The Indian Express has a reputation as a newspaper that practices, mostly, a kind of journalism of courage but it is also seen as a diligent chronicler of the winners and losers in the perennial power games that have characterized Delhi since the days of Hastinapur.
The newspaper’s annual compilation of 100 “most powerful Indians” is eagerly looked forward to by the purveyors of intrigue and intriguers in the Delhi durbar. The titillating charm of this yearly exercise has become even more pronounced in recent years because journalists have been shut out of access to the inner courtyards of the powerful. The 2023 list of “most powerful Indians” came out a few days ago. Expectedly, the all-powerful prime minister and his very, very powerful Union home minister occupy the first and the second slot. This is, after all, the shahenshah and shah regime.
However, most interestingly, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar has grabbed the third spot, ahead of the Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud (No. 4), Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath (No. 5), and, even more significantly, ahead of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at No. 6. That in this Hindu-fied dispensation, the RSS boss should cede the No. 3 spot he occupied last year to a politically inconsequential ex-foreign service officer tells a consequential tale.
The only inference possible from Jaishankar’s No. 3 spot (up from his 15th rank last year) is this: that even in the much-touted New India, that old institution – variously called the Khan Market Gang (KMG) or the Lutyens’ Elite – is very much alive and kicking.
Irrespective of the present company he keeps, Jaishankar is a quintessential product of that real or imagined Khan Market fraternity. His newly accredited centrality in the Modi regime tells us as much about the external affairs minister as about the continued indispensability of the KMG to any ruler wanting to govern this difficult land. Another card-carrying member of the KMG, national security adviser Ajit Doval – a former police officer and intelligence chief – is also in the top 10.
This reality is a far cry from what the story-tellers and narrative-whisperers of the new Bharat have been telling us – that the Khan Market Gang represents a subversive coven where anti-India forces foregather at ungodly hours to practice their dark arts and dirty tricks against the Modi regime. Ever since Modi himself invoked this spectre, the polemicists of the new order have berated this imaginary Khan Market Gang for all the prime minister’s failures.
Once upon a time, the actual KMG saw itself as a legitimate and noble order, a natural elite, held together in reverence for the constitution. It sported and took pride in its sense of public responsibility; it had in its ranks wise and experienced men and women who could be counted upon to see, define and protect the best interests of the nation, above their personal considerations.
As the republic aged, the KMG chose to be as public-spirited, secular, multi-cultural and liberal as the government of the day wanted them to be. Its members were mostly western educated or had managed to export their children to the west. Either way, they were never queasy about looking to outsiders for inspiration and approval; they were very well networked into global influence and information and connections.
In their heyday, the KMG even dictated cultural and literary tastes, defined aesthetics, and claimed a monopoly right to determine political correctness. It took upon itself the sacred duty of manning the barricades of governance. They knew that irrespective of the ideological colour, any regime would always need the equivalents of the S. Jaishankars and the Hardeep Puris.
By any reckoning the very urbane and elegant external affairs minister has all the graces and good manners of the Khan Market crowd. He is as elite as the elite can be. The Indian Express informs us that he even plays squash.
In any case, Jaishankar belongs to this Khan Market brotherhood rather than to the trishul-flaunting crowd that marked its presence on the Ram Navami day in various parts of the country. Perhaps he also shares the Khan Market fraternity’s conceit that their presence would help keep the Hindutva hotheads in check. And, in any case, he and fellow KMG products can always tell themselves – and others – that a little bit of ugliness always got dished out towards the Muslims – regardless of who was in power in Delhi.
Admittedly, the Khan Market brotherhood has lost a few slots of perks and privilege – like the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and a few Raj Bhavans – to the non-English speaking crowd. Yet it remains cockily self-assured that the Modi columns are so depleted of talent and experience that eventually the Khan Market wallahs would be tapped on the shoulder. And, it is perhaps to Prime Minister Modi’s credit that he has come to a somewhat similar conclusion and has reached out to a few hard-core members from the KMG stable.
That Jaishankar has been deemed worthy to be anointed as the third most powerful Indian should be reaffirmation of the Khan Market Gang’s staying power; its protocols and conventions remain operative and the pre-2014 kind of networking and patron-client relationships have not disappeared. The Khan Market crowd, in particular its media segment, has within it the ability to make a person larger than life.
It would be worth recalling that before Jaishankar, there was Arun Jaitley. A man who was never a street-brawler in the manner of an Amit Shah or an important caste leader in the manner of a Kalyan Singh. But, his membership of the Khan Market brotherhood propelled him to the deepest recesses of the corridors of power in Delhi. Like Jaishankar, he was urbane, a favourite guest of Lutyens’ hostesses, and had scores of friends among journalists happy to spin his yarns. If Jaitley was the Khan Market representative in the first Modi term, Jaishankar can be credited with being a worthy successor in the second innings.
Jaishankar’s new status perhaps also tells us something about Narendra Modi. It is easy to argue that Modi is not a revolutionary leader. He has never led a long march nor an insurrection of any kind. He has, rather, intrigued and conspired his way to the chief minister’s chair in Gandhinagar and then used Gujarat to develop wings to fly over to Raisina Hill. Therefore, as prime minister, he faces the perennial problem of all bourgeois leaders: how much and how far to mobilize the rabble without causing a social and political upheaval.
This is where the Jaishankars of the Khan Market variety come in. They are needed to be around to perform a crucial and indispensable role: break the leader’s free-fall, help the regime refrain from mucking around too much with the fundamentals of sensible statecraft, and help handle public relations.
The only danger, of course, is when the Jaishankars of Khan Market give in to the irresistible urge to become missionaries for Hindutva.