The Lutyens’ Class Wars

Ever since the time of the Mahabharata, the area around Lutyens’ Delhi has been the epicentre of intra-class warfare. What began with the Kauravas and Pandavas has wound its way through the dreary course of the Sultanate and Mughal periods (soon to be erased from historical memory if the present dispensation has its way) down to their present-day successors in the Dilli Durbar. The similarity hit me strongly as I witnessed the verbal fisticuffs in the national electronic media over everything from demonetisation to Kashmir, triple talaq and the recent murder of a journalist. To be fair to the media, the class war in the City of Djinns has a schism running far deeper down into society, which provides an interesting sociological analysis of our lives and times over the past seventy years of our raucous democracy.

As a latter-day renegade from the Lutyens’ class, I must confess my ties to this class over a period of a quarter century, a score of them as a student in school and college and five more years as a sarkari factotum. The Lutyens’ class can be categorised into two groups — the first, the Lutyens’ Class of 1947 (LC-47) dominating the first half century after independence and the second, the Lutyens’ Class of 1992 (LC-92) developing its strength gradually but surely after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

LC-47 comprises segments of those who were educated in the schools and colleges of Delhi and imbibed the liberal political philosophy of the Nehruvian era. The economic philosophy of LC-47 adherents generally started off left of centre, with a distinguishing characteristic being their secure belief in the socialist state and its “benevolent” guiding hand. Patronised extensively by the ruling elite, which needed the LC-47 intellectuals to validate their “progressive” credentials, the LC-47 occupied the commanding heights of the bureaucracy and academia, commerce being left to the vulgar business class. They were equally at home in the rarefied environs of the India International Centre and the more plebeian atmosphere of university coffee houses. 1989-1991 dealt the first blow to this insulated existence, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc putting a virtual end to their leftist pretensions. The economic liberalisation post-1991 and the growing opportunities for academic tenures and private employment in the West saw many LC-47 members veer sharply to the right in their economic worldview, although their faith in the pluralism and inclusiveness of the post-independence Indian polity remained undimmed.

The tumultuous years of the Mandal-Mandir imbroglio culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid spelt the final demise of the Nehruvian consensus on economic, social and political issues, with the end of largely one-party rule at the centre and single party hegemony in the states. LC-47 now faced the emergence of the fledgling LC-92, the latter having a marked preference for an ideology that stressed the supremacy of the majority religion, highlighted its past glories and lamented the “short-sighted” minority-oriented policies that had apparently, over the past fifty years, impaired the full flowering of majoritarian-based nationhood.

As the Grand Old Party of India’s independence withered, the Indian people started experimenting with political alternatives. The electoral successes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level and in various states around the turn of the century boosted the fortunes of LC-92. However, their joy was short-lived as India Shining suddenly came a cropper in 2004. The UPA interregnum was put to good use by LC-92 in developing its ideology and putting together a cadre of “intellectuals” who could spread their message to the middle class and prepare for the day when the political formation they supported came to power. Ten years of vanvas later, LC-92 came into its own with the electoral victory of 2014.

The last three years have seen the systematic infiltration of the LC-92 into the hitherto impregnable bastions of the left-liberal LC-47. Physical and social science bodies and academic institutions have been taken over, academic curricula are being reshaped and student conformity is stressed as the desirable norm. More importantly, public platforms (symposia, seminars, etc.) are now abundantly available for dissemination of the new weltanschauung. Media channels, where they have not been completely subordinated to the LC-92 viewpoint, are voluntarily incorporating liberal doses of LC-92 sermonising. It could well be argued that the boot is now on the other foot: after years of monopolizing the print media and the air waves, LC-47 is now making way for its right-conservative successor, LC-92. Of course, where social media is concerned, LC-92 is the hands-down winner, having used it in a successful election campaign and building a cadre of “no holds barred” followers who are ready to tarnish any reputation.

LC-47 has, over the years, made its own Faustian compromises. It swore by socialism even as favoured private companies tapped into the economic rent. It settled for the “Hindu” rate of growth, overlooking important drivers of growth like primary education and public health, which drove the growth story in the country’s East Asian contemporaries. Above all, it countenanced the development of a highly venal political and bureaucratic class, a natural outcome of the “inspector-license-permit” Raj. Its commitment to genuinely democratic values was also suspect, whether in supporting the Emergency, tolerating the anti-Sikh pogroms of its political patrons or ignoring the major warts in a highly undemocratic, inefficient ruling regime in West Bengal. Nor can one forget the glowing encomiums paid by leading LC-47 intellectuals to highly oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, responsible for genocides that outdid the Nazi excesses. It is truly reflective of the irony of our times that the self-same LC-47 intelligentsia point fingers at the supposed lack of adherence to democratic values of the formations supported ideologically by LC-92 acolytes.

What is most intriguing is the narrow gap between the economic worldviews of the two warring clans. Both are, at heart, votaries of big government, though ostensibly for different reasons. LC-47 is convinced that government must have its fingers (all ten of them) in the economic pie to usher in the utopia of equality. Evidence to the contrary is stubbornly rejected: monstrous, inefficient public-sector enterprises, an exploitative, rent-seeking bureaucracy and the failure of India on most social sector fronts. The obsession with planning and the planned economy led, since the mid-1950s, to the downgrading, if not elimination, of almost all economic philosophy that sought to promote the market in at least certain activities and certain sectors: Mahalanobis all but banished Brahmananda from economics textbooks.

But anyone who labours under the illusion that LC-92 comprises free market enthusiasts is in for a rude shock. The economic outlook of this class is probably closer to the tenets of National Socialism rather than unabashed capitalism. LC-92 followers are admirers of a strong, masculine state in both the economic and political spheres. The state is expected to have a political philosophy that emphasizes national pride, projected through the prisms of a glorious past, military might and specific symbols of national identity, like religion, customs and traditions. The economic approach relies on a close synergy between the state and corporate interests, on the lines of the Prussian-German model of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century.

What truly links the LC-47 and LC-92 schools is the irrelevance of their outpourings to the mass of the people of India. Controversies over playing of national anthems in cinema halls, rewriting of history books and the merits and demerits of demonetisation leave the aam aurat/aadmi out of their calculations altogether. The Lutyens’ Class of either vintage has not engaged in issues which constitute life and death for the common man, be they unemployment, unviable farming, substandard schooling and health systems or the difficulties in starting and doing honest business in India. As one observes the political class, the bureaucracy, the media and academia lodged in and around Lutyens’ Delhi, one is struck by the lack of imagination and commitment in coming up with truly innovative solutions to meet the aspirations of India’s millions. It is almost as if they are forever engaged in Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, theoretical exercises in policy making that take no account of the realities of India.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here.

Rushing In Where Angels Fear To Tread

News reports stated that an eleven years old girl from Simdega district in Jharkhand died apparently because her family could not get their food grain entitlement as their ration card was not Aadhaar-linked. I say “apparently” because, in this post-truth age, one never knows how to separate fact and fiction in media reports. There will also be the usual controversy over whether health or nutrition factors were primarily responsible for her mortality, with all commentators blissfully unaware of the close linkages between the two. But, knowing how things work in India that is Bharat, I am certain that the failure to link their Aadhaar numbers to their ration cards must have cost many families access to subsidised food grains. This view is bolstered by reports that seem to confirm that the ration card of the family in question was not linked to the Aadhaar card.

I am not going into the merits of Aadhaar linkage to beneficiary schemes, on which enough heat and sound has been generated without any light. But I am concerned about the haste in rushing in to implement policy measures without adequate backup systems. This has a lot to do with the current obsession in governments to show results immediately. In the Jharkhand case, time could have been taken to ensure that most of the population had obtained Aadhaar cards and efforts could have been made over some months to ensure Aadhaar linkage with ration cards. But the childish enthusiasm of the political and administrative executive of Jharkhand to score brownie points with the higher-ups in Delhi probably led to their claiming that they had managed almost full linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar numbers.

The same issue bedevils MGNREGA payments in Jharkhand as well, with documented evidence that the system of online bank account transfers has resulted in inordinate delays in wage payments. If you think such poorly planned policies have troubled only the really poor, think again. Major financial decisions taken over the past year have played havoc with large segments of society, not because of lack of intrinsic merit, but because of the desire to impress the public that this is a “government that works”.

Demonetisation was intended to be the sledgehammer that would eliminate black money, check counterfeit currency and improve tax compliance through reliance on digital transactions. A year down the road, even after all the travails borne by the long-suffering public, it is evident that the black money scourge refuses to die, the introduction of more and more currency notes in different denominations will be a boon to counterfeiters and that tax compliance will become a reality only when simplified tax structures are in place and when sound legal systems exist to penalise defaulters quickly and effectively. Which begs the question of whether demonetisation could not have been handled in a more graduated fashion, with new currency notes going into circulation before the withdrawal of old currency notes.

The same thought haunts one when observing the hasty digitisation of the GST. Considering that it took thirteen years for this baby to be born, the infancy phase could have been handled better. The “tryst with destiny” has certainly altered the destiny of small retailers and merchants, many of whom find the process of filing returns excessively cumbersome. In its fourth month of implementation, technical glitches still thwart the filing of returns: GSTR1 filing for July has just been completed, with filings for subsequent months pushed to November. Despite the promises of the Union Finance Minister to process refunds expeditiously, CAs are of the view that refunds could take six months or more, affecting cash flows of businesses. Gradual phasing in of GST online systems with continuation of the service tax regime for some more months would probably have ensured less transitional pain.

Ramming Aadhaar compliance down the throats of income tax payers and bank account holders will, I suspect, unleash another Pandora’s Box in the months to come. Again, I am not questioning the rationale but the speed of expected compliance, consequences be damned. Filing income tax returns for FY 2016-17 required all those not having Aadhaar cards as of April 2017 to get them by July 2017. Pensioners and the elderly were particularly inconvenienced. Linking Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts has its own technical problems. Most banks have no robust online mechanism to enable the account holder to verify that her
bank account is indeed Aadhaar-linked. Come February 2018, citizens may well be faced with the nightmare (actually, it should be called daymare) of their accounts being frozen, leading them to beg on the streets. The insistence on linking mobile numbers to Aadhaar numbers, apparently mandated by the Supreme Court, is yet another nuisance around the corner.

“Make haste slowly” is a salutary motto for good governance. This tendency of the civil service is viewed unfavourably by professional politicians, obsessed with the five-year election itch: why, even an ex-bureaucrat like Arvind Kejriwal has commented unfavourably on IAS officers sitting on files. Many of us were roasted by Ministers and Chief Ministers when we insisted on listing on file the pros and cons of any decision, probably a reason for at least some of us being overlooked for prize postings. Pointing out all the possible implications of a decision ensures at least that, if Plan A goes wrong, Plans B and C can be put into operation. It is the current fashion to run down the 1991 economic reforms as being rather halting and piecemeal. As one who was in Delhi at that stage, I am happy that even those reforms that did take place at that time went through, given the attachment of establishment politicians to “crony socialism” and the hostility of an established elite to the whittling down of its gravy train.

The rush to push through major decisions has, no doubt, been influenced by the relatively narrow window before the 2019 general elections. If the favourable results take time to mature, the government may well have to reap the whirlwind of short-term resentment. In the present climate of harking back to our glorious past, I take the liberty of recounting the story of Bhasmasura. Blessed by Siva with the boon of turning whatever he touched to ashes, Bhasmasura sought to test the boon on his benefactor. It took the wiles of the damsel Mohini to persuade Bhasmasura (in the hope of acquiring her) to place his hand on his own head and be turned to ashes. Governments would do well to heed this parable. Chasing the electorate (Siva) to test its powers, the government (Bhasmasura) is finally enticed by Mohini (the election process) to destroy its continuance in power through unwise, ill thought out steps. Yet again I resort, ad nauseam ad infinitum, to my favourite quote:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here.