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Shifting stories

September 15, 2013

ONE useful aspect of a grand old house in Europe or America was the weathervane. Stuck at the apex, it did not look very elegant, but its value was not measured by aesthetics. It gauged the direction of the wind in an age when nature had far more control over human affairs.

The British built the grand imperial cities of Kolkata, Madras, Mumbai, and, in the 20th century, New Delhi. But there were no weathervanes, possibly because nature is more predictable in India. When it rains it pours. When storms arrive, dark clouds swirl across the sky as advance battle formations.

Delhi is not London, where you can perspire as you leave home, get caught in a chilly shower and return with a cold.

But what Delhi has lost in external sensors, it more than compensates through internal aerials. Human nature is the worry in Delhi, not nature. In that special patch of the capital which provides temporary housing to the various castes of the ruling class, every ear has a powerful antenna, constantly fine-tuned to pick up the waft and flow of that dramatic phenomenon called the political wind.

Delhi’s layers of power brokers have not survived the rise and fall of empires without an acute sense of homage to those on the ascendant, even when the possible has not become probable, let alone factual. A historian would do well to record how conversation has changed over the last five years in India’s august capital.

In 2009, Delhi could talk of nothing else but how Congress, and its presiding Gandhi family, would rule India for the next 20 years at the very least. It was up to Rahul Gandhi to decide when he wanted to become prime minister, a view echoed formally by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a famous press conference that year.

There was much admiration, in rotund phrases, for Rahul Gandhi’s choice of a waiting room as his preferred abode. A mild unease about corruption by the winter of 2010 did not much change the narrative; Rahul Gandhi’s team continued to be feted at dinners and wooed as high officials of the next durbar.

Then came Anna Hazare, with Baba Ramdev in tow. Heads wagged solemnly, but the wise had seen it all. This was one of those periodic blips that must inevitably interrupt a majestic procession. It would disappear, said all the ministers deputed to swat the fly, as quickly as it had come. Had no one heard about public memory? It was short, short, short. The smiles remained wide.

Then came the shock of UP elections in 2012. The script said Congress would declare victory if it won 80 seats (a number picked up from expensive opinion polls), and this would become the arch through which Rahul Gandhi could walk towards the prime minister’s chair. Defeat introduced the first shades of doubt.

Narendra Modi’s re-election in Gujarat later that year began to change the scenario. Paradoxically, Modi aroused both apprehension and hope. His political skills and governance record were powerful assets; could Congress turn the Gujarat riots into a polarising negative? And so hundreds of opinion pieces and news stories flooded the media, suggesting that the Bharatiya Janata Party would defeat itself if it chose Modi as its mascot.

The BJP, however, heard the voice of its cadre, which lived on the street rather than in Delhi’s warrens. Now that he is the party nominee for prime minister, to visible enthusiasm, Modi has one important thing left to worry about. So far he was surrounded only by supporters. Now he will be pursued by sycophants. That can be dangerous in a game where there continues to be many a slip between cup and lip.

Delhi is worried about Modi not because of his party, but because he is an outsider, shorn of the English-induced cultural or academic sophistications that Delhi’s elites expect from anyone audacious enough to demand their services. Modi served tea to customers in his brother’s teashop and his family remains linked to its roots.

His English is unlikely to impress the Queen of England. But most of all, Delhi is anxious about his reputation for being tough. Delhi deals in compromise, not accountability, and no one really wants a bull rampaging through the expensive china that elites have accumulated over so many decades.

Delhi has handled outsiders before, at different levels of power. But they have mostly done Delhi the favour of proving incompetent.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was the one outsider who could have changed the dynamic of this city, but he did not live long enough, and may have been scarred by the Tashkent agreement with Pakistan by then. So Delhi will resist Modi with one face, the private one, and beam with its other, public face.

It is going to be a fascinating face-off for the six months left before elections.

The writer is an author and editorial director of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi.