Under Modi, the Indian elites’ entrenched way of life may be coming to an end

Sanjeev Sanyal says the government has struck several blows recently, including laying criminal charges against members of the entitled class, signalling progress in a country that has been dominated by a tiny elite for decades

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 5:33pm

It has been more than 18 months since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power on a promise to build a new India, one founded on a radical break with the past. It is still too early to gauge the impact of his economic and foreign policies, but there is one area where his government is making palpable progress: taming India’s entrenched elite.

What remains to be seen is whether Modi is able to cement these gains. The elite can be remarkably resilient

India has long been dominated by a tiny elite – a couple of hundred extended families, totalling perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 people, in every sphere of public life: politics, business, the media and even Bollywood.

Many of these dynasties have roots that stretch back to the colonial era, implying at least seven decades of dominance. Every point of leverage – from government contracts and industrial licences to national awards – is used to maintain this ecosystem of power.

Over time, ties of patronage and marriage have fused these dynasties into an entitled class.

One of Modi’s more symbolic blows to the old establishment has been his government’s success in evicting high-status squatters from hundreds of government bungalows in central Delhi.

READ MORE: Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, is an outsider among the old guard Delhi elite

An even more visible change is the sudden increase in criminal charges being filed against members of the old elite. The homes of several senior civil servants have been raided recently as part of corruption investigations, and serious accusations of sexual harassment have been levelled against India’s top environmentalist, Rajendra Pachauri.

Meanwhile, banks have begun to demand repayment from large borrowers accustomed to having their loans rolled over.

Much of this would have been unthinkable until a few months ago. On December 19, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, and her son, Rahul, the party’s vice-president, were forced to appear in court on corruption charges. In response, their party’s MPs brought legislative activity to a halt for days. The two were quickly released on bail.

The case against the Gandhis – as well as many other high-profile investigations – is likely to drag on for years. And of course, in some cases, the accused will be exonerated. But the fact that members of the old elite can be investigated is progress.

What remains to be seen is whether Modi is able to cement these gains. The elite can be remarkably resilient, retaining the power to strike back at the first sign of weakness. History – from post-revolutionary France to modern Thailand – has repeatedly shown that it is a mistake to write off the old establishment.

Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist and urban theorist, was Deutsche Bank’s global strategist until October 2015. He is currently writing a history of the Indian Ocean. Copyright: Project Syndicate