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With Modi, the ‘30,000 who control India’

BJP youth activists celebrate the victory at the party headquarters in New Delhi on Friday. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, May 16: The year was 1993. The BJP had become the butt of jokes as the party of the elections after.

The implication was that its leadership was always plotting to win not the current election, but the next one, possibly after five years.

I was travelling in Madhya Pradesh with the BJP’s national leaders who were campaigning for the Assembly polls in the state being held in a volatile atmosphere after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

All of us, some journalists who have since become politicians and are members of parliament included, camped overnight at the state guesthouse in Bhopal at the end of gruelling day of campaigning, driving along Madhya Pradesh roads which were then far less motorable, especially if one had a bad back.

Over dinner, one of the BJP leaders at the very top of the party’s pecking order, one with very close ties to the RSS then, tested a theory on me. “Approximately 30,000 people control India,” he told me. “When at least half of this 30,000 are with us, we will rule India.” The “us” in this case was the BJP.

This leader sincerely believed that this was so and explained several stratagems to win over this core group. I discussed this theory with him several times since then. In 1996, he confided that the BJP was almost getting there.

Two years later, the BJP formed its first government at the Centre led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, excluding the 13-day failed experiment. The leader in question was convinced that wooing the core 30,000 group successfully was critical to the NDA’s government formation and staying power from 1998 to 2004.

Fast forward to last year. The US-India Business Council (USIBC) brought a delegation to this country which had separate meetings with Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, among others. Rahul surprised members of the council by telling them that 300 people control India.

This USIBC delegation was collectively worth over a trillion dollars in net assets and it went back depressed when Rahul further told them that in his view this figure of 300 would shrink further in the coming years. The delegation was, of course, unaware of the BJP leader’s private assertion in Bhopal.

One member of this delegation who shared Rahul’s views expressed last year with me said Rahul’s reasoning in this case was neither coherent nor cogent. But the team’s members assumed that the Congress vice-president was referring to the control of the Indian economy.

On the contrary, the BJP leader’s conversation with me was insightful. I could see a plan behind his arguments, and between 1993 and 1998, I followed how the party was going about implementing that plan.

All this came back to me on this historic vote counting day as I hopped from one power breakfast to another in New Delhi where those who exercise tremendous clout in the running of the Indian state gathered to watch election results on giant TV screens installed in plush drawing rooms along some of the priciest real estate in the country.

The experience made me realise that like many other American institutions, “power breakfasts” had arrived in India. When the late Siddhartha Shankar Ray was ambassador in Washington, he had dismissed power breakfasts, around which America’s capital revolves, as inconsequential and refused to attend them. “Only peasants eat breakfast at 8am,” he famously said more than once with ill-concealed derision.

There were smiles everywhere at today’s rounds of breakfasts in the capital. Present at some of these events and confabulating were former governors, lieutenant governors, cabinet secretaries, MPs, ambassadors, captains of industry...you name them. And serving civil servants, of course, keeping a lower profile than their retired peers.

The gaajar halwa, kulfi served were both saffron in hue. On another day I would have taken it as normal and it would have no special meaning. But today my eyes were deceiving me, I thought, as I suspected that the vada had been deliberately cooked to a level of saffron and the sambar had a concoction of ingredients to look suitably saffron in appearance.

At one breakfast, a former civil servant pointed to some of his colleagues and remarked snidely. They were Congressmen till the other day, he said. Now they are congratulating each other on the BJP’s spectacular victory. The civil servant in question cautioned that these are the people the new Prime Minister will have to be wary about.

But once again I remembered Bhopal. No effort was spared then to win over those who exercised real power, those who knew how to work the system. Never mind if they were on the other side until yesterday. The BJP needed them to win during Vajpayee’s leadership. From what I saw today, Modi will need them to succeed and he will not stand on ideology and spurn their help in the months ahead. Quite the contrary.

One breakfast that spilled over into a light brunch was at a housing society that has some of the most high-profile bureaucrats in the annals of India’s civil service as its residents. The most powerful men in some of the past offices of Prime Ministers lived there.

In the mid-1990s, especially after the H.D. Deve Gowda-Inder Kumar Gujral disasters in governance, this housing society contributed a steady procession of inductees into a rising BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Their inductions raised the profile of the party. Besides, they were among the 30,000 that my BJP interlocutor was talking about.

I had a sense of deja vu at this brunch. History was repeating itself. What the BJP could not do in the run-up to the last two general elections was happening: a replay of 1998 and 1999, and much more forcefully.

Those who control India, as defined in my Bhopal conversation, are clearly flocking towards a Modi government. That offers the best guarantee for the incoming Prime Minister’s success much more than the numbers in the Lok Sabha that crystallised today.