For the rest of the country, Delhi is more a state of mind than a geographical location. For countless generations, it has dictated through direct intervention or suggestion our political, social and economic life. It has even designated for us our local chieftains. Its enduring rulers from Pandavas to Sher Shah to the British have imprinted an impact far beyond the confines of time. But once the Mughals occupied it, the city itself became Mughal forever. Even the white man could not escape the lilting, haunting lure of the durbar. Its creatures, conduct, attitude, practices, manners and unscrupulous regalia. The later brown sahibs who followed have proven too weak to change or cast aside the pleasurable decadence.
True to life’s cyclical patterns, every once in a while, Delhi too reaches a vulnerable stage, ready for rebirth. In his Last Mughal, William Dalrymple recounts in detail the era of Bahadur Shah Zafar when the dynasty slid into its final decline by 1857. The affable but ineffectual Zafar was planted on the throne at a grandfatherly age when Mumtaz Begum wanted it for her son Jehangir. Zafar engaged his waking hours in ghazal and poetry, planted gardens when affairs of the State burdened his mind, borrowed heavily from every nawab and begum, and generally heaved a sigh when things seemed out of control. All the powerful satraps belonged to northern Madhya Pradesh, Awadh, Bihar and Bengal. As the first uprising approached, the Purabias from the Gangetic plain of Awadh right up to Bengal infiltrated the city and formed a base in Chandni Chowk. The Gujjars on the outskirts raised the stakes, the rebel sepoys marched from Kanpur, Meerut, Benaras, Jhansi, Patna and Nagpur. Zafar’s court deserted him and citizens were subjected to unprecedented loot, lawlessness, inflation and shortage. Delhi was ripe for the taking.
Now supplant 1857 to 2014. It’s not very difficult to identify Zafar or the other cast of characters. Mangal Pandey though may have arisen from Ghaziabad. There may also be three Ranis of Jhansi on the horizon and several Nanajis driving up from Nagpur. The courtiers have remained the same ineffectual, self-serving lot. The satraps still emerge from the same northern belt. The Purabias have once again occupied the city whose character they have radically changed from its post-Independence Punjabi-Bania just as it happened in 1857 at which point it was predominantly Muslim-Afghan. The chosen landing base of the Purabias this time is electronic media. The modern Awadh (UP) and all its Kanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Benaras theme retains its political importance. Lawlessness has taken a new form: unbridled corruption. Inflation rages. Delhi is again ripe for the taking.
As Zafar has already announced his own passage to Rangoon (Motilal Nehru Marg), what could be different this time? The challenger knows victory is within grasp and will not allow sundry oldies to mess it up. He has considerable experience in governance and has an army that believes in itself and fights through every modern weapon at its disposal: the electronic media, Internet, Twitter, etc. The difference may be the role of Big Business. The East India Company, perhaps the first MNC the world saw, was replaced by the Crown in the aftermath of the Gadar. Big Business is widely perceived to be driving the change this time round and obviously will not vanish when victory is obtained. If anything, it will seek and cherish the spoils.
And where do these spoils lie. In the vast coal-bearing stretches of Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, MP and Chhattisgarh and Bengal. In the deep desert oil fields of Barmer and Bikaner. In the sea off Tamil Nadu and in the mines of Goa and Karnataka. In short, the entire country outside Delhi. The smokescreens have been wisely erected. They are called secularism, patriotism, development, employment, poverty alleviation, whatever. But make no mistake, they are but smokescreens. There has been no election without such meaningful sound and fury and there will be none in the future but the real purpose, the very real purpose of this Gadar is Big Business. So whether India Shines or Bharat is Nirman-ed, Delhi itself will continue to go deeper into a gratifying pit of pelf and power, pomp and glory signifying nothing for us and appropriating everything for itself.