Ringside View | Book Review — India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution by Sanjaya Baru

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June 13, 2021 1:30 AM

An insider’s account of the wheeling and dealing in the country’s power circles

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi Express photoA file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi (Express photo)

Sanjay Baru is known for his journalism, but has been an economist, academician, lobbyist (secretary of FICCI) and a kind of politician, being the media adviser to a former prime minister. So when he uses his first-hand view of things to weave politics, business and socio-economic themes to describe what has made India’s movers and shakers in his new book, India’s Power Elite, the result is plain brilliant.

There are several references made to the present PM, Narendra Modi, but none pass judgment, showcasing instead the transformation that has taken place in the concept of elite.

Elitism in India has been associated with Lutyens’ Delhi, synonymous with locations such as Khan Market and India International Centre. These are symbols of power and to be a part of this means one has arrived in life. And when you lose your power, as the author says was the case when he ceased to be media adviser to the PM, these privileges also disappear. But the fact is that everyone wants to be a part of it. While Mumbai is the business hub of the country, all media head offices are in Delhi to be close to the corridors of power.

Curiously, there is a lot of sociology involved in defining these elites. In the British era it was the higher castes that wielded power, which Baru illustrates with a number of examples. The old ICS, which is the IAS now, was run by the higher castes. Even today most PMs have relied on the higher castes when it comes to their secretaries and confidants. But things are changing. The difference between India and Bharat has been best leveraged by Modi. While elites traditionally had three things to go with them — class, caste and English language, Modi has changed this narrative. With his background of not belonging to an upper caste and not being well versed with English, he has created his own elite bank. Hence, while in the past several non-upper caste leaders have joined the elites with money power, today there is more diversity for sure and not fulfilling this criterion has its advantage.

Baru throws light on how business and politics mingle, which makes one stop to think. Industry associations are all out to placate those in power, where not just the politician but the babu drives the agenda. Foreign tours are initiated where ministers and bureaucrats are invited to represent Indian industry. The purpose is simple. Besides a free holiday, the lobbying can be done outside India where there are no constraints of time. Instead of several business leaders thronging North Block to get appointments, these occasions offer platforms for discussions and bestowing favours with undivided attention.

Business always wants reforms and a regulatory regime with fewer restrictions. What better way to accomplish this but to get the so-called right-wing economists with impeccable credentials to speak for you. Consider all the conferences and the speakers present. You will never find an anti-capitalist economist as a speaker!

Similarly, the babus are an important clan. They move the papers and make the recommendations to the minister. The reward comes post-retirement when they get positions in India Inc. In fact, several of them earn more post-retirement than when in public service. Some of them are powerful enough to still wield power and get things done. But most will help the company guide through the system which is value addition. This is how the circle of power moves.

The media is also very powerful as it communicates to the public. There have been several instances of land being given to media professionals which ensures they get on the right side. Baru also brings out how the intelligentsia gets created and distinguishes between ‘policy’ and ‘public’ intellectuals. The ‘policy intellectuals’ came from DSE, IEG, ICRIER, etc, while the public intellectuals could be found in the likes of CPR and CSD. The former are almost always those who have either wealth or power or international branding (just think of the names that go with these traits). The others exist and make the right noises that may appeal to some people who are not pro-establishment.

The legal profession, too, is not free from such influences. Lawyers have sought to influence policy through public articulation which has been supported by the media. The judiciary, too, gets involved in policy making very often, which has been curbed by Modi.

Baru says almost tongue-in-cheek towards the end that as media adviser he had categorised Delhi’s media into four groups — pure professional, pro-government, pro-opposition and the corrupt. With the exception of the third, one could ensure favourable coverage. Need anything more be said?

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution
Sanjaya Baru
Penguin Random House
Pp 243, Rs 699

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