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Dirty tricks and private parties marr elections at Delhi’s elite Gymkhana Club

Glamour and gutter politics clash as four candidates vie to head the 100-year-old high-life establishment
  • @AndrewBuncombe

With India’s current prime minister and vice-president among its members and with a history dating back to the British Raj, the Delhi Gymkhana Club has always fancied itself as the most elite of the capital’s social establishments. For the military officers, bureaucrats and other VIPs who enjoy its dining rooms and quiet, clipped lawns, the election of president is an important fixture in the calendar.

But this year, with the club located in the heart of Lutyens Delhi celebrating its centenary and with the candidates including a former spy chief and a serving senior civil servant, the election has taken a controversial turn. There have been allegations of “dirty tricks” and claims some candidates are trying to lure supporters with glamorous drinks parties.

The candidates in the four-way contest are Vijay Chhibber, a senior civil servant in the department of transport; Avtar Singh Dulat, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency; retired senior police officer BL Vohra, and Urmila Gupta, a former senior official at Doordarshan, India’s state broadcaster. If Ms Gupta wins she would be the first woman president in the club’s 100-year history.

Ahead of Friday’s vote by the 5,600 potential voting members, Indian newspapers have been trying to guess the outcome with most reckoning the race will come down to a battle between Mr Chibber, 58, and Mr Dulat, 72, who has previously served as president. They have also contained details of receptions in five star hotels being thrown by some of the candidates. High-end linen has been washed in public.

On Tuesday, Mr Vohra said unlike his three opponents he had not thrown any parties. He said he was also unhappy that Mr Dulat, who was once former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s adviser on Kashmir, was seeking a second term.

“I’d say it is rather sad what has happened,” he said. “The other three are giving lavish parties. It should be based on merit...[But] it’s like buying votes with liquor.”

Mr Dulat, 72, said he had been hosting parties for potential supporters but said there had been “nothing outside of the club”. He said seeking a second term was within the club’s rules. As to whether this election was different from previous, he said: “It’s centenary year and there is a little more excitement than before.”

Ms Gupta, who said women could only vote at the club since 1985, said whereas the club’s officers were once elected over handshakes and a spirit of good-will, the last few elections had been increasingly aggressive and competitive. She said power politics was at play and that the “dirty tricks departments” of the main candidates were making claims about the others.

She said Mr Dulat and Mr Chhibber had held dozens of parties. She had one party thrown for her by an old friend, she said. “Certain factions are out to settle scores,” said Ms Gupta, who had been a club member for 34 years.

Mr Chhibber said a dirty tricks campaign had been underway and that he had been the victim of false information that had been spread . “It’s very true. I’m surprised that people are resorting to this,” he said. He claimed Mr Dulat was breaking the club’s conventions by seeking a second term.

As to his supporters hosting parties for him, he said he was happy to attend any event to which he was invited. “I have no hesitation,” he said.

It is not the first time an election at the club have made headlines. In 2007, the newspapers were full of reports of a clash between army chief Gen JJ Singh and a senior member of the air force, PS Ahluwalia. In the end a deal was struck.

The Gymkhana Club’s outgoing president is retired Air Marshall Naresh Verma. Asked if anything untoward was happening ahead of the vote, he replied: “Nothing at all.”