It all comes together on the roads.
Delhi is a segregated city; an impenetrable, wary city – a city with a fondness for barbed wire, armed guards and guest lists. Though its population now knocks up against 20 million, India’s capital remains curiously faithful to the spirit of the British administrative enclave with which it began: Delhiites admire social rank, name-dropping and exclusive clubs, and they snub strangers who turn up without a proper introduction. The Delhi newspapers pay tribute every morning to the hairstyles and parties of its rich, and it is they, with their high-walled compounds and tinted car windows, who define the city’s aspirations. Delhi’s millionaires are squeamish about public places, and they don’t like to go out unless there are sufficient valets and guards to make them feel at home, and prices exorbitant enough to keep undesirables out.
But in this segregated city, everyone comes together on the roads. The subway network is still incomplete, there are few local trains (unlike Mumbai), and you can’t take a helicopter to work (unlike São Paulo) – the draconian security regulations prevent that. So the Delhi roads accommodate every kind of citizen and offer a unique exhibition of the city’s social relations.
On the eve of ‘liberalization’ in 1991 – when the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh, opened the economy up to global money flows, so bringing an end to four decades of centralized planning – there were three varieties of car on sale in India. The Hindustan Ambassador and Premier Padmini had both been around for thirty years and it took seven years to acquire one – production was limited to a few thousand a year and ownership restricted, in practice, to bureaucrats and senior businessmen. The compact Maruti 800, by contrast, was a recent arrival that had been conceived as a ‘people’s car’: with a quota of 150,000 a year it had brought the possibility of private car travel within reach, for the first time, of the middle classes.
Nearly twenty years on, those three originals have all but vanished in the flurry of new brands that liberalization ushered in (though the stately Ambassador remains the preferred conveyance for Delhi’s politicians and senior bureaucrats). The new economic regime stimulated more Indian companies, such as Tata, to start building cars, but it also brought in the global giants – Hyundai, then Ford, GM and Toyota, and sooner or later everyone else – and now, with car markets declining around the world, they are looking to India to take up some slack. India’s car consumption is ten times what it was in 1991, and rising rapidly, and the effect in the cities is deadlock. The stricken carriageways are never adequate for the car mania, no matter how many new lanes and flyovers are built – and in Delhi, most cars are stationary much of the time. Hemmed in by the perpetual emergency of roadworks, and governed by traffic lights that can stay red for ten minutes, the situation is unpromising. Delhi drivers, moreover, never confident that any system will produce benefits for all, try to beat the traffic with an opportunistic hustle that often turns to a great honking blockage, smothered in the smoke of so many engines air-conditioning their passengers against the forty-degree heat. The main beneficiaries are foot-bound magazine sellers, who move fast and offer something to while away the time.
Another distraction for unmoving drivers: the endless automobile reveries posted up on hoardings – images of a parallel world where the roads are open, and driving is sexy and carefree.
With so many cars jammed up against each other, each as hobbled as the next, road travel could threaten to undermine the steep gradients of Delhi’s social hierarchies. But here the recent car profusion steps in to solve the very problem it creates. The contemporary array of brands and models supplies a useful code of social status to offset the anonymity of driving, and the vertiginous altitude of Delhi’s class system comes through admirably, even on the horizontal roads. Car brands regulate the relationships between drivers: impatient Mercedes flash Marutis to let them through the throng, and Marutis move aside. BMW limousines are so well insulated that passengers don’t even hear the incessant horn with which chauffeurs disperse everything in their path. Canary-yellow Hummers lumber over the concrete barriers from the heaving jam into the empty bus lanes and accelerate illegally past the masses – and traffic police look away, for what cop is going to risk his life to challenge the entitlement of rich kids? Yes, the privileges of brand rank are enforced by violence if need be: a Hyundai driver gets out of his car to kick in the doors of a Maruti that kept him dawdling behind, while young men in a Mercedes chase after a Tata driver who dared abuse them out of the window, running him down and slapping him as if he were an insubordinate kid.
There is nothing superficial about brands in contemporary Delhi. This is a place where one’s social significance is assumed to be nil unless there are tangible signs to the contrary, so the need for such signs is authentic and fierce. And in these times of stupefying upheaval, when all old meanings are under assault, it is corporate brands that seem to carry the most authority. Brands hold within them the impressive infinity of the new global market. They hold out the promise of dignity and distinction in a harsh city that constantly tries to withhold these things. They even offer clarity in intimate questions: ‘He drives a Honda City,’ a woman says, meaningfully, about a prospective son-in-law. Brands help to stave off the terror of senselessness, and the more you have, the better. Where the old socialist elite was frugal and unkempt, the new Delhi aristocracy is exuberantly consumerist. With big cars and designer accessories, it literally advertises its supremacy, creating waves of adoration and hatred on every side.
Somewhere around four a.m. on the morning of January 10, 1999 a car sped along Lodhi Road, a broad, leafy artery flanked by Delhi’s parks and richest residential areas. At the wheel was a drunk young man named Sanjeev Nanda, who was returning home from a party with two friends. The car was a $160,000 BMW, one of the manufacturer’s largest and most luxurious models, which had been privately imported and still carried foreign plates. Later estimates said it was travelling at 140 kilometres per hour; at any rate, it went out of control when it reached a police checkpoint and crashed through the barrier, ploughing into seven people and killing six instantly: three policemen and three labourers. Witnesses said that two men got out to see what had happened; when they saw the bodies and the screaming survivors, they got back in the car and drove off in a panic, running over one of the prostrate figures as they went.
Sanjeev Nanda was a charismatic twenty-one-year-old who had just graduated from Wharton Business School. His lineage was de luxe: his grandfather was Admiral S. M. Nanda, chief of India’s Naval Staff, who, like several other well-connected figures in the Indian armed services, had made big money in his retirement by setting up as an arms dealer, brokering between foreign arms companies and his former colleagues. The business flourished further under the shrewd eye of Sanjeev’s father, Suresh, whose acquisition of Delhi’s elegant Claridges Hotel was only a small part of a network of investments and acquisitions he built in India and around the world.
After the accident, Sanjeev sped away to the nearby house of one of his companions, who were also from elite business families. This man’s father owned a finance company and was used to grasping complex situations quickly: he immediately ordered his driver to move the BMW off the road and into his compound. The front of the car was covered in a gory mat of blood and flesh, and the guard was given the job of cleaning it up. But it had left a trail of leaking oil as it fled, which the police were able to follow to the house. They turned up in the middle of the clean-up, arrested Sanjeev and took him, still drunk, into custody.
The case should have been simple, but it melted away under the backstage influence of the Nanda family. Manoj Malik, the only one of the seven victims to survive his injuries, changed his story during the trial to say that it was probably a truck, and not a BMW, that hit him. The only independent witness, Sunil Kulkarni, who had been passing by that night and had described bodies flying over the BMW’s roof, withdrew his testimony and said that he had made it under pressure from the Delhi Police, who were supposedly conspiring against Sanjeev Nanda. Sanjeev himself alleged he had not been in the car that night, which was registered in his sister’s name, and denied any connection to the incident. The Nanda family tried to dissipate ill feeling by making unofficial payments to the victims’ families. The case lost steam and life went on. Out on bail, Sanjeev did an MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, near Paris, became managing director of the family hotel business, and moved into a penthouse at Claridges. Manoj Malik mysteriously disappeared.
Suresh Nanda’s business was hit with unfortunate publicity: an undercover investigation into arms procurement corruption carried out by journalists from the news magazine Tehelka found that he had paid large bribes to government ministers in return for favourable consideration of his clients’ products. He was charged with corruption and let out on bail while the Central Bureau of Investigation looked into his affairs. It emerged that he ran an Internet procurement monopoly that gave him a guaranteed cut of the vast business of government tenders, and the press expressed outrage that he could continue to enjoy this privilege even as that same government had him under investigation. Before long, he was caught offering a bribe of 100 million rupees ($2.1m) to a tax official who was offering to hush up the investigation, and he and Sanjeev, who was also involved, were sent to jail for fourteen days.
Then the BMW case took a new turn. The discredited witness, Sunil Kulkarni, in an attempt to show the world what pressure he was under, took undercover television journalists to a secret meeting with representatives of the Nanda family. This operation revealed that the Nandas were paying the lawyers on both sides of the case, who were working together to keep Kulkarni silent. The lawyers were dismissed and the case was finally heard in the Supreme Court. In September 2008, nine years after the incident, Sanjeev Nanda was convicted of mowing down six people while driving in a drunken condition, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment – an extraordinary moment when, contrary to expectations and experience, it was shown that the Indian elite cannot always make its acts disappear.
Contemporary Indian society is transfixed by wealth. A new genre of popular magazine is filled from cover to cover with features about gold-plated bathtubs, diamond-encrusted mobile phones and super-de luxe vacations, allowing readers to wallow in what they can never afford. Television game shows give weight to the seductive whispers of the market, showing working people in the very moment they are transformed into millionaires. People love to read about the possessions, opinions and talents of India’s leading industrialists, some of whom have succeeded in creating quasi-religious cults around themselves. Criticism of the rich results in astonishing waves of rebuttal by ordinary people who feel it is an attack on their national pride.
But this determined adoration of the rich coexists with something else: something more crepuscular, full of fear and night-time jolts. In a society as stratified as this, it is possible to imagine that the ones at the top enjoy endless freedom – freedom so absolute that the only adequate use of it would be cruelty. For most people, Delhi life remains gruelling and deprived, the inconceivable promise of the global market unfulfilled, and this feeling of perpetual deficit lets in apprehensions of a vampiric ruling class, sucking the plenitude away from everyone else. This is the feeling that finds resonance in the story of Sanjeev Nanda, which has become one of Delhi’s most popular parables. This story erupts into the public domain with the delicious nausea of something widely felt, but rarely observed: the recklessness of this economic system, its out-of-control heartlessness. Sanjeev’s speeding BMW is a symbol of gleaming, maleficent capital, unchecked by conscience or by the roadblocks of the state. The scene of the impact, a one-hundred-metre stretch of road strewn with organs, severed limbs and pools of blood, is like a morality painting of the cataclysmic effects of this marauding elite in the world of ordinary people.
In this nightmare version of the rich, they are no longer the pride of the nation but invaders from outside, representatives of trans-national currents who are never authentically committed to the Indian good. Much was made, in the Sanjeev Nanda story, of his British passport and his imported car, as if his fatal velocity was that of foreign forces whose impact, here in India, could only be catastrophic. The Indian road has not been given over to speed as it has elsewhere; it is a place of innumerable modes of transport, a place of commerce, leisure and bureaucracy, a place cluttered with history. Even the most powerful men in the country cannot expect that clean lines will open up for them through the Indian reality. Only someone with no connection to that reality could imagine such a thing.
The society that has emerged in post-liberalization India is one consumed both by euphoria and dread. The rich are the emblems for both these sentiments, which is why they never settle into a single meaning. They are the simultaneous saints and demons of contemporary India, and any consideration of them oscillates with powerfully contradictory feeling.
In the Western press, the face of the ‘new India’ is typically urbane. It might be that of the exquisitely suited Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro Technologies, and staple of every Asian power list, who studied at Stanford, inherited a successful vegetable oil company and turned it into a global technology enterprise. It could be the face of Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys Technologies, Forbes Asia’s ‘Business Leader of the Year 2006’ and author of the recent Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century. English-speaking, intelligent and articulate, these billionaires are the kind of men the West can do business with. They are regularly invited to explain India’s economic growth to international business conferences and journals, where they project a rational and understated image of the country. They reassure Western audiences that the ‘new India’ will be no more than an annexe of the old West: that the future of India, and therefore, to some extent, of the world, will be intelligible and familiar.
In truth, however, the anglicized class to which Azim Premji and Nandan Nilekani belong is becoming marginalized from Indian society. Immense upheavals are afoot, and English-speaking sophisticates now speak about themselves as harried and besieged. They still enjoy many privileges, but as time goes on they see their values and sensibilities disappearing from the media and the streets, and they are faced with the troubling realization that they no longer rule this society or dominate its imagination – or even understand the first thing about it.
Rajiv Desai, a fan of the Beatles and The New Yorker, who spent twenty years working in Chicago before returning to Delhi and setting up one of India’s leading PR firms, is quite clear: ‘Many of my friends are moving to Goa. There are so many people like me who have a second home in Goa, which is the only place you can still find anglicized values. People have intelligent conversation. There’s standing room only in the jazz clubs. My house in Goa’s not a country home, it’s a second home, where I go to be myself and preserve my sanity. I can’t stay the whole year in Delhi. It’s backward. You take your life in your hands on the roads, you see the kind of people there are. It’s been taken over by Hindi-speakers and loud Punjabi festivals like Karwa Chauth that no one used to make a fuss about twenty years back.’
The Indian economy of the turn of the twenty-first century has been far too explosive for the tiny English-speaking class to monopolize its rewards. In fact they have not even been its primary beneficiaries. Their foreign degrees and cosmopolitan behaviour prepare them well for jobs in international banks and management consultancies, where they earn good salaries and mix with people like themselves. But they are surrounded by very different people – private businessmen, entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, retailers and general wheeler-dealers – who are making far more money than they are, and wielding more political power. These people may come from smaller cities, they may be less worldly and they may speak only broken English. But they are skilled in the realm of opportunity and profit, and they are at home in the booming world of overlords, connections, bribes, political loopholes, sweeteners – and occasional violence – that sends their anglicized peers running for the nearest cappuccino. Over the last few years, provincials have become Delhi’s dominant economic group, with many millionaires, and a few billionaires, among their number, and networks of political protection that make them immensely more influential than those who have become rich on a salary.
Saif Rizvi, a sociable young plastic surgeon who grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia and the United States, is one of many who are affronted by the new arrivals. Prominent Muslims from Lucknow, his family traces its lineage back 500 years, and Saif has a healthy contempt for Delhi’s upstarts: ‘Oh my God, the nouveaux riches. Yeah, I see them everywhere I go, man, you see the way they walk into the clubs, the way they order their drinks. They’re horrible. The only thing those guys have that’s nice is their cars. The nicest cars pull up and the most horrible people get out. Horrible bodies, horrible teeth, horrible voice modulation.’
Saif moved from New York to Delhi to take over the family clinic when his father was killed by a truck on a road in Uttar Pradesh two years ago, and he is gloomy about his new surroundings. He is alienated by Delhi conversation and he takes refuge in expat social evenings: ‘I’m not impressed by Delhi since these guys came into money. Now the clubs cater to them, the TV and everything. Everywhere they play Bollywood music, man, that’s what these guys like.’
A DJ in his spare time, Saif plays the sort of psychedelic trance that gives Delhi’s Cambridge- and Berkeley-educated youth a good environment to take MDMA and escape from the city’s grind. ‘The Ministry of Sound set up a club in Delhi and you know what kind of music they played? Bollywood. Can you believe it? The Ministry of Sound is supposed to be cutting edge, and they play Bollywood songs! Just to keep those guys happy!’
Unfortunately for Saif, the laments of disdainful cosmopolites like him carry less weight these days. The city now looks to the Bollywood-loving provincials, who have reaped billions in the early twenty-first century boom, and turned the city’s club-like mentality upside down. The rewards of that boom have flowed to them because its implausible escalations rode on the one thing they had that Delhi people did not: land.
In 1957 Prime Minister’s Jawaharlal Nehru’s government consolidated the capital’s planning and development agencies into the new Delhi Development Authority. The DDA had sole responsibility for planning and executing the city’s expansion and development and, in order to fulfil this, it had the right to acquire land forcibly and at greatly reduced prices. It was a development monopoly, whose exclusivity was guaranteed by laws making it impossible for private individuals or companies to own more than a few acres of land within Delhi’s borders.
The DDA was given such enormous power over the landscape of this new capital that one can only be awed, today, by the mediocrity of its achievements. The drab, mouldering tower that the agency calls home is fully indicative of the DDA’s preferred architectural style; the countless housing developments it has built across Delhi are warren-like and poky, and by now they are leaking and falling down. Nehru Place, the ugly office complex built by the DDA in the 1980s, is in ruins, and has now been mostly abandoned by companies fleeing to new accommodation outside Delhi. Nehru Stadium, which the DDA built for the Asian Games in 1982, has had to be entirely rebuilt in order to serve for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Such physical rot is an outward indication of the enormous corruption that gripped the DDA in its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. Since no one else could own land for development, the agency was able to control the entire construction business – and to charge money for access. It would keep the supply of land low, sitting on its bank of rusty, disused plots and selling building contracts to the highest bidder. Building contractors would then claw the expense of their bribes back, once they were given a contract, by cutting every kind of corner on construction. In a city of Delhi’s size and prestige, this racket was big business, and some of the largest fortunes in the city were made by mid-level DDA engineers whose job it was to rubber-stamp new projects – and many of them resisted promotion out of these lucrative positions for years.
But the disaster of the DDA created a set of other, unexpected effects, whose long-term impact was even more momentous. With the city of Delhi completely sealed to private commercial development, a number of individuals began in the 1980s to buy up land in the surrounding states. It was a quiet and laborious process, and most of the people who began it were not from the urban elite. They came from small towns, they understood how to do business with farmers, and they operated in areas that seemed impossibly backward and remote to Delhi businesspeople.
One of these men was Kushal Pal Singh, who came from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and whose father-in-law’s real-estate business was decimated when the DDA was set up. Singh was charged with reviving the business, later called DLF, and in 1979, unable to operate in Delhi, he began to buy up rural land to the south of the city, in the state of Haryana. This is how he describes the process:
I did everything it took to persuade these farmers to trust me. I spent weeks and months with their families. I wore kurtas, sat on charpoys, drank fly-infested milk from dirty glasses, attended weddings, visited the sick. To understand why this was important, it is necessary to understand the landholding pattern. The average plot size in Gurgaon [one of Haryana’s nineteen districts] was four to five acres, mostly held by Hindu undivided families. Legally, to get clear titles, I needed the consent of every adult member of these families. That could be up to thirty people for one sale deed. Getting the married daughters to sign was often tricky because the male head of the family would refuse to share the proceeds of the sale with them. So I would travel to their homes and pay the daughters in secret. Remarkably, Gurgaon’s farmers sold me land on credit. I would pay one farmer and promptly take the money back as a loan and use that to buy more land. The firm’s goodwill made them willing to act as bankers for DLF. But it also meant I had to be extra careful about interest payments. Come rain or shine, the interest would be hand-delivered to each farmer on the third of every month at ten a.m. We bought 3,500 acres of land in Gurgaon, more than half of it on credit, without one litigation against DLF.
When men like Singh first called Delhi building companies to trudge out into the far-off brushland and build middle-class apartment complexes, the contractors thought they were mad. They drove out in jeeps, lurching over the baked earth, and stood in the naked expanse, where brightly turbaned villagers lived in huts and tended goats, and they wondered which Delhi banker or advertising executive would ever venture there. But by the 1990s, Delhi was caught in a real-estate crisis. Delhi’s mega-city population was growing faster than anyone could build, and the city had little space left for new housing developments. The DDA had made almost no provision for commercial real estate, and big companies were operating out of cramped domestic basements. The quaint community markets built in the socialist era were entirely inadequate for exhibiting the products of the new consumer economy. So when Gurgaon opened its doors, proclaiming a ‘new Singapore’ of glass office blocks, gated communities, golf courses and shopping, it did not take long for the corporate classes to respond. Flush with boom cash, India’s banks handed out loans to anyone who asked, and house prices were rising so fast that it made sense for everyone to put their savings into property. Microsoft and its ilk built their Indian headquarters in the thrilling emptiness of the Haryana countryside, and Gurgaon quickly became the largest private township in Asia, a dusty, booming expanse of hypertrophic apartment complexes, skyscrapers and malls. In 2007 Singh listed his company on the Indian stock exchanges; the 2008 Forbes list estimated him to be the world’s eighth-richest man, with a fortune of 30 billion US dollars.
Gurgaon was only the largest and most prestigious of many such developments across Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, and Singh’s fortune only the most fabulous of countless others. The land surrounding Delhi was an amazing commodity, doubling in value every three or four years, and multiplying its value sixty times with the simple addition of bricks, concrete and a bit of cheap labour. The new millennium saw a desperate land rush. Hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land were sold on to developers. Companies that had previously made their money from other things suddenly switched to real estate, and major banks and financial service firms such as Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley queued up to fund them. Small-time developers from drab little towns like Ghaziabad became serious property moguls who bought mansions in Delhi, threw glitzy parties with Bollywood star entertainment and sent their sons to US business schools to learn how to run billion-dollar businesses. Even farmers walked away from land deals with a few million dollars, and bought hulking SUVs for their sons, who brought them to Delhi and drove with macho glee around the seat of power. Such windfalls were often quickly spent, but the more astute of these families set up real-estate businesses, and took further slices of the pie. Some of the real-estate agents who had set out on their mopeds a few years ago to sell all this new property now received Mercedes and apartments as bonuses. As always, politicians made a killing. Prime Minister Nehru, for whom agriculture was sacrosanct, had cast stringent rules to prevent just such a land grab as this, and Uttar Pradesh’s legendarily entrepreneurial politicians made sure that people paid well to have such an august tradition overturned.
A worker bends steel at a construction site in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi and a centre of India’s new property boom
This bonanza privileged those whose business methods were catholic. It was nearly impossible to operate at any significant scale without a wide network of paid connections among politicians, bureaucrats and the police. Moreover, amid such intense competition, the acquisition frenzy sometimes abandoned the delicacy of Singh’s recollections. Real-estate mafias grabbed country houses in Haryana and employed senior policemen to silence the owners by filing false criminal charges against them. In Uttar Pradesh, they forced farmers and tribal communities to sell them their land under threat of violence, employed the local police to clear the residents off, and sold it on at a large profit. There was a general escalation of criminality and violence, and the people who came through with new fortunes were a formidable breed. They knew how to hijack state power for their own private profit, and they enjoyed the support of the police and of much-feared extortion gangs. Such people had cracked the muscular equation of contemporary India, and they spurned its liberal platitudes as just so much pious cant. These were the ones who became suddenly and gleefully conspicuous in Delhi, arousing the resentment of people like Rajiv Desai and Saif Rizvi.
During all this action in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Delhi’s own property prices had reached fairy-tale levels. In 2006, at the height of the boom, industrialists and property moguls were paying almost 1.5 billion rupees (then 33 million dollars) for Delhi mansions. Even retired army officers or journalists, to whom the state had given spacious plots at knock-down prices in the 1950s, suddenly found they were sitting on property worth 2 or 3 million dollars – and since they often didn’t have much in their bank accounts, they decided to sell. But like everyone else selling property in Delhi, they set the official price low and took the majority of the money in cash so as to reduce the tax bill on their profits. Who could buy property at those prices on those terms? What kinds of people were walking around with, say, a million dollars in cash? It was not the cosmopolitan children of the original Delhi middle class, who worked as PR executives or TV newscasters, and for whom a million dollars of black money was a tall order. These people were moving out of the city into Gurgaon flats. No, the people with the suitcases of cash were, as likely as not, property tycoons, industrialists, politicians or criminals. The capital of ‘shining India’ was being systematically handed over from its middle classes to a new black-money elite, and it was this group which was increasingly setting the tone – aesthetic, commercial and ethical – for everyone else.