Troubling Tales Of Sunday Brunches And India”s Urban Elite

Posted on March 12, 2014

By Saanya Gulati:

9th of March was the last day for Indians to register to vote. Across the country, the Election Commission set up special camps to accelerate voter registration. Booth Level Officers provided people with assistance on the forms and documentation required to facilitate their registration. I also hear that that the lines were not obnoxiously long, which is always a pleasant surprise for us in India.

Picture courtesy
Picture courtesy

In the elitist circles of urban India, however, the situation is different. On the 9th of March, I was at a brunch in South Delhi, amidst a group of people for whom the act of voting seems like an unnecessary ordeal, let alone the physically taxing exercise of actually registering oneself. Besides, elections are in the midst of our summer holidays, which involve exotic vacations to faraway lands. I would advocate for absentee ballots here, but that would turn into a separate story altogether. This story is about India’s urban elite.

So, while the rest of the city spent their Sunday afternoons at voter registration camps, I camped out under a beautiful white canopy in Delhi’s Sainik Farms. And whilst sipping Sangria, nibbling on snacks with fancy sounding names I cannot pronounce nor recall, I listened to the troubling tales of India’s urban elites.

I am aware that the apathy of India’s urban classes is changing today. Delhi’s voter turnout reflected this in the State’s election last year. AAP gives us a new phenomenon to discuss in politics, which was a topic less talked about previously. Yet, there is a segment of Indian society that chooses to stay not just disengaged with the public system, but above it. This is where the problem persists.

Consider the venue of the brunch: Sainik Farms. The image it evokes is of expansive bungalows and expensive cars. As its name suggests, the area was developed for India’s defence personnel. Today, you can probably count the number of defence personnel living here on your fingers. It is a well-known fact that the colony’s regularization remains contested, and has for the last five decades. Residents have pushed for legalization in the past, but the fact is that they also benefit from the status quo. Regularization would require residents to surrender an average 40% of their plots for the creation of proper roads and a sewerage system. That is of course a significant sacrifice if you want to continue hosting elaborate Sunday brunches in your lawns.

The story of Sainik Farms is not generalizable to that of India’s urban elite. But it does allude to many of the troubles that the rich in India face today. Jaitirth Rao, of MphasiS, wrote a satirical piece on this in the Economic Times last week. Here are some of my favourite lines:

“The rich worry about Import Controls. Instead of buying legitimate bottles of Teachers, Black Dog and even Black Label in proper shops, we may have to go back patronizing the bootlegger who promised you that his stuff was not adulterated…the rich worries about incipient foreign exchange controls. We could revert to the sixties and seventies. In which case we would not be able to take vacations abroad.”

The underlying message is that as long as ‘politics,’ which is the dirty word, does not interfere in our lives, we are comfortable. This is often in spite of having to live in an illegal plot of land, pay the occasional bribe, or make the occasional call. The unresolved accident that allegedly involved the son of an extremely affluent businessman in Mumbai is illustrative of this phenomenon.

I have heard the phrase that ‘the rich in India can afford to not care about politics.’ But how long can we afford to continue to remain implicit in a mess that we blame institutions for? How long can we continue to point fingers when we are unwilling to change ourselves? Such is the troubling tale of India’s urban elite.

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