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Home >Opinion >Views >Swapan Dasgupta: Our national capital must have the capacity to awe

The din surrounding the ongoing Central Vista project in New Delhi has risen and subsided in direct proportion to the covid pandemic curve in India. At the height of the devastating second wave, Sir Anish Kapoor—one of the most vocal critics of the project, if not of its chief architect Bimal Patel he regards as “third rate"—fulminated that (Narendra) “Modi is building a vulgar monument to himself on the corpses of invisible and unnamed citizens." As India’s vaccination programme gathered momentum and even surpassed expectations, the contrived horror of bulldozers breaking down the iconic Parliament building and uprooting jamun trees on Rajpath yielded way to esoteric objections. The redevelopment of the Central Vista has now been dubbed an assault on ‘memory’ and the Prime Minister charged with not knowing “the difference between Parliament and plumbing."

While the carping prose of the aesthetes who have reinvented themselves as ‘dissidents’ in a ‘Hindu Taliban’ raj has certainly enhanced interest in a project that was initially greeted with media indifference, it has also had an unintended consequence: the rehabilitation of Sir Edwin Lutyens, and, by association, Sir Herbert Baker.

For the seven decades after Independence, a curious ambivalence surrounded the British Raj’s final show of monumentalism. The grand boulevard stretching from the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan on Raisina Hill to India Gate was the venue of the Republic’s annual show of pageantry; the circular Parliament building competed with the Ashokan lions as the symbol of the Indian state; and India Gate became the site to commemorate valour and sacrifice in defence of the nation. At the same time, or until Khan Market entered the competition, Lutyens became a byword for political privilege and entitlement. Worse still, as the years went by, the initial nod to at least the spirit of monumentalism—in, say, Udyog Bhavan and Ashok Hotel—was junked in favour of the monumental ugliness of Shastri Bhavan and Hotel Janpath. Jawaharlal Nehru had nurtured the fond hope that Lutyens would be subsumed by Le Corbusier and the rejection of all classicism. Alas, never mind a new modernism, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh evolved into the shoddiness of DDA flats.

The derailment of the official imagination was a function of the times. The British left behind a New Delhi that was incomplete. Lutyens may have had his master plan, but by the time Lord Irwin greeted Mahatma Gandhi on the steps of the Viceroy’s House in 1931, the countdown to the end of British rule had begun. The economies of World War II ensured that the dream of showcasing an Empire that had moved from conquest to consent and co-option remained half done.

The corresponding problem was that the new Republic was also engulfed by an existential dilemma. There was somewhere a confusion that prevented it from either rejecting its inheritance or evolving an alternative paradigm. This was best symbolized by the empty canopy behind India Gate that, until 1968, hosted a marble statue of the King-Emperor in his coronation robes. More than 50 years after the statue was relocated to the imperial necropolis, successive governments have dithered over what should replace it.

The national philosophy that replaced the Raj was a blend of democracy and muddle, post-colonial prickliness and cringe. It is not that all decisions were kept in abeyance. Purposefulness was invariably driven by (international) events, and decisions were, consequently, ad hoc or based on individual choices. Never one for collegiate decision-making, Nehru, in particular, had a profound belief in his own aesthetic infallibility. Subsequently, dodgy choices were justified on the ground that a poor country couldn’t afford to splurge on tasteful government buildings. Povertarianism became a justification for shoddiness, bad construction, dangling wires and stinking toilets. Like railway stations of the pre-Modi era, government offices were places to best avoid. With such inhospitable workplaces, the productivity and self-esteem of babudom was predictably low.

The Central Vista project involves the building of a new Parliament House and offices for its members, the relocation of all ministries and the archives in the 10 buildings on both sides of Rajpath, and the construction of a residence-cum-office for the Vice President and Prime Minister. It is aimed at completing the unfinished work of Lutyens and incorporates the demands posed by a vastly expanded government and also the demands of modern technology. It seeks to clear the clutter of decades of ad hoc-ism, create a wholesome work environment for government functionaries and provide work space and, by implication, a dignity of purpose to members of Parliament. These objectives are sought to be met by enhancing the grandeur and majesty at the heart of the Lutyens zone, giving it a contemporary touch but with a nod to stylistic continuity.

These are important functional objectives centred on enhancing efficiency in governance. There is, however, an unstated national objective that goes beyond partisan politics.

For decades, independent India has struggled to come into its own. The initial challenges of preserving national unity and strengthening democracy have been largely met. At the same time, the majesty and aura of the Indian state was only patchily established. When free India celebrates its 75th year, its capital must have the capacity to awe.

Swapan Dasgupta is a Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Rajya Sabha

(This piece is part of a Mint Debate on the Central Vista. Read the counterview by Shashi Tharoor here)


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