It took a few months for the doughty hostesses of the capital to finally crack the Kremlin puzzle. You see, after the puffy razzle-dazzle of the Narendra Modi-for-PM campaign, which projected images of ultra-swishness, of executive decisions, ace strategists, private jets, personal stylists, wardrobe mania, the power dowagers and fashionista swans couldn’t wait to get enough. Finally, here was a CEO of India without the hypocrisy and pretence of socialist leaders, who would stride into their salons and parlours with a new clutch of 21st century parliamentarians and aides, dazzling the capital with their sass and chutzpah. And so, the crystal and silver were polished, and secretaries were ordered to get the phone numbers of the new A-list politicians, lobbyists, journalists, bureaucrats, diplomats, literary stars, artists, the works.
But the party never exploded on the capital’s social register. Yes, Modi was still flying and celebrating in major capitals of the world, but the party was for him, alone. He forbade his own ministers, aides and even media on the state jumbo jet and asked them to fly commercial instead; Modi’s romp with NRIs, from New York to Sydney, were lurid pageants of a homage to himself, even as he commanded austerity, formality and etiquette from his ministerial colleagues and administration. No one was permitted to meet tycoons, lobbyists or favour-seekers alone; ministers were banned from schmoozing in five-star hotels or dinner parties; bureaucrats confabulated with him alone; there was even a strict dress code for ministers travelling in the country or abroad. The Modi diktat was clear—some people are more equal than others.
That’s when the Kremlin puzzle fell into place. This was not the lifestyle of filthy-rich Russian oligarchs of the Yeltsin era but of Soviet-style Big Brother Stalinista. It was enough to plunge the capital’s hosts and hostesses into party hellhole. To add to their torment was the terror of hopeful guests of Big Brother’s pinhole surveillance of every zone. “Are these apocryphal stories for real,” wails a hostess, “this tattle about ministers who have been told by SMS to leave a dinner table, rush out of a restaurant, even told to return from the airport on the way to a foreign jaunt?” Junior ministers are jumpy when they come over, she says, and these voluble sadhvis and sants, what if they see the Mongolian barbecue as a havan, she asks, waving her hands in mock exasperation.
Then there’s the guest list glaze-daze. There are 165 newbie MPs from the ruling BJP party alone, all wide-eyed and bashful but pooh-poohed on the social register; there are the popular cabinet ministers, prominent but desperately trying to be inconspicuous; the allies are banished to their own states; the recently booted Congress is reduced to a lame three-and-a-half dozen Lok Sabha MPs; and then there’s the omnipresent prime minister who is so suspicious of anything resembling a Mughal court and of anyone remotely being extravagant. So, who do you invite to dinner?
Well, it’s as simple as swapping the victorious with the losers. Power-worshipping Delhi is treacherous and cruel—you are as good as your last election or position—and everyone plays by the rules of the game. So, it’s the BJP’s Mr Geniality, Arun Jaitley, and his clubby posse of chums who rule the red carpet. Jaitley has taken the shimmer from rivals P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid, while second-rung ministers Jayant Sinha, Piyush Goel, Rudy Pratap Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad etc have nudged out Subbirami Reddy, Anand Sharma, Abhishek Singhvi. But Jaitley and his crew have always been part of the gilt-edged power salon. His entourage include a chipper lawyer, a garrulous networker, a sprinkling of hacks, their wives; and their favourite stomping ground ranges from a newspaper heiress’s drawing room to several tycoons’ soirees.
It’s the BJP’s babalog and babelog that are missing, points a Lutyens dowager, saying they would have been a scintillating change in this new season. The BJP’s regular dynasts have always done the rounds, from Daddy’s Girl Pratibha Advani, Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, to Vasundhararaje’s son Dushyant Singh, though more invisible with the Modi code, but where are the newbies, she laments. Of the 300-odd new MPs, not a single one leaps out to fascinate, most of them nervously melting away in indistinctness.
And so, it’s still Rahul baba and his crew—Bhim Bachchan (son of Ajitabh B), Sameer Sharma (son of family courtier Satish Sharma) and a clutch of friends that include a public health neurosurgeon and RG’s visiting gora cousins. Poor Rob (Robert Vadra) has lost his bob, and is seen melting in the crowd. They are all found hanging out at garden parties of young tycoons and power jocks. Jyotiraditya Scindia adorns intimate drawing rooms, even as the BJP’s Anurag Thakur makes his debut in several parlours.
The once-powerful bureaucrats have all but vanished from Lutyens drawing rooms; gone are the days when power-brokers and high-rollers schmoozed with babus and officials, and deals were closed over aged malts and offshore accounts, even as wives, girlfriends and glam girls glided along in lustrous stupor. Instead, the Modi regime is marked by the march of the sharp suits, of lobbyists, mediators and advisors (posh for ‘brokers’) who, as one star negotiator puts it, are into “structuring international ventures and resolving complex disputes” between MNCs and government.
The string of consultants who head think-tanks and policy groups, stomp five-star hotel business chambers and have the state sponsor their dialogue fests include NRI lawyer Manoj Ladwa, deal mediator Shaurya Doval (NSA head Ajit Doval’s son and RSS-sponsored India Foundation director), ex-UN official and head of Citizens for Accountable Governance Prashant Kishor, and MoS Finance Jayant Sinha who was formerly with Silicon Valley’s e-commerce giant Omidyar. On the other hand, media celebs and Modi pundits are part of the crowd, not the haute hosts they would love to be, forced to be content gracing a President’s banquet or diplomatic dinners, and giving a policy bite over petite canapes.
And so, even as the BJP elders are forbidden from throwing their annual winter lunches and dinners (Venkaiah Naidu’s famed Rayalseema-flown seafood, Nitin Gadkari’s Nagpur goodies, Advani’s chaat parties—only Sushma Swaraj had a working MEA lunch last week which turned into a cross between a Teej fest and village fair, and Jaitley is having an open house lunch on New Year’s day), Lutyens’ ladies and their power husbands bemoan the enforced pracharak piety, and pine for the just-gone days of untrammelled power and sway, where the rich and powerful swirled in dizzy delight, and fortunes were tied to tycoons, power-brokers, ministers and bureaucrats who swept into your salon. It was self-serving, entitled, rapacious and illicit. Today it’s contrived, uptight and prudish. No work and no play is a dull way of being serious.