In 2007, the then railways minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, at the crest of his power and popularity, a man feted from Harvard to IIM Ahmedabad for supposedly turning around the Indian railways, was turned down for the membership of New Delhi’s prestigious India International Centre (IIC). The IIC prides itself as having an eclectic membership of intellectuals, artists, diplomats, civil servants and eminent public personalities. While there have been exceptions,
Mr Yadav obviously didn’t fit into this profile as he had serious criminal cases against him. Though the IIC rules do not consider criminal background as a disqualification, it had to tell Mr Yadav that he did not qualify. The then president of the IIC, Dr Karan Singh, who was fondly hoping to become President of India, resigned because of this.
Every major city in India has such clubs. Most of the better-known ones are relics of the Raj and were meant as a private place for the ruling elite to socialise and fraternise. Being the ruling elite they gave themselves tracts of public land for their private enjoyment. At a time when the whole country was for their private enjoyment this raised few questions. After the white man departed, these clubs became a preserve of the new Indian elite — many called them the brown sahibs.
Generally speaking, an elite means a more capable group of people. In sociological terms, an elite is a group of people who control a disproportionate share of wealth or power. C. Wright Mills, in
The Power Elite, describes the power elite as “those political, economic and military circles, which as an intricate set of overlapping small but dominant groups, share decisions having at least national consequences”. But most of our “elite” clubs defy such descriptions and have ceased to be based on social or official hierarchical or professional considerations, where membership was dependant on attainments and achievements. They are increasingly an association of neither the more capable people nor a social elite nor a power elite. They are just social clubs where membership is dependant on birth.
Clubs are increasingly being taken over by hereditary membership. Most of these clubs have framed rules for themselves, which automatically confer their children membership, by virtue of being dependant members, a classification for member’s children of a certain age group. Since these dependants are given priority, it is almost impossible for a non-dependant to become a member. Most people who become members through the direct route do so late in their lives, which means their children invariably cannot become dependant members. This leads to piquant situations. Recently in quick succession I met a former clerical subordinate, a real estate agent and office assistant in a bank as social equals — all were members of the same club.
The constitutionality of hereditary membership is questionable, but who among the members will challenge it? Though some misogynists still challenge opening membership to women, and have even gone to court over it. In many clubs women are allowed to be associate members. But most clubs in India have suitably amended their rules to provide for women as full and equal members. One of the few clubs still immune to the winds of change is the Secunderabad Club.
There are other implicit issues as well. Many of India’s clubs are private clubs enjoying public land or land that could be deemed as “commons”. The term “commons” refers to the cultural and natural resources that should be accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water and a habitable earth. The “common good” is a utilitarian ideal meaning “the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of individuals”. Many, like the philosopher Michael Sandel, believe that promoting the “common good” should be the main ideal of a democracy. Implicit in this is that the “commons” must only be for the “common good”.
Take the case of the Delhi Golf Club (DGC), a post-colonial institution. The land was bestowed to it by the generosity of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951, who was persuaded by the late Dharam Vira ICS to “save 220 acres from being concretised.” The DGC functions on its now priceless acres of government owned “commons” on the basis of a lease that the Government of India renews from time to time.
The public record shows that the club pays the government a princely annual rental of Rs 5.8 lakh, that in turn allows its 3,000 members the exclusive right to the most centrally located open space in New Delhi. The DGC’s website rightly rhapsodises: “...an oasis had been created in the heart of New Delhi where one may woo the game of golf, or simply feast his eyes on the fresh green vistas that confront him, or join the bird watchers in the sanctuary where over 300 different species are found.” And all this can be enjoyed by a certain few for a monthly membership of Rs 800.
Of its 3,000 members, the DGC only allows 900 “A” class members the right to vote. Most of these are now hereditary. Now imagine the sheer insolence of allowing a few hundred scions the exclusive use and enjoyment of India’s most valuable real estate, in its national capital and within a few minutes of walking from its Parliament and Supreme Court or even the IIC where the power elite enjoys leisurely lunches over jaw-jaw?
To be sure, there are many other golf clubs in Delhi and the NCR. But the Army and Air Force golf clubs are for their own and on land belonging to the military. Membership is only for their officers. The DLF golf course, supposedly the best in India, is on private land, as is the ITC Classic golf course. The membership at the ITC Classic Golf Club is Rs 1.25 lakh a year and has a 50-year tenure with no hereditary rights of passage. The DLF Golf Club’s individual membership for a five-year term is Rs 8.5 lakh. Paradoxically, clubs like DLF and ITC golf clubs are more egalitarian as birth is not a criterion, money is.
This privatisation of the commons by a mostly hereditary and self-perpetuating elite for their exclusive enjoyment and not for the common good has major ethical and moral dimensions. It should concern all right thinking people. Except those of us who are members of such clubs!
The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues.
He also specialises in the Chinese economy.