Coronavirus has hit India in devastating ways, dawning a humanitarian crisis and exposing the broken system that we were comfortably frolicking in. The garb of empathy and good governance has been swiftly lifted, exposing the country for what it is. Amidst this crisis, the Modi government is adamant about pursuing the Central Vista’s redevelopment in Delhi, even after receiving a good deal of criticism with open calls from bureaucrats, activists, and the opposition to bring the project to a halt.
Funds worth ₹20,000 crores have been allocated to this project to promise to bring it to completion before the next elections. Rationalising the explanation for such a hasty decision, the government wants us to believe that this project will mark a celebration of the 75th year of India’s independence, of India being a democratic republic. The bills passed in the recent past and the ignorance of its very people reveal how democratic the Modi government actually is, putting into question the real agenda of what it actually wants to celebrate.
With Ramchandra Guha calling it a “vanity project, designed to perpetuate the ruler’s immortality”, it becomes imperative to decipher the underlying reason behind this unwavering determination of misplaced responsibility of creating this taxpayer-funded temple of the Modi government’s legacy.
The Central Vista houses the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Parliament building, various other ministries and institutions in the heart of New Delhi. The tender issued by the Central Public Works Department in September 2019 mentioned that this redevelopment is happening as a part of “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a new India”. In October of the same year, after submissions from six big architectural firms, the tender went to Bimal Patel’s Gujarat-based HCP Designs.
The same firm is working on the redesign of Kashi Vishwanath Temple and worked on the Sabarmati Riverfront project in Gujarat. Sifting through some of the other projects undertaken by the firm, it’s needless to say that Bimal Patel is the Prime Minister’s favourite architect who he trusts with seeing his dream through (of literally building a Hindu Rashtra, one might think). One look at the selection process would reveal the mockery of democracy at the hands of the government with a hasty tender pushed through and one firm selected, all in record time with everything happening under the wraps and away from the public eye.
When the British Raj made New Delhi the capital of Imperial India in 1911, Edward Lutyens and Herbart Baker were employed to design the Central Vista as a display of colonialist power where all the administration work would take place. Redevelopment of the Central Vista might be justified as removal of this authoritarian colonial history, but if one analyses the processes involved in rebuilding, it can at best be called an abuse of power, with the new design only emanating another authoritarian rule, this time of the BJP government.
All the proposed bids seem to undermine the colonial power through grand architecture and highly modernised jargonesque buildings. Even though designed by colonists, the buildings are still a part of our heritage and make Delhi what it is. The heritage of a city can still be preserved without celebrating the power which gave rise to it. What can be celebrated instead is the reclaiming of such spaces from the British Raj.
One glance at all the designs unsurprisingly reveals the similarity and obsession with arrogant modernity, extravaganza and monumentality, while reducing access to these places for the common people with restrictions and intimidation built into it. The designs seem to categorically diminish the reality that the Vista’s public spaces are accessed by the otherwise marginalised people of the city, thus alienating them in the process.
This drastic, urgent and exclusionary reshaping of the Central Vista raises several questions on the priorities and ideas behind such a haphazard decision. Is it to show the government’s unstoppable might and power? Is it to write in history the rise to power that BJP enjoyed? Is it to carve their name in Indian history, also in an attempt to reshape it? Are the funds allocated to this project done under “good governance”, or is it futile and unwanted? Who was consulted while such a decision was made?
On the surface, we seem to be celebrating the 75th year of India being a democracy and trying to represent it through the form of architecture, while underneath, what lies is far from it. The decision was majorly taken just by the ruling party and a handful of architects. And with the looming global pandemic, it sure seems like a futile exercise of self-indulgence to be spending such an exorbitant amount of money that can be used to give relief to the migrants or make our healthcare system more robust.
These exercises of changing the public are important forms and expressions of the wider processes of politics. Not only do they involve questions of distribution of power and influence, but they also expose decisions and policies that normally affect everyone in society but cater to only a few. By taking such a decision, the government is reinforcing the powerlessness of the very people it rules, conveying the message that the common public should be out of government administration.
The state’s running is to be done in a closed chamber, creating a dichotomy and hierarchy between the outside and inside. By deliberately shoving the very people out of the administrative space and turning a blind eye towards all the criticism, the government is trying to establish who is governing and who is to be governed.
This decision of redevelopment of the Central Vista exhibits the visual mnemonic of the new India that Modi has been meaning to build. This mnemonic is not a new pillar in the Modi wave that we have been accustomed to. The Gujarat development model popularised before the 2014 elections was also based on Modi’s visible infrastructural development to hone his image and his brand as a development messiah.
People might forget the shortcomings of the leader for not doing justice to the migrant crisis, wreaking environmental havoc on the country to set up industries, blatantly supporting the capitalists and their agendas, and not condemning the violence unleashed on the marginalised of the country. But this, this visual mnemonic is here to stay in front of the people’s eyes as a reminder that Modi, once determined, can change the fabric of any place, staying true to his image of the development messiah.
It is an image-building tactic to sustain the cult that unflinchingly supports every decision made by their leader, immune to doubts about his governance. It assists with achieving cognitive consonance that the cult seeks as and when the uncomfortable reality of the leader dwindling from the pedestal is demonstrated in front of their eyes. It undoes any cognitive dissonance that the cult might be subjected to by coming across any harsh truth about their leader’s governance.
With such projects lurking permanently in front of the public eye, the reinforcement of faith becomes easier and the shortcomings become long-forgotten mistakes pushed down the memory hole. Much like the Sabarmati Riverfront Project in Gujarat helped build his image and veil the carnage that had occurred years prior to the arrival of the Gujarat Model.
On similar lines, the permanency of building a record-breaking statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel was imbibed by the cult as a good decision taken in the country’s and people’s interest. The cognitive consonance was achieved by saying how it increased employment and tourism, justifying the outrageous amount of funds devoted to it. These always visible and highly publicised infrastructural projects only become tools of reinforcement of faith of the Modi cult, further securing the leader’s power and position.
Bringing the Gujarat Model of development to the whole of the country is one move that strengthens Modi’s mania of being the “emperor” of India. With such vanity projects, the Modi government is trying to rewrite history and construct a legacy of its establishment of a “New India” that only Modi could envision. It also strengthens the cult’s devotion in unflinchingly supporting the leader and turning a blind eye towards the destruction that he might cause along the way while shepherding them towards an Atmanirbhar Bharat, a utopic future.
The redeveloped Central Vista would stand as a temple, as a legacy of Modi’s governance which people would applaud. This temple will withstand the test of time as a place of worship for our deified Prime Minister, glorifying the transformation he led under his command.