India's top brass mark out social battlefield

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

Two of India's top military leaders have wandered into a minefield, but this time it's a social one.

Army chief of staff General Joginder Singh and Air Marshal Padamjit Singh Ahluwalia are locked in a battle to become the next president of the illustrious Delhi Gymkhana Club, where the waiting list is 32 years.

It is unusual for someone like General Singh, who leads one of the world's biggest armies, to seek such an apparently trifling command. But it shows how crucial social clubs are in meting out ranks of privilege and entitlement in India.

The 'Gym', as it is fondly known, evidently carries a cachet that even medals cannot match. To walk into the vast, high ceilinged, yet slightly musty rooms of the Gymkhana is to step back in time.

By day, members of the elite sip Flowery Orange Pekoe and eat cucumber sandwiches served by liveried bearers. At night, tycoons, media barons, global executives, investment bankers and retired colonels enjoy their sundowners in the bar. And everyone breathes in a self-congratulatory air of of having 'made' it.

The waiting list at another prestigious city club, the Delhi Golf Club, is 22 years. In most of the big cities, private clubs seek to maintain a sense of exclusiveness by limiting membership. Members even put down their children's names after birth to assure them a place.

But with new blood unable to enter, some clubs such as the India International Centre in New Delhi resemble old people's homes on some days - lots of frail, hunched men slouched in armchairs.

For outsiders, it seems strange that Indians should be so enthusiastic over these private clubs. After all, they are a relic of the British Raj.

But more than 50 years after independence, for a society that is profoundly caste and status conscious, these clubs help to distinguish the elite from the nouveau riche.

Knowing the right people is crucial, from getting a child admission into a good school to opening a business.

Amused at two such distinguished men seeking the Gymkhana's presidency, Atul Kochhar, a Gymkhana member, put a positive spin on it. Leaning back in his Chesterfield armchair, he remarked with a smile: 'It's odd, true, but we should count our blessings. In Pakistan, military officers would be trying to become the country's president.'