The new saffrons of Lutyens were a little perplexed at the relatively low turnout at the President’s “At Home” last week. Usually a crowded affair with people in the thousands, this time’s “At Home” was noticeably smaller. It’s by design, said some who believe that the riffraff (read rather irrelevant Lutyen-ites?) and many hangers-on of the old Presidential entourage went missing. Since President Ram Nath Kovind is a stickler for propriety, he hadn’t even included close family members in his list of those invited. This was formerly a significant ritual of Lutyens’ Delhi and clearly, the downsizing has had its impact on the downgrading of the event amongst the hangers-on.
But most significant for the “saffron of Lutyens” players was the fall in numbers of bureaucrats attending this event. In most years, large numbers of secretaries — a growing tribe — and assorted additional and joint secretaries would turn up with their wives in full plumage to attend and make sure that they were seeing and were seen. Part of the earlier lure of attending for Delhi’s business and other elite circles was the fact that they could mingle freely and socially with the key babus who actually used to move the levers of Delhi. With their dwindling numbers and their vanishing powers this is no longer a draw. Add to that the fact the growing tribe of non-IAS leaping into the ranks of secretaries and joint secretaries, the space and need to access and socialise with them has significantly reduced and the enthusiasm is choking off.
One possible explanation for the drop in some key attendees, of course, may be that the Prime Minister held a review meeting on the economy on Thursday morning after his Red Fort speech. This was both a signal of the significance of the economic crisis on the Prime Minister’s agenda and the fact that bureaucrats can no longer take it for granted that Independence Day has the solemn sanctity of a holiday slack down. Clearly, this is a government that works 24x7 and expects you to fall in line and do the same if you are a significant part of it. Babus were exhausted by it and were therefore missing and probably many also had homework to do afterwards.
The growing numbers of those in uniform at this function was also something that the “saffrons of Lutyens” were delighted to see. In the old days, every general with even one star would make a beeline for the stands from where the President would eventually greet each of them. But the rolling meadows of Rashtrapati Bhavan were infused this time with even larger numbers of gallantry award winners and their families, and other non-military officers were seen in very large numbers. They and their families made up a large part of the invitees who were present this time.
The ritual presence of the three chiefs of the armed forces created an extra buzz this time, after the Prime Minister’s announcement in the morning from Red Fort that the government was setting up the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to improve coordination between the armed forces. It has been welcomed by all, except by a certain section of babus. Who among the three chiefs would get the coveted position, was the question on many minds.
But even the disappointed “saffron of Lutyens” lot were bowled over by the President’s new protocol of inviting children who were toppers in various school exams. It ensured a new kind of public outreach by the house on the hill. But in all this, the dwindling presence of babus was what was noted in the “Tea with the President” stories that are part of Lutyens lore.