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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Sanjay Baru and Karan Thapar mourn loss of influence for Lutyens’ Power Elite

For the launch of his latest book “India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste, and Cultural Revolution,” former bureaucrat Sanjay Baru chose to do an interview with Karan Thapar, someone who himself epitomizes the Nehruvian era’s power elite.

The book that was launched is said to be “both entertaining and analytical, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the levers of power operate in India today.” The book “dissects the fault lines and power struggles dominating our political, economic and social institutions. Offering us a ringside view of the shifts in power in ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ and across India, Mr Baru pulls the curtains back on the nerve centres that shape the nation’s destiny.”

The 32 minute interview for The Wire discusses the transition of the cultural and political environment under the Modi Sarkar from the post-Independence one to the current-day system said to be taken over by a different set of power elites. In the previous (Nehruvian) system inherited from the colonial rulers, a group of people called the Lutyens circle occupied the corridors of power.

This group of elites Mr Baru asserts, was typically educated in elite institutions, spoke very fluent English, even tended to think in English, and was comfortable using knives and forks to eat. Mr Baru specifically mentions St. Stephens as one of these elite institutions. He explains the tendency to think in English citing the example of Sam Pitroda, a close aide of the Gandhi dynasty. Mr Baru asserts that, in contrast to this previous category of power elites, the current group of power elites comes from a slightly lower socio-economic class– the aspirational class — and asserts that this new group is “provincial” in its outlook.

Mr Baru then dwells on the ability to use forks and knives as one of the major characteristics that differentiates the two types of power elites. This new category of power elites are the ones we currently see around Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah, he asserts.

Mr Baru claims that a cultural revolution has been taking place with the advent of the Modi Sarkar. This cultural revolution, he asserts, is similar to the one that took place in China under Mao’s authoritarian regime.  The movement in China, Mr Baru says, aimed to “eradicate vestiges of the old order.” While it is true that a kind of cultural renaissance is taking place in Bharat, is it fair to compare it with the forcefully-brought-about cultural revolution of an authoritarian communist regime?

Mr Baru then describes the current cultural renaissance in Bharat as an anti-intellectual movement similar to the one in China under Mao. He reinforces the Nehruvian narrative when he equates those from JNU (who are known to propagate left-wing ideology) as intellectuals. He also makes the claim that voices of these JNU “intellectuals” are being stifled under the current system.  He asserts that the cultural revolution of China was anti-intellectual and proved to be a setback to China and a similar thing is happening in Bharat.

Another lament he expresses in the interview is that the previous BJP government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee continued with the Nehruvian type of power elites but under the Modi Sarkar, this category of power elites has been sidelined. A few of these old-style power elites, the St. Stephen types, Mr Baru says, are now in Niti Aayog but most have been sidelined and they no longer remain very close to the power epicentre. He believes that PM Vajpayee was himself a Lutyens insider but this is not the case with PM Modi.

The claim is that with the onset of Modi Sarkar “the aim is to remove if not eradicate vestiges of the old order who may have tried to cling onto power and office.”

One important section of the power elites are the bureaucrats. Contrary to assertions made regarding throwing out the old order, no radical changes were made in the bureaucratic structure in the Modi Sarkar.  Modi Sarkar is also known to have continued with  bureaucrats who had worked under the previous regimes. Some critiqued this practise of continuing with UPA-era bureaucrats while an opposing set of voices praised PM Modi for continuing with previous-regime bureaucrats.

A 2019 article highlighted that bureaucrats who were part of the PMO in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments continued to hold important positions in the Modi Sarkar. The names mentioned include Rajeev Topno, Ashwini Vaishnav, and B.V.R. Subramanyam among others. In fact, the then Director of the Nehru Museum Memorial and Library, Shakti Sinha said, “PM Modi had made it very clear in the beginning itself that he is not going to identify officers with any political dispensation…In fact, the PM did not change any officer in PMO when he took charge in 2014. He treated the officers as professionals doing their job.” Only in the second term of Modi Sarkar in July and December 2019, were bureaucratic reshuffles carried out and these too cannot be termed as drastic overhauls.

The Lutyens’ power elite still continue to exercise outsize influence on judiciary, media, policy think-tanks and academia. However, it is true that Bharat is experiencing a cultural renaissance of a kind and massive election victories of the BJP/NDA in 2014 and 2019 can be attributed to this resurgence.

Coming back to the interview, many have pointed out that it sounds more like a lament of the former power elites over the bygone days when they were close to the power epicentre. Sandeep Balkrishnan makes a very apt comment on the interview saying it looks like a nostalgic exchange between those who have lost courtier privileges:

Another person commented that the appropriate setting for such a conversation was behind closed doors instead of in public space:

Perhaps one could sum up the interview as “A conversation that happens when two brown Sahibs meet.”

Disclaimer:  The author has not read the book being discussed in the interview and this article is limited to commentary on what was discussed in the interview.

(Feature image source: OpIndia)

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