CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


CENTRAL VISTA PROJECT: “CIRCUS AND THEATRE” IN LIEU OF “BREAD AND JOBS”?


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”.

Prime Minister 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  

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