CENTRAL VISTA PROJECT: “CIRCUS AND THEATRE” IN LIEU OF “BREAD AND JOBS”?
Suhit K Sen
The six and a halfyears the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power have been disastrous
on many counts. Pre-eminent among the disasters has been the sometimes
creeping, sometimes galloping destruction of the fundamentals of constitutional
democracy. Along with the encroachment of both authoritarian substance and
style has been a marked predisposition to “cronyism”.
Narendra Modi’s pet, and utterly corrupt and quixotic, Central Vista project
embraces all these elements, even as it shines an unforgiving light on another
feature of the regime now installed in Delhi: a complete disregard for and,
indeed, cluelessness about the basics of governance. Before we get into these
issues a quick recap of the Central Vista shenanigans are in order.
The project envisages
redeveloping heritage area in Lutyens Delhi along Rajpath, from Rashtrapati
Bhavan to India Gate. This will involve the construction of a new Parliament
complex to accommodate an increased number of members of Parliament, new
palatial residences for the Prime Minister and Vice President, accommodation
for MPs, and office blocks. The Parliament complex, construction for which was
inaugurated by Modi on Thursday, will be built by Tata Projects at an estimated
cost of up to Rs.971 crore. The entire Central Vista project is expected to set
the taxpayer back by around Rs. 20,000 crore.
A bunch of petitions
filed with the object of having the project scrapped are pending with the
Supreme Court. On Monday, it rapped the central government for going ahead with
work on construction and tree relocation despite the matter being under
litigation. But since it has allowed paperwork to proceed, as well as the laying of the foundation
stone, the rap on the knuckles seems to be merely symbolic.
There are several
objections to this narcissistic project. Monumental construction, most of us
thought, was the prerogative of medieval, imperial megalomaniacs. This seems to have been reincarnated in Modi. First off, the Ahmedabad
firm HCP Design, Planning and Management, which won the “competition”, rather
than tender, to create the blueprint for the Central Vista revamp through a completely opaque process
does not have the track record to design this project in keeping with the
existing heritage architecture of Lutyens Delhi. Heritage architects say the
entire character of the Central Vista will be corrupted.
Let us say, for
argument’s sake, that function is more important than aesthetics or heritage.
When the Central Vista project was first mooted in 2019, blowing Rs.20,000
crore to boost a prime ministerial ego seemed to be an unaffordable luxury.
After the destruction caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of human life, health and livelihoods, and with the economy deep in the red, this
extravagance seems to tip over into criminal folly.
The only part of the
project that at first blush might seem to have something to recommend it is the
new Parliament building. The total sanctioned strength of Parliament—combining
the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha—is currently 790 (545+245). The current
Parliament has accommodated all members with all their requirements, alongside
secretariat offices and the like, since a revision in numbers on the basis of
the 1971 Census. The current strength has been accommodated since 1977 without
any sign that the premises are heaving at the rafters. Parliament’s strength is
capped till 2026.
There is no imminent
prospect of an expansion in numbers: it will not happen in 2024 because of the
cap. It probably will not happen in 2029, because the decennial census will be
held in 2031. The earliest likely increase will, thus, be in 2034—if five-year
terms run unbroken till then. This raises two questions: first, is it
absolutely vital to blow Rs.20,000 crore in the middle of a pandemic that does
not come with an endpoint stamped on it and which has triggered the worst
recession to hit the country since Independence? Second, has the government
explored ways of upgrading the current complex to accommodate an increased
number of parliamentarians at a lesser cost to the exchequer?
The answer to both
the questions appears to be in the negative. The project is not just an
exercise in prime ministerial megalomania, but is possibly also a diversionary
tactic. If you cannot give them bread and jobs, give them circus and theatre.
In the midst of the farmers’ agitation, this absurd drama seems to be
especially egregious and unconscionable.
Theatre is very
seldom far from the minds of Modi and his colleagues. The rhetoric surrounding
the project, prompted by the laying of the foundation stone, is abundant
testimony to that. To mark the occasion, Modi had this to say: “Today is a
milestone in India’s democratic history.” So far, so jejune. But he did not
stop there. India, he said, is the “mother of democracy”. In what precise sense
is hard to fathom. Modi did claim, of course, that democracy came to India
before it reached the West; specifically, he is reported to have said that it
predates the 13th-century Magna Carta. We can dismiss that as a comparatively
innocuous Hindutva hang-up.
The Prime Minister,
however, continued to spout a stream of meaningless verbiage. A “new India”, he
said, needed a new Parliament building. Really? Then, Modi returned to one of
his favourite themes of late, self-reliance or atmanirbharata. “The old (Parliament building) gave
direction to India after Independence, the new building will be a testament to
a self-reliant India.” Oh, yes.
It is pretty futile
trying to make sense of this prolixity, which also included some hoary
chestnuts about “all our debate and dialogue” reflecting “our oath for serving
the nation and dedication to national interest”. But we may as well not even
try, given the whopper Modi let loose on Thursday. The roots of democracy, Modi
claimed, were getting stronger in India, even as democratic procedures were
withering in other countries.
That should take some
kind of prize for the most bare-faced, brazen anti-truth of the year. Modi, his
government and his party have pillaged democracy. The rule of law, always
tenuous, has been laid to rest. All state institutions, including the
judiciary, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Election Commission
have been converted into wings of the BJP. Central law-enforcement agencies
have been used to hound political opponents, dissenters, those who do not agree
with the toxic, semi-literate ideology of Hindutva and even in some cases
completely innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place and could be
used as weapons by Modi and his poisonous party.
The BJP has used its
financial muscle to buy MLAs, suborn bureaucrats and unseat governments in a
way not seen since the anti-defection law was passed in the 1980s. It has
weaponised gubernatorial office to destabilise state governments. It has used
its powers to undermine all manner of federal principles. In short, it has
stopped at nothing to strip constitutional democracy of all substance. The BJP
has press-ganged India into the ranks of “illiberal democracies” like Hungary,
Poland, Russia and Turkey.
Congress leader P
Chidambaram could have the last word on this one. “The foundation for a new
Parliament building was laid on the ruins of a liberal democracy,” he observed.
Modi’s appeal to democracy would have been a joke had it not been an affront to
every Indian citizen.
The author is a
freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal