As a pseudo-Marxist, vehement criticism of the excesses of Delhi’s upper crust is a theme familiar to me. In fact, if I were to create a list of things that occupied most of my time in Delhi this summer, discussing class politics comes in only slightly behind wandering aimlessly through the city’s dust-choked alleyways, chugging lassi (a thick yogurt drink), eating kebabs from dubious, unsanitary carts, riding the metro and getting a haircut, shave and head massage (for less than $1) from numerous street-side barbers. This does, of course, excluding the entire week I was stricken with dysentery.
Back in Rhode Island, I was elated to discover that writer Rana Dasgupta was presenting a talk on elitism in Delhi. Entitled “Intimitions of Futurity: Delhi, New Elites and the World,” Dasgupta’s lecture at the Watson Institute last Friday focused on the vast amount of new wealth that has flowed into Delhi since the liberalization of India’s economy in the early 90s and the character of the rich, entrepreneurial class that it has spawned. Most of the new money is, Dasgupta claims, unlisted - the direct or indirect product of corrupt political dealings.
Much of the material of Dasgupta’s talk was taken from his upcoming non-fiction book on Delhi, tentatively entitled Capital Gains. Through detailed interviews with Delhites ranging from businessmen and domestic workers to a drug dealer, the text will primarily deal with the question of what money means and how it impacts everything from romantic relationships to violence in Delhi.
Although Dasgupta grew up in the U.K., son of a Bengali father and English mother, he is entirely equipped to write an authentic chronicle of Delhi’s capitalist class. He told me in a conversation several minutes before his talk that his ultimate purpose in writing is to “discover the unknown” and, in many ways, his work traverses a literary landscape that few have covered. One of the guiding tenets Dasgupta described in his talk stuck with me in particular: he believes that simply vilifying Delhi’s elites on moral grounds is an “impoverished” way to understand the role of capitalism in perpetuating inequality in India.
Dasgupta’s warning complicates the knee-jerk sense of grotesque injustice that overwhelms me whenever I enter one of South Delhi’s immaculate megamalls. I have always been deeply troubled by these sanitized, air-conditioned sanctuaries of Zara-filled stores and glamorous cafes with automated pianos hard against vicious poverty and suffering directly outside their doors. And I have never felt as though any shoppers mind the stark contrast. I have always understand this disconnect as a willingness on the part of the elite to tolerate mass exploitation in the name of being “modern.” But Dasgupta challenged me to place Delhi’s elite within a wider context.
Does the fact that the proletariat is visibly at their doorstep make the Indian elite are any more morally culpable than mall-shopping Americans? Certainly not – the majority of consumer goods flooding world markets are, after all, produced in essentially the same way: by a globalized class of factory workers laboring under grueling conditions. What, then, can we say distinguishes Delhi’s elite? This is where Dasgupta’s “futurity” becomes relevant.
The rapid, exponential influx of capital for a select few via Delhi’s culture of corruption has given birth to an entirely different type of urban capitalist modernity in Delhi. It is one that Dasgupta claims will become increasingly common throughout the globe in upcoming years. A crucial facet of the impending global modernity Dasgupta observes already in Delhi is that it is entirely de-territorialized. Massive philanthropic public works projects bankrolled by industrial titans, the traditional method among the American industrialists of the last century, are few and far between in Delhi precisely because its elites are intimately connected to economic holdings in various parts of the world.
I was once introduced, for example, to a middle-aged South Indian friend of a friend at his farmhouse in Gurgaon. He made his fortune constructing railways in South Africa and, with a portion of his money, constructed the expansive ranch we were currently visiting. Our plastic chairs were situated in between a stable filled with exquisite, powerful-looking horses and a steeplechase track as well as a few fields planted with organic crops. Of course, none of this sprawling estate was actually taken care of by my acquaintance or his family, but by a retinue of caretakers from a nearby village. At some point our conversation became an unpleasantly heated debate that I must have instigated by remarking that the shantytown beside the ludicrously expensive Delhi amusement park “Kingdom of Dreams” represented the exclusion of the masses from the “India Shining” growth story. He began an aggressive accounting of the benefits he delivers to those in his employ, the good accrued by his organic crops, etc. One comment in particular best illustrated Dasgupta’s concept of de-territorialized capitalist modernity.
He continued his retort with an elaboration of the nuisance that certain rowdy Haryanvi villagers were causing by scavenging and hunting on the scrubland behind his property. The man swore they were scoundrels and boasted that he always had a rifle handy. Not only does this man exemplify a complete disconnection with the communities his farmhouse relies on but also seems to demand subservience. Throughout his lecture, Dasgupta repeatedly pointed to the distinctly feudalistic mindset – one that desires above all for the poor to kowtow – and to the sharp paranoia about losing their wealth (because it is, most often, obtained illegally) that epitomizes Delhi’s elite.
Another important factor Dasgupta points to as an explanation for the paranoia felt by many of Delhi’s new elite is a deep sense of fragility that arose as a result of Delhi’s traumatic, ruptured past. Memories of loss surrounding the 1947 Partition, Dasgupta implied, hang over the city like a thick, unmoving fog. Delhi teenagers of my generation, whose grandparents migrated from west Punjab (now in Pakistan), often speak as if Partition happened to them even though they’ve only experienced it vicariously through stories. Similarly, the inherited feeling that life and property could at any moment come under threat is, according to Dasgupta, something that cannot be neglected in analyzing Delhi’s oligarchy.