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Pretending to know

Omkar Goswami


Professor Amit Bhaduri of Jawaharlal Nehru University once said, “Delhi is a derivative city. Anyone claiming to be anybody derives his position by referring to someone else claiming to be somebody.” Hearing him say this in the groves of academe in the late 1980s, I thought it was very witty. Fifteen years later and outside of academics, I realise the power of his observation.


Unlike New York City, Washington DC has little to say for itself other than being the capital of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. Take the richest and most powerful away, and New Delhi is no different. Although the city has now begun to attract corporate houses, Delhi’s raison d’etre is “capitaldom”. Nothing turns on well heeled Delhi males more than claiming to know some overwhelming information emanating from myriad corridors of power. Professing to get it from the honourable minister’s mouth is even better — preferably if the worthy is a member of the Union cabinet, with his office located in the isosceles triangle defined by Raisina Hill, Udyog Bhavan and Krishi / Shastri Bhavan. And you are a real big networking daddy if you can get people to regularly believe that your information comes directly from (say the words softly and conspiratorially), “Race Course Road”.


The funny thing is that most such claims to “knowledge” are often no other than fifth-hand news — re-hashes of yesterday’s headlines masquerading as proprietary taaza khabar. In the last seven years, I have met people who profess to know many deep secrets of Delhi. Occasionally, I have tried to assess how much these folks actually know. And, guess what? In the majority of instances, they didn’t really get the dope from the claimed source. Typically, this is how the chain goes. A tells B, “Heard from Pramod Mahajan’s office that the Pakistan tour is hanging on balance.” As soon as A leaves, B will whip out his mobile and tell C, D and E, “Listen to this. After his meeting with the DPM, Pramod Mahajan felt ki Pakistan tour nahin honey wala hai.” C, D and E will then whip out their mobiles and fluff it to, “PMO se khabar aya ki Pakistan tour cancel ho gaya.” Finally, someone will say, “PM cabinet meeting mein bataye ki chunau ke pehle tour nahin hona chahiye.” 


I have intentionally chosen a bad example, because the chain of seemingly private information would soon be seen to be false. But, had the cricket tour been cancelled or postponed, each of these worthy informants could have claimed that they knew of the outcome long before it happened.


It is no less bemusing to see how many CEOs and industrialists from Mumbai get impressed by such information from the so-called Delhi insiders. This has to be Delhi’s crowning glory — of how a small group of people can consistently position themselves as purveyors of the capital’s inside track, and how serious, money-making guys who run big businesses in Mumbai believe them to be so. It seems to me that the Bombay-wallas are so starved of political gossip that any plausibly personalised re-hash of Delhi news can be peddled as private, classified information.


This information business is a male dominated preserve. That isn’t surprising because in all civilisations there have existed a class of men who believe that information is power. The incessant desire for such males to be in the know — and, hence, show that they are well connected and powerful — soon gets to a stage where they need to show that they know. That’s when the distinction between first hand fact, second hand interpretation and fourth hand fiction gets blurred. That’s when irrelevant information is “captured”, embellished and made more juicy, immediate and relevant. And since the hearer of such information wants to be as much in the know as the purveyor, the chain continues.


Actually, its no different from two other male dominated phenomena. How frequently have you seen a man ask for directions at the first sign of getting lost? And when you ask an Indian man for directions, how many times have you seen him say, “I don’t know”. Not knowing is not acceptable to most males of the species. 


 Published: Business World, March 2004


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