Modi’s ghastly Delhi dream
The plan to remodel Lutyens’s grand capital is a monument to conceit
Let there be a new New Delhi, Narendra Modi decreed last year. It is the Indian prime minister’s “dream”, one of his underlings announced to the press, to bequeath the world’s largest democracy a capital that radiates native authenticity. The dream has its genesis in a nightmare. In the summer of 2002, the then speaker of the Indian parliament, an orthodox and often reactionary Hindu by the name of Manohar Joshi, became convinced that the building in which he worked, the circular Parliament House built by the British, was cursed.
A string of Joshi’s senior colleagues had died in rapid succession over the preceding year. His predecessor as speaker of the Lok Sabha — India’s House of Commons — was killed in a freak helicopter crash months before parliament convened that monsoon. The vice president of India, who chaired the Rajya Sabha — the upper chamber modelled on the Lords and the US Senate — died when parliament was in session. And eight months before the vice president’s abrupt departure, more than half a dozen security personnel had lost their lives in a gun battle at the gates of Parliament House while thwarting armed militants backed by Pakistan from storming it.
A massacre had been averted, but death and division continued to haunt and paralyse the corridors of power. Indian troops, awaiting orders on the border to punch into Pakistan, were weighed down by heavy casualties. In New Delhi, the business of government was juddering to a halt. Joshi, newly installed as speaker of the Lok Sabha by the Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party which led a fragile coalition of a dozen minor parties in government, decided to act.
Modi sees himself not just as prime minister but as father of a “New India”
He summoned Ashwinie Kumar Bansal, a lawyer and a specialist in Vastu — the ancient Indian discipline of architecture, akin to the Chinese Feng Shui — to survey Parliament House and recommend remedies to rescue India. Bansal, who has published 30 books on Vastu and Feng Shui, spent two days wandering the verandas and halls of the colonnaded camera contrived by Herbert Baker almost as an appendage to the stupendous acropolis conceived by Edwin Lutyens: the pièce maîtresse of the city inaugurated in 1931 as “New Delhi”. For more than five decades, the most mundane and exalted deliberations of Indian democracy were enacted within Parliament House’s annular walls of heavy sandstone, which house the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, and the majestically domed Central Hall where joint sessions of both houses are held on rare occasions and where Nehru, at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, had proclaimed the birth of modern India.
History and grandeur, however, were swept aside by the “negative vibrations and energy” Bansal experienced during his inspection of the place. “It is the circular building,” he declared in a confidential memo to the speaker, “which ails the nation’s polity.” To Bansal, it was “an odd piece of architecture made according to the whims and fancies of a foreigner”. It evinced no fidelity to Hindu, Islamic, or Christian conventions of construction. And its “round shape”, evocative of a “zero” and epitomising “void and nothingness”, endowed it with a mystical power to “destroy anything that interacts with it”.
Bansal, citing the sudden demise of a host of members of parliament and their children as evidence of the building’s ill-fatedness, ascribed the “unnatural deaths” of four Indian prime ministers to the “flaws” he detected in its configuration. He advised the speaker to vacate the building, convert it into a museum, and relocate parliament post-haste to a nearby convention centre.
Bansal’s report, commissioned and reviewed in all seriousness, was never acted upon. Anxious that its contents might elicit hoots of derision from the left and the Anglophone liberal elites who viewed Vastu as pseudoscience, Joshi sat on it. When early elections were called two years later, the government was thrown out of office and Joshi lost his own seat. The idea of moving parliament appeared fated to fall by the wayside thereafter. Quietly mooted again in 2012 by the secular alliance led by the Congress Party, which adduced wear and tear and health and safety as the reasons for shifting out, it died in committee — until Narendra Modi resuscitated it.
Unlike his forerunners, Modi is not constrained by the demands of allies. The triumph of the BJP under his leadership in the elections of 2014 shattered a 25-year spell of coalition governments. A former counsellor to the outgoing government described the result as the birth of a “second republic”. What he meant was that the liberal state constituted by the anglicised successors to the British rulers of India had given way to something entirely different.
Modi is not merely a prime minister in the traditional sense: he regards himself as nothing less than the father of what his admirers call “New India”. It’s hardly surprising that a man of such staggering self-conceit would sooner or later seek to memorialise himself for the ages.
And so what had been a relatively minor yet contentious idea to renovate or relocate parliament blossomed under his supervision into a gargantuan vanity project to raise a new New Delhi. More than £2 billion have been allocated for this venture. (In contrast, Modi grudgingly set aside a paltry £1.6 billion for all of India’s emergency healthcare needs in response to the coronavirus epidemic.) The strange irony is that, in his race to immortalise his reign in stone, Modi, unbeknown to himself, is retracing the self-exhausting course charted by the British when they were at the summit of their power.
New Delhi was born as the physical expression of imperial power. It was to be, in the words of Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy to India who became its most passionate advocate, “the assertion of an unfaltering determination to maintain British rule in India”. Calcutta, practically invented by the British and appointed the capital of India after the subcontinent was assimilated into the empire following the Mutiny of 1857, had outgrown its utility by the end of nineteenth century.
The British had unwittingly imported a modern nationalist consciousness to the Bengali natives who now clamoured for concessions. Transferring the capital from the troubled eastern extreme to Delhi would not only strengthen British control. It would also enable Britain to cast itself as the legitimate successor to the great native dynasties that once ruled from the city.
No quarter was given to warnings that Delhi was the graveyard of empires and dynasties. And on 15 December 1911, against great opposition from the mercantile set that flourished in Calcutta, King George V, the only monarch to set foot in India, laid the foundation stones for New Delhi. Edwin Lutyens, selected as the principal architect, delegated lesser buildings to Herbert Baker. Each arrived in India with his own ideas. Hardinge attempted to impress his pre-eminence on the pair by reminding them that New Delhi “should be built in accordance with Indian sentiments”. “Who are we building for,” he asked, “the Indian or the British public?”
Lutyens, with an impressive reputation amplified by adoring articles in Country Life and even more impressive connections — his father-in-law, Lord Lytton, had served as Viceroy in Bengal when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India — was exasperated by such stipulations. He was not without reverence for India’s antiquity and wished to “represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its complement to profound fatalism and enduring patience” in his work.
But his appreciation of India existed alongside a good measure of contempt for Indians. He ridiculed their architecture, scorned the “low intellect of the natives”, declared it undesirable for “Indians and whites to mix freely”, and opined that “mixed marriage is filthy and beastly”. Some of Lutyens’s rage was provoked no doubt by the tragicomedy of his private life. His wife Emily was enchanted by the theosophists and besotted with the young Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi. She spurned Lutyens, and became a vegetarian and a champion of Indian self-rule, travelling third-class like Gandhi and sleeping in Indian railway stations.
Hardinge had dreamt of raising a capital directly facing the walled city of Shahjahanabad — Old Delhi — now the mausoleum of Mughal rule. Such a creation might have forced racial and cultural intermixture. But the dread of disease, combined with a lack of space, prompted the construction to be moved to the relative wilderness of south Delhi, from where the central axis of the imperial capital radiated eastward. Its gaze, averted from the subjects whose awe it was intended to inspire, was directed instead at the vacant banks of the Yamuna river. Suggestions to scrap the project proliferated as it made its difficult progress.
The eruption of the First World War only intensified opposition to the costly enterprise. But Lutyens, though he moved in and out of the country and undertook other projects, worked like a man possessed. Beginning at what is now India Gate — a prodigious classical arch conceptualised by Lutyens to commemorate soldiers who fell in the Great War — a broad processional way moved for two tree-lined miles west to Government House. This palace of rhubarb sandstone, built on 350 acres of flattened land on Raisina Hill to act as the official residence of the Viceroy, was a marvel of civilisational amalgamation.
Lutyens dedicated every ounce of his intellect and soul to devising and perfecting it: from the 31 regal stairs that rise from its expansive forecourt to the 340 ornate rooms nestled in its four storeys to the 227 Tuscan columns whose capitals, doing away with coy Ionic volutes, were ornamented with bold Indian temple bells sculpted in stone.
New Delhi consecrated Indian unity by creating a national centre
The lofty central dome, a fusion of the great Buddhist Stupa at Sanchi and the Pantheon of Rome, was laminated with copper and twice the height of the complex it crowned. The lavish 13-acre Mughal garden, laid out in quadrants divided by walkways and furbelowed with fountains, remains to this day an eden of geometric precision.
Lutyens’s principal personal regret upon its completion was that he could no longer “wander about it whenever I want to”. It was not only the highest achievement of his career; it was also the greatest single material accomplishment of the British Raj. Robert Byron, the first critic to tour it, was far from exaggerating when he declaimed that it had “no rival, ancient or modern”. (Mahatma Gandhi, affronted by its opulence, wanted it converted into a hospital. Republican India moved its president into it.)
Government House was flanked on either side by the Secretariat buildings put up by Herbert Baker. Domed, red, and grafted with Indian motifs, they grew out of Baker’s ambition to “give architectural expression to a common dignity and distinction in the instrument of government as a united whole”. He had argued strenuously for the Secretariats to be sited on the same elevated plain Lutyens had earmarked exclusively for Government House. Lutyens pushed his building further back in return for assurances that Baker’s Secretariats would not obscure the view of his own masterwork. But that is what they did.
A “colossal artistic blunder has been made,” Lutyens told Baker in a furious letter after his attempts to force through alterations were rebuffed by London, “and future generations will, I am convinced, recognise this and condemn its perpetrator.”
The viceregal mansion envisaged as the axial point of the city became practically invisible. Only its dome remained discernible from the processional way. From this stupefying centre extended a hexagonal maze of interminably long boulevards that intersected at enormous roundabouts. The Indian hierarchies of caste, perfectly complementing the British gradations of class, were co-opted almost unselfconsciously by Lutyens into the design of New Delhi.
On either side of these roads, the public works department built bungalows with gardens that ranged, depending upon the rank of the occupant, from a few furlongs to several acres. The entire enterprise cost about £10 million. Willingly or not, Lutyens had imparted a strangely segregationist stamp on the city’s topography. When it was inaugurated in 1931, the demographic of its airy interior was almost exclusively white. Its periphery, rather than tapering away, intensified with Indian life.
But New Delhi in the end did more to fortify the native spirit than to fracture it. “Liberty does not descend upon a People,” Baker had inscribed in gold letters above the entrance to his Secretariats, “A People must raise themselves to Liberty.” By the time of the British arrival, India had become so accustomed to being conquered, so habituated to being trod upon, so detached from its past, that, as V.S. Naipaul once wrote, anyone wishing to own an empire in the medieval world had only to stroll into India, where the natives were willing to “build anybody a new Delhi”.
India’s ancient architectural treasures, as the novelist Manu Joseph has observed, had been wiped out by waves of pre-colonial invasions, and what remained bespoke “the bravado of India’s conquerors”. It is only with the coming of the British, with all the attendant savagery and plunder, that India’s revival began. Indian nationalists denied this, but their movement could not have been possible in the absence of the intellectual stimulus supplied by British presence. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent agitation for independence was the most elaborate compliment ever paid by an oppressed peoples to their oppressors.
New Delhi consecrated Indian unity by granting India a definite centre. Baker’s boast that the new capital united “for the first time through the centuries all races and religions of India” was not entirely empty. New Delhi drew India to it. There is no other seat of government in the world, with the possible exception of Washington, DC, that can rival it in scale or splendour. So extraordinary it seemed even to contemplate that, as Baker confided to Lutyens, it “would only be possible … under a despotism”. Its realisation, clarifying the conflict between the rhetoric and the conduct of Britain in India, quickened the demise of the Raj: almost every stage of the city’s advance coincided with a corresponding collapse of the crown’s authority. Britain, challenged by Indian nationalists in the language they had appropriated from the colonial power, withdrew from India within 16 years of New Delhi’s birth.
Conceived in hubris and executed with the hand of despotism, New Delhi became the laboratory for history’s most audacious experiment in democracy after Britain’s exit. The city’s slow physical deterioration thereafter was accompanied by the loss of its prestige in the Indian consciousness as it became associated with, and indistinguishable from, the spectacularly corrupt Congress establishment presided over by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that ruled India for over half a century.
“Lutyens Delhi”, once signifying all that was noble about republican India, metamorphosed gradually into a phrase that conjured up all its obscenities. It became, like “Washington”, a metonym for moral decay. The politicians who decried it most vehemently were those who coveted it most passionately.
Modi was propelled to power on a promise of draining “Lutyens Delhi” of the remnants of the Anglo-Indian encounter. He was the hand-grenade hurled by the multitudes who had been sneered at, marginalised, and subjected to cultural condescension and objectified for anthropological amusement by India’s preening caste of English-speaking elites who ran the country for most of its post-colonial existence. Modi saw himself as an agent of destiny: the first self-consciously Hindu leader in centuries to rule India from Delhi with an almost untrammelled authority.
Garish and ghastly, the plans will mortify all who love New Delhi
Alas, far from being the restorer of a vanquished old India, he proved to be little more than an embodiment of scattered resentments — a vain, impetuous, self-absorbed man who detonated the economy with his incompetence, incited deadly religious passions to paper over the calamity of joblessness that he precipitated, and poured his energies into creating a cult of personality unmatched in the democratic world.
Last year, ignoring protests from conservationists, he invited bids for the remaking of New Delhi’s Central Vista. The people’s prime minister disqualified architects with an annual turnover of less than £2 million from applying for the £2.2 billion project: an Indian Lutyens just starting out would not be allowed to exhibit his talent.
Half a dozen plans, crafted by firms flush with cash, were eventually shortlisted by the government. Garish and ghastly, they will mortify anyone who loves New Delhi. One architect, for instance, proposed planting a star fashioned from glass multiple times the size of India Gate right behind it as a symbol of a rising India. The “crowning jewel” of another proposal was an “iconic beacon” — again erected behind India Gate — intended to serve as a “new landmark” for New Delhi.
The shortlist was a purely perfunctory exercise. Officials in New Delhi say that it was an “open secret” from the moment the idea was floated that the lucrative redesign contract, worth £25 million, was going to be handed to Bimal Patel, Modi’s fellow Gujarati and longstanding collaborator.
Patel’s plan is to build a new parliament, spired and triangular in shape and fit for a thousand occupants, opposite the existing structure; raze the administrative blocks that went up after 1947 and replace them with a series of secretariats of stone façade and glass-and-steel interior, big enough to accommodate a hundred thousand bureaucrats, on either side of the processional way from India Gate to Raisina Hill; and connect the buildings with an underground railway system.
The existing parliament and secretariats will become museums. A new mansion for Modi — not part of the original proposal approved by the government and inserted quietly after it had been signed off — will go up next to Lutyens’s presidential palace. Another building will be raised within its compound to house the vice president. “These new iconic structures,” the Modi regime says, “shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least.” Outside a very small circle, nobody knows what is going to be levelled and what will remain untouched. Modi’s decision in 2015 to withdraw Delhi’s application to Unesco to be included in the list of World Heritage Cities means that nothing, despite the government’s guarantees, is truly safe. What seems certain is that in the summer of 2022, when India turns 75, parliament will convene in a new building that will be a monument to Modi’s rule.
On a recent evening, the war memorial swarmed with tourists from every part of India. Families in thick winter coats picnicked on the side of the processional way. The acropolis, shrouded by a thin haze, did not so much look like a structure erected on the sub-continental soil as an edifice excavated from the Indian earth. Its impending disfigurement felt like a sacrilege.
I asked Bansal, the Vastu consultant who originally planted the seed of remaking Delhi, what he thought about the new triangular parliament. It was a disastrous idea, he said. “Triangles are worse than circles. They denote fire.” They burn everything. He told me the story of two wealthy brothers in the hill station of Mussoorie who partitioned their house into triangles. One of them lost all his money and the other was struck down by paralysis as soon as they moved into their quarters.
Something like that is happening to Modi. Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Indian economy had cratered to a point that it may have sunk the hopes of an entire generation. Protests against the prime minister’s authoritarian rule flared up in every part of the country. Modi, who until last summer was venerated in the world, has found himself reduced to a punch line. Delhi is finishing him off even before he gets started on his dream of finishing off Delhi.
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