On a day of rare blue skies in normally smoggy New Delhi, thousands of excited spectators in polo shirts and cotton dresses flocked to the Gymkhana Club. It was March 2022 and India was facing Denmark in a crucial international tennis playoff match. The Gymkhana, which is situated next door to the prime minister’s residence, is tailor-made for the big occasion. Visiting officials duly remarked on the facilities and “very civilised crowd”. Best of all, India’s players swept aside the challenge from their opponents. But the genteel air of congratulation that surrounded the event was a facade.

In the months that followed, members of the club, a who’s who of India’s old-money elite, began to trade bitter and sometimes wild accusations. A former MP claimed millions of rupees in proceeds had been siphoned from the club, while one group seethed that some of its 26 tennis courts, regarded by members as the best east of Wimbledon, had been “dug up” by temporary spectator stands and rendered unusable. “Would you ever allow, in England, stands coming on tennis courts?” they complained.

The Delhi Gymkhana is no stranger to feuds and intrigue. For much of its history, it has been a beloved, if old-fashioned, outpost for India’s ruling classes. Bureaucrats and generals “who didn’t like losing” would play fiercely competitive tennis or squash matches here, remembers Ajai Shukla, a former army colonel, while the club’s bar was “the hotbed of gossip in the capital”, a place where the city’s elites could get sozzled out of the public glare. But the current storm has been brewing since early 2021, when an official from India’s Ministry of Corporate Affairs arrived at the Gymkhana accompanied by police, bureaucrats and media and announced that India’s government, led by the nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, was taking over the running of the institution.

Club stalwarts, many of whom see the Gymkhana as their second home, were shocked at the dramatic entrance made by interlopers. Insult was added to injury when the newcomers allegedly ordered a spread of tea and sandwiches without paying. (“Brazen” was the outraged verdict of one member.) The officials from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government could point to a court order alleging that committees of elected members had for years indulged in financial mismanagement of the club and in abuses of power that had turned it into “a family fiefdom”.

For all but a tiny slice of society in this sprawling capital city of 32mn people, where jaw-dropping affluence abuts grinding poverty, the Gymkhana takeover was a storm in a porcelain teacup. But a small group of patrons was determined to return control of the Delhi Gymkhana to its members. The battle surrounding events such as last year’s controversial tennis match is just one of many that have pitted some of India’s most powerful people against each other.

This spring, I contacted Atul Dev, an 84-year-old retired army major who has been a fixture at the Gymkhana for more than half a century. Within minutes of receiving my email, he phoned me back, then followed up with a five-page CV and selection of “quotes by Atul Dev”. “If you wish to call a spade a spade, be prepared to live by the muck you dig up!” was one.

I met Dev, a portly man with a thick white walrus moustache, for lunch at the Gymkhana. En route to the dining room we passed through the reception, where the walls are lined with the names of former presidents, and in front of a gleaming ballroom. Around the clubhouse, tree-lined walkways led to lawns and sports facilities. Unfailingly courteous throughout our lunch, Dev grew grave when conversation turned to the future. “If today it happens to our club, it could happen to any other club,” he said. Along with a group of nine others, he is leading the resistance to the BJP takeover by fighting a protracted legal battle to reclaim the club. The case appeared in court this week.

Founded in 1913, the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club was one of dozens set up by British colonists across the subcontinent, many of which had explicit “whites-only” policies. The few Indians who did join were expected to start eating “eggs, sausages and mash for breakfast, learning to do foxtrot and ballroom dancing [and] emptying glasses of Bloody Marys on a Sunday afternoon”, according to a club history. The menu for my lunch with Dev proudly evoked the club’s early days, including afternoon tea.

The dining room, where we sat alongside a handful of elderly diners, was little different from other antiquated restaurants in Delhi. But during several visits to the Gymkhana, it was drummed into me by those I met that this is more than a club. Seemingly trivial problems such as changed opening times at the tennis courts or rising prices at the bar are apt to provoke indignant rage from some members. In contrast, my outsider’s quips about the rather staid dress code — in 2013, the Gymkhana made headlines for turning away a high-ranking, robed Bhutanese monk — are met with baffled stares.

After India’s independence in 1947, the Delhi Gymkhana dropped “imperial” from its name and became the preserve of a new cadre of young Indian army officers and civil servants. For many who’d risen up the ranks of the colonial military and administrative services, joining the club at which they had long been marginalised allowed them to reclaim India’s institutions of power.

A paratrooper, Dev applied from the Himalayan frontline of India’s 1962 war with China. His father, who was an independence campaigner and an associate of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was furious, dismissing the club as a sanctuary for anglicised colonial sympathisers, but Dev didn’t mind. Throughout a military career that included two more border wars, he visited the Gymkhana during breaks between postings, spending his Saturday nights ballroom dancing (“You’d be surprised at the demand from ladies to walk up and say, ‘Can we have the next waltz with you?’,” he says.) Retiring from the army in 1980, he later carved out a niche in journalism, covering air sports such as skydiving and hot-air ballooning.

As the club’s appeal grew, the waiting list for its approximately 15,000 available membership spots ballooned (the club says applications made as far back as the early 1970s are still pending). And when India liberalised its old socialist economy in the 1990s, the Gymkhana became the go-to place for a new generation of businesspeople, politicians and wheeler-dealers keen to signal their arrival in society.

Before the takeover, costs to join soared as high as Rs2.2mn (£22,000), according to court documents, despite the decades-long wait. The club’s managing committee, made up of about 16 members elected every year, were in effect gatekeepers of one of the country’s most coveted institutions. “Delhi’s a very hierarchical city,” Dev said. “When you became elected, the entire club of 15,000 members knew you . . . You had connections, you could pick up a telephone and get things done.” But as the stakes for entry rose, the usual club bickering erupted into civil war. Various workarounds for the waiting list were created, including one that granted members’ children a so-called “green card” that allowed them to use the club while on the waiting list if they applied for membership at 21. To some, such measures smacked of double-standards. Tensions finally boiled over in 2018, when a group of members filed a complaint to India’s Serious Fraud Investigation Office alleging that the Delhi Gymkhana had for years indulged in financial irregularities.

For the government, the opportunity to cut the Gymkhana down to size was delicious. Modi won the election in 2014 partly through his loud opposition to the country’s dynastic elites (personified by the incumbent Congress party) and desire to purge Indian society of colonial influences. He deemed Delhi’s British-built central thoroughfare — not far from the Gymkhana — a “symbol of slavery”.

Following a multiyear government investigation, authorities filed a nearly 5,000-page report in 2020. Another report detailed a litany of alleged wrongdoing and “random, arbitrary policymaking” by successive committees that had cost the club nearly Rs3bn. The list ranged from overcharging some would-be members while facilitating “potential backdoor entries” for others and promoting boozy parties at the expense of sports (many in the BJP encourage abstinence from alcohol). With the club built on public land, the government successfully argued that it was in the urgent public interest that it should take over.

Some members see the likes of Dev, who served on the committee in 2013 and again in 2020, as part of the problem, a power-hungry old guard responsible for the Gymkhana’s financial and moral decline. But he rejected the accusations. “In any system, in any organisation, there will be some chap who will try to take advantage,” he said. But if there was wrongdoing, it should be proven and prosecuted. In its rush to take over the Gymkhana, he argued, the government had failed to do either.

Om Pathak says he applied to join the Delhi Gymkhana in 1982 but was never accepted. In 2021, though, Pathak, a burly former soldier turned BJP operative, was installed as the club’s new administrator. After a career that included fighting in the 1971 war with Pakistan and working for the BJP’s national executive, a body that sets party strategy, Pathak never expected he would end up running a recreational club. “Why was I selected? I have no idea,” he told me when we met in April. “Somebody [from the ministry] called me up and said I have to stand in.”

To many of the club members I met, Pathak, who has now stepped down from the role, was their primary antagonist. It’s a reputation I suspect he quietly relishes. While in charge, he set about what he called “cleansing and correcting . . . historical wrongs” and addressing the club’s “inbreeding”. “This government per se is against this business of entitlement,” he said in his current office, a capacious room lined with Hindu iconography, situated above a shopping mall. “‘Just because I’m so and so’s son, therefore I’m entitled.’ That is something we, as a nation, are moving away from.”

Pathak began leaving his mark on the club. He irked Dev and the former committee by moving the location of regular Sunday lunches from one lawn to another, whose uneven surface was, the members complained in an email, “causing ladies to trip, particularly when wearing heels”. They accused him of destroying an organic vegetable garden that had cost Rs4mn to build.

The administrator caused more disquiet when he placed an open copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, on display in the library, and hosted a traditional performance of the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana, which tells of Lord Ram’s quest to rescue his wife from a malevolent demon. This outraged members who said it violated the club’s secular ethos. When I mentioned these criticisms to Pathak he scoffed. “Some people will always be critical,” he said, adding that the garden was “in a state of total neglect . . . and so the area had to be reclaimed.” Of the holy book he retorted: “I didn’t mandate that everyone has to read it.”

Having chased members who had not paid their dues, Pathak says he eventually expelled around 400. He cracked down on the children of members too. Acting on a retired judge’s recommendation, he ousted 125 people who had missed the deadline of age 21 to secure the so-called green cards but, in a 2019 amnesty, had been granted a second-chance in exchange for a hefty fee. On notice boards across the club, he listed the names of the expelled. They included people from some of the most powerful families in the country, such as a retired Supreme Court justice and the son of a BJP minister. Publicly humiliated, several dozen of those expelled sued the club, alleging Pathak had “cast a slur” on their reputation. The case is now grinding its way through the Delhi High Court.

After around nine months in charge, with many of the members in revolt, Pathak left the club in April 2022 and was replaced by a committee that included more BJP officials. When I asked him why the government of the largest country in the world found it necessary to run a social club, he didn’t miss a beat: “It’s about being right,” he said. “Let some of those clubs who are still living in the past . . . realise that they need to change.”

On an evening in March 2023, women in elegant saris and men in flowing silk kurtas began arriving at the club’s lawns for a wedding reception of the son of Navika Kumar, a senior editor at the pro-government Times TV network.

The guest list was heavy with BJP members and allies. Several ministers, including defence chief Rajnath Singh, mingled with guests such as India’s G20 negotiator, Amitabh Kant. The chief guest was none other than Modi, who came dressed in an olive green kurta and matching waistcoat, posing for photos with the young couple. The impression given was clear: the BJP was now firmly in control of the Gymkhana.

Two tennis players shake hands at centre court after a match
The Denmark vs India Davis Cup 2022 world group playoff matches took place at the Delhi Gymkhana © Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In December, the prime minister also attended a dinner at the Gymkhana hosted by the BJP to celebrate the party’s election victory in Gujarat, Modi’s home state. To some members, events such as these betray the BJP’s intention to transform a bastion of Delhi’s old elite into one of their own. “That is the end game,” one said. “They want to change the fundamental nature of the institution, and the first step towards doing that is changing the membership.”

With Modi’s government accused of cracking down on everything from NGOs to think-tanks, opponents see in the Gymkhana takeover an effort to control not just a recreational club but civil society more broadly. “It’s not as if the government’s agenda is to shift the balance back to sports,” said Shukla, the former colonel. Instead, he believes the aim is to control these “instruments of privilege, and hand them out as favours”. Other members’ clubs around India are anxiously watching the tussle. “We’re five years away from where the Gymkhana club is,” the president of another Indian club told me.

Malay Kumar Sinha, a former intelligence official the government appointed to chair the current committee after Pathak’s departure, denied this. In April, I met him at the club’s committee room, where the walls are decorated with portraits of former Gymkhana presidents ranging in order from white-wigged British judges to uniformed Indian generals. Sinha said the government was simply acting on the court’s orders to temporarily manage affairs until they have set the club right. According to him, the club they inherited in dire financial trouble is now poised to break even. Yet they have not been able to pass its yearly accounts for 2021 and 2022, both of which were rejected by rebelling members. “Eventually, we’ll be judged by what we have done,” he said.

Dev suspects that the government’s takeover has less to do with political motivations than score settling between bureaucrats angry at being shut out of the club. “There are some officials in the ministry who have to save face,” he said. The prospect of a swift resolution is unlikely. At one point, the Gymkhana had racked up more than 100 lawsuits. Litigants say that simply finding judges to hear cases has proved tricky: so many are themselves members of the Delhi Gymkhana that they are unable to preside. Dev and the former committee say they have been waiting for months after an official hearing their case abruptly recused himself. They later learnt he too was a member.

As we finished our lunch, I wondered, not for the first time, what it is about this place that causes so much fighting and why Dev bothers with the stress of it. He paused for a moment, and I wondered if he was about to deliver one of his signature “quotes by Atul Dev”. Instead, he said he feared something at the club would be lost for ever if nothing is done — not just for him, but for the thousands of others who have spent much of their lives here. Like the “old-timers” who, he said, arrive each morning to play bridge and often stay till evening, when they “pack up their dinner and go back”. “The atmosphere has changed. And I’ve seen the atmosphere for 55 years,” he said.

With that, I walk into the baking afternoon heat to leave. Driving through the gates and into the mega city outside, the grandeur and drama of the Gymkhana is quickly swallowed up.

Benjamin Parkin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent based in New Delhi

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