A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

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Exploring Power of Space and Spaces of Power in Krishan Pratap Singh’s Delhi Durbar

Rachna Sethi

The spaces of Delhi city, by virtue of it being the capital of the country, are vested with power; it has been the site and seat of authority since 1931, first under the British, and then of independent India since 1947. In fact, it can be called the “eternal capital” and has witnessed the rise and fall of several empires and cities including the mythical city of Indraprastha built by the Pandavas, Lal Kot by the Tomars, Siri by the Khiljis, Ferozabad and Tughlaqabad by the Tughlaqs, Shahjahanabad by the Mughals and New Delhi by the British. The construction of these cities with walled boundaries, forts and citadels was an attempt by its rulers to demonstrate their strength and to leave permanent imprints on the landscape; but the desolate ruins of these cities narrate a contrary tale of their fallibility.

This paper argues for a dialectical relationship between space and power in the capital city of Delhi; hierarchical power structures are embedded in the city’s architectural design, and the political dynamics in turn seeks to exert spatial authority over these spaces. Political fiction by writers such as Nayantara Sahgal, Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Krishan Pratap Singh explore the tussle for power in the city through their works of political fiction. While Sahgal’s works are set in the early decades of Independence, Ghosh depicts the silences and censorships around the Emergency, and Singh’s works are set in the post-liberalization era.

The focus of this paper is on Singh’s Delhi Durbar (2010), the second novel in the trilogy titled The Raisina Series. Singh has been hailed as the “Jeffrey Archer of India”, and his thrillers excitingly represent the workings of political circles in contemporary Delhi. Delhi Durbar is a gripping tale set in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, in which Singh unravels the complex web of connections between politicians, media, businessmen and power brokers. The twist in the usual Indian drama of corruption, scandal and sleaze comes when the President (till recently the Vice-President and Army Chief before that) threatens to establish military rule to usurp the power of the Prime Minister and make the Presidential Estate the controlling authority. The crisis played out between Rashtrapati Bhawan and South Block, and the ugly scenes in the Parliament bring all the players of the power corridors under the scanner, including the middle men. The situation astutely represents not just the official sites of authority, but also the parallel shrines of material power such as farmhouses, where stacks of uncountable money are stashed away. It is important to remind oneself that power is an aphrodisiac, and Delhi’s powerscape is built on the sedimentary rocks of its history of past kingdoms and their architecture. To explicate this view, let us look at the construction of New Delhi by the British.              

New Delhi was consciously designed as a capital city, and the privileged hill-top construction and automobile-oriented boulevards were a marked contrast to the layout of Shahjahanabad, the Mughal capital. The mixed land use of Shajahanabad, with its proximity to markets, houses and places of worship had an intimacy that the British imperial capital lacked. Lawrence J. Vale (2006) in The Urban Design of Twentieth Century Capitals writes that “The planning and design of national capitals is inseparable from the political, economic and social forces that sited them and moulded their development” (p.15). He argues that contemporary capital cities display urban designs inspired by Beaux-Arts where a sense of grandeur is conveyed through wide boulevards, large neo-classical structures and monuments. Lutyens drew upon his familiarity with Paris, Versailles and Rome, and both he and Baker praised the vision of Pierre Charles L’Enfant for Washington. “Grandiosity in service of tyranny offends, but grandeur in recognition of respectful democratic partnership may legitimately inspire” (p. 36). However, the crucial difference to note is that while Washington’s grand urban design was used in the service of democracy, New Delhi was designed to showcase imperial superiority. King George V, at the Delhi Durbar of 1911, announced that the British capital would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, where a new city would be built. The chosen site—Raisina Hills—provided a sweeping panorama; Lutyens and Baker conceived it as their Acropolis, where elevation was used for visual dominance and to physically and symbolically impose above the lives of Indians. King (1976) discusses that rigid zoning for social stratification and hierarchical order of residential space were the underlying principles of design, where the powerful were located at the centre, with those lower down the order moving away in concentric circles. The core was primarily occupied by elite Europeans, and was disassociated from the commercial and industrial activities of the city and its larger population. 

On gaining independence, a section of nationalists suggested shifting the capital to make a clean break from the imperial rule, but the idea was not taken up seriously as it involved huge political and financial resources. Tan and Kudaisya argue:

Moreover, the temptation to use and expropriate the opulent colonial edifices of power proved too strong. The capitol complex at New Delhi provided the terra firma in which the new regime, inaugurated amidst anarchy and disorder, found itself firmly anchored. Lutyen’s monumental architecture provided the stage upon which the midnight rituals of independence were enacted, imparting dignity to the ceremonies and enhancing their historic importance. (p. 196)

On attaining Independence, the Indian leaders “inherited” the opulent spaces that had been vacated by the white colonizers along with all its paraphernalia of pomp and ceremony. While the imperialist agenda was to spatially inscribe meanings of order onto the chaotic colonial landscape; the independent nation sought redressal by reclaiming those spaces. This entailed the renaming of all the major buildings. The Viceroy House, Council House and Flagstaff House (residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army) were renamed The Rashtrapati Bhawan (President’s House), Sansad Bhawan and Teen Murti Bhawan respectively. The process of re-appropriation of these colonial buildings went hand-in-hand with the creation of new architectural signatures—Krishi Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Shastri Bhawan, Supreme Court, Hotel Ashok and the Diplomat Enclave (named Chanakyapuri in the early years of Independence). Even as the city witnessed a population and construction explosion, the core of Lutyens’ Delhi remains unchanged, with its huge bungalows with low density occupancy for its political elite.

Singh’s Delhi Durbar narrates events of coalition politics from these elite and privileged spaces of Lutyens’ Delhi. The narrator, Jasjit Singh Sidhu, a former banker and inheritor of his father’s role as a power broker, considered that his marriage to Neena, daughter of the Vice President was apt, since “we all belonged to the same caste. We were marrying, in a way, within the power caste of Lutyens’ Delhi” (Singh, 2010, p. 16). The book befittingly reminded that, “Power is a commodity and the Delhi Durbar is where it is traded” (p. 290). The political and architectonic transformations that Delhi has undergone are narrated by Jasjit, who as a former banker in the Dubai branch of a Swiss bank handled the accounts of the ultra-rich Indian politicians, where “in a hard-to-miss historical irony, the money increasingly found its way back into India disguised as welcome foreign investment” (p. viii). The circuitous routing of money parallels the serpentine functioning of politics, with middlemen forming a crucial link.

The middlemen, the king makers, men in shadows occupy liminal spaces in the power corridors. They are puppeteers behind the curtain, managing things from the periphery for the smooth functioning of power at the Centre. They operate from the Foucauldian heterotopic sites that subvert, twist and bend rules, in this case to formulate a neo politics-economics nexus. Jasjit, as middleman, is a gatekeeper to the capital, a guardian entrusted with the keys to the power corridors. While the city’s architectural design concentrates power in the official buildings at the centre, here it also resides in and operates from alternative addresses, such as the farmhouses on the periphery of the city’s borders. The parallel and unofficial spaces of the sprawling farmhouses are the party’s treasury: 

There is no way I could begin to ascertain how much money the room held, and that was good because a number would have ruined the effect of endless, incalculable wealth that the vault exuded. There was enough moolah here to swim in. Even a diehard Marxist would forget his idealism at the sight of all that money. (Singh, 2010, p. 104)

The shrine to capitalism reiterates the transformed contemporary concerns, where the pretense of political ideals has been given up under coalition governments and redefined with neo-dynastic politics. In this aspiring world-class city, Jasjit is happy to be “a wheeler-dealer in the capital of sleaze, corruption and hypocrisy” (p. xii), where capital and politics have a stronger partnership than ever before.  

In the unholy nexus of capitalism and power, all posts become saleable commodities, be it that of the President of the Indian Cricket Board or the President’s post. The cover page of Delhi Durbar has a watermark of the iconic Rashtrapati Bhawan with a hand holding three thousand rupee notes, emphasizing the stronghold of liberal economy on spaces of power. Mohan Patel, head of Empire Oil, explains the game behind the resignation of the President that allows the Vice-President Dayal to take over: “So, the other day I went for a walk and on the way home I decided to buy myself a President” (p. 119). Power is the greatest aphrodisiac, and commodifying the offices of the republic is one of the ways in which business tycoons exert power. The space of Rashtrapati Bhawan and the dignity associated with it are undercut at various levels, pricing of the chair being one among others, like the over-reaching acts of Dayal and the party hosted by Sidhu.

Sidhu organizes a fancy New Year party at the Rashtrapati Bhawan while the President is away. The press is divided in its view; the younger journalists and tabloid media praise the grand show while the upright ones blame him for desecrating the place. A reappropriation of the place that has hitherto been above approach, by the young turks through “extensive video coverage and exclusive pictures from a star-studded bash at the Rashtrapati Bhawan was something novel and intriguing” (p. 243); it is delectable fodder to a voyeuristic public. The young politicians’ redefining of the highest office is at the other end of the spectrum from President Dayal, who is dissatisfied with the ceremonial role entrusted to him and seeks absolute spatial control. Right from making jawans chase balls while playing golf, to the three Chiefs of Armed Forces reporting to him twice a week and surveillance equipment being installed at the Presidential estate, it is about wresting control over power offices, so much so that dictatorship does not seem an impossibility. The fear of an impending military coup recalls the Emergency: notionally and spatially both are connected with absolute and complete ownership of space, of silencing of dissent, and of the manipulation and censorship of media in projecting it as a desirable situation. While the common public discusses the possibility of a coup as a welcome move that will instill discipline and lead to infrastructural improvements, the PM plans to counteract the coup by undercutting the VP’s strength—the army. The crisis played out between Rashtrapati Bhawan, South Block and Parliament not only makes a mockery of democracy, but also underlines the brazen pursuit of materialism and unquestioned authority in the powerpolis. 

The unfolding drama of Delhi Durbar in the spaces of visual grandeur built by the imperialists powerfully reminds one of Lefebvre’s idea that space speaks and is inscribed with meanings and messages of power:

Monumentality, for instance, always embodies and imposes a clearly intelligible message. It says what it wishes to say - yet is hides a good deal more: being political, military, and ultimately fascist in character, monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought. (p. 143)

Monumentality takes in all aspects of spatiality: the perceived, the conceived and the lived;—and the pursuit of power through monumental structures highlights the corruption-ridden leadership. Varma argues that democracy has survived and flourished in India despite the absence of a democratic temperament, “The hierarchical frame of mind did not give way to a new egalitarianism; democracy was attractive for its unprecedented ability to provide legitimacy to hierarchies, both old and new” (Varma, 2004, p. 54). It is this struggle over the power of spaces and offices that is enacted in Delhi Durbar, even dangerously putting a price on the highest offices of the republic. However it also seems to suggest that spaces of counter resistance, of keeping absolute pursuit of power in check exist along with power structures—a balancing of power in and over space in the capital.

References

Foucault, M.  (1986). Of other spaces. Diacritics, 16(1), 22- 27.

King, A. D. (1976). Colonial urban development: Culture, social power and environment. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. (Original work published 1974)

Pavan, P. V. (2004). Being Indian: The truth about why the twenty-first century will be India’s. New Delhi: Penguin.

Singh, K. P. (2010).  Delhi Durbar. New Delhi: Hachette.

Tan, T. Young & Kudaisya, G. (2000). The aftermath of partition in south Asia. London and New York, NY: Routledge.

Vale, L. J. (2006). The urban design of twentieth century capitals. In D. L. A. Gordon (Ed.), Planning twentieth century capital cities (15-37). London and New York, NY: Routledge.

rachnasethi7@yahoo.com
Rachna Sethi is Assistant Professor in Department of English, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. She has been working in areas of urban studies, oral cultures and translation studies.