously high, prosperity was not a possibility and people were too terrified to say anything bad about the government. She did not notice the absurdity of this last charge till the BBC anchor reminded her that she had spoken her mind quite fearlessly during the debate. But then the anchor turned to a business editor, specially positioned to ask a question, and this gentleman railed on about how the government had shut the media out.
At this point, the minister pointed out that the Prime Minister had given more interviews in five months than the last prime minister gave in a decade. And for my part, may I remind you that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi almost never deigned to speak to the media. The point I am making is that there exists in Delhi today a doomsday club that does not miss any chance to predict that India is finished.
This club has, as its members, politicians, academics, historians, social activists and journalists. And, what unites them is their horror of a prime minister who clearly has no time for leftist intellectuals. It is a big shock for people who have controlled India’s intellectual space for decades. So confused are they by their sudden eviction from this space that Ms Roy was not even clear if she was asking for freedom of expression or the opposite. When she complained about attacks on the government’s critics on social media platforms, the minister had to remind her that she was asking for censorship.
For me, what was fascinating about this debate was that from the clamour of charges and counter charges emerged two distinct and opposite visions of India’s future. Exactly as it happened during the election campaign. The Congress “idea of India” envisions a country in which most people will always be poor and illiterate so that benevolent people like Sonia and Ms Roy can continue to offer “alleviation” services. What Modi offers, as he did in Varanasi last week, is not poverty alleviation but the hope of prosperity. He appears to be the only political leader in India who has understood that the average Indian today wants much, much more than poverty alleviation.
So when he talked to the desperately poor weavers of Varanasi, he reminded them that the poorest, most illiterate Indian mother dreamed that her daughter would wear a Banarasi sari on her wedding day. This meant that the market for their saris was vast and growing, so all they needed to do was to find a way of tapping into it. He did not tell them that they should continue living in windowless hovels in dismal streets and that he would provide them with cheap food grain to make things easier. He did not tell them that he may never be able to create real jobs for their children but they would be ‘guaranteed’ 100 days of employment a year. Even at the highest minimum wage, this comes to less than Rs 30,000 a year.
This is not “alleviation” of poverty; it is a guarantee that people who get employment in such a scheme (Ms Roy was one of its architects) will remain poor forever. Think of this and you might find it easier to understand why the people of India rejected the Congress so brutally that it is not even in a position to give us an opposition leader in the Lok Sabha. This does not mean that Modi faces no opposition. He does. From civil society, the media and academia, in whose eyes he can do nothing right.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh