BJP’s bid to rebuild Delhi’s Central Vista shows how keen it is to put its stamp even on built history

Is the ruling party trying to destroy the old and inscribe a new political order?

Updated - October 13, 2019 09:10 am IST

Published - October 11, 2019 05:40 pm IST

The popular landmark of India Gate straddles Rajpath.

The popular landmark of India Gate straddles Rajpath.

Following the extensive redevelopment and radical altering of Varanasi temple precincts last year, the BJP government is now all set to reshape Central Vista in New Delhi, an urban space soaked in political symbolism and rituals. Along with it, the Parliament and Secretariat buildings will be rebuilt.

Beneath the functional reasons for this pursuit lurks the government’s insatiable desire to inscribe a new political order. Criticising the project only because it overlooks the heritage value, though valid, is thin gruel. Places such as Central Vista, which hyperbolised colonial dominance, are always vulnerable to political re-inscription. The problem hence is not entirely about its remaking. It lies in the answer to the question: what purpose does it serve?

Building new capital cities or remodelling old ones can be driven by practical reasons. However, Deyan Sudjic, a British cultural commentator, cites many examples across the world to show that such projects often turn “into fantasy, even a sickness.” From the Nazi rewriting of Berlin to Moscow’s Red Square, the story is the same. They either harbour “malevolent ambitions” or become a naked expression of the “egotism of the individual”. What is proposed in Delhi appears no different. The project neither radically undermines the spectacle of power, nor does it reconfigure the space to be more of a public space. It is an exercise in generating self-serving political symbols.

The British, who considered themselves natural heirs to the Mughals, found Delhi to be the most fitting place for a new capital. Apart from geographical reasons, the city’s unparalleled historical associations appealed to them. As Robert Crewe, the Secretary of State for India (1910-11 and 1911-15) who approved the idea of shifting the capital to Delhi, said, in the eyes of the British, Delhi “enshrined an imperial tradition comparable to Constantinople and Rome.” In 1911, during the Delhi Durbar, King George V announced that the government would build a new imperial city in Delhi and shift the capital from Calcutta.

New Delhi’s Central Vista.

New Delhi’s Central Vista.


Robert Irving’s book Indian Summer (1981) extensively details the Empire’s intentions behind the new city. The planners — Lutyens, Baker, and Swinton — conceived the city as a monumental edifice and proposed grand axial avenues and imposing buildings. King’s Way or Central Vista connecting Raisina Hill and an old historic site in the east was the jewel in the crown. This ceremonial path led to Viceroy’s House located on top of Raisina Hill. Viceroy Lord Hardinge, pleased with the arrangement, remarked that people would now know they were approaching the “house of Lord Sahib”.

Reflecting class and race

Two secretariat buildings in front of the palace framed the vista. The All India War Memorial (India Gate), built in 1931, and a canopy that housed King George’s statue after his death in 1936 accentuated the axis. The remaining offices and residences were organised around Central Vista hierarchically reflecting the inhabitants’ class and race. The Council House (Parliament as it is now known) was not a separate building in the earlier design. It was after 1919, when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms awarded select powers to self-govern, that a separate Council House was built adjacent to the Secretariat buildings and away from the principal axis.

Nehru, Gandhi, and many Indian leaders despised the entire project. They dismissed it as vulgar extravagance and considered it as conflicting with the interest of the nation.

Ironically, after independence, these leaders had no difficulty in occupying the bungalows, palaces, and Council House. The President comfortably inhabited Viceroy’s House, and Indian parliamentarians and babus took over the bungalows. Ostentation and vulgar architecture posed no dilemmas. At most, the political leaders changed the names of the streets and buildings, and removed colonial statues. King’s Way became Rajpath, Viceroy’s House was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan, Council House became Parliament, and King George’s statue in Central Vista was removed.

In Rajpath, the Congress government found an ideal ritual space for the new republic and used it to demonstrate the country’s military might through grand parades. Over time, bungalows occupied by political leaders became sacred memorials.

A cannon at the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan gates.

A cannon at the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan gates.

A few attempts were made to recast New Delhi, but they were more about meeting commercial agendas. In 1988, conservation attempts took a serious turn, and the New Delhi area spread was designated as the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ). The government introduced rules to regulate development. The Delhi government’s dossier, submitted a few years ago to Unesco for getting the World Heritage tag, included this area along with Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi. Colonial Delhi, from a despicable site, had turned into a cherished place. History had come full circle.

It is in this context that the strident BJP government, after consecutive electoral successes, has decided to completely revamp the central area and the buildings around it. A few weeks ago, it invited consultants to participate in a contest to re-plan Central Vista, which will later serve as a blueprint for the other areas in LBZ. The government wants to complete the redesigning of Parliament by 2022, in time for the celebration of 75 years of independence. Either the existing structure will be revamped, or a new one will be built adjacent to or atop the existing one. A centralised Secretariat building will be built after the the existing ones are vacated.

The reasons given are functional, but the real intent is laid bare in the bid document: create new iconic structures that “shall be a legacy for 150 to 200 years at the very least.” Conservationists are alarmed by the potential scale of changes and possible demolitions. Indian architects, for good reasons, are also upset because the contest favours hyper-sized firms known for mega projects and huge turnovers. They find the entry barriers steep and the process opaque.

Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of Urban Affairs, has made it clear that the whole project is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream. This is not surprising since the pattern is now familiar: rewire the country with strident mega projects such as the Statue of Unity and Ayodhya, and incessantly generate political images.

Political spectacle

Murray Edelman, the American political scientist, who wrote extensively on political spectacles, could help us better understand what is happening. He described politics as a place composed of images and models. In such a world, politicians seek support rather than understanding and to them project outcomes matter more as symbol generation than facts. He cautions that such symbols tend to create the illusion of political solutions to complex problems, implying that one should be sceptical of the images and look beyond claims.

Joggers at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Joggers at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Two examples, one from Washington and another from Berlin, demonstrate alternative possibilities. When the state becomes self-conscious about its tendency to monopolise public space, it results in modest and people-oriented outcomes.

Delhi’s colonial planners, inspired by the plan for Washington, laid out Central Vista as a lush space, drawing a parallel with the National Mall. The similarity between the two stops here. While Delhi Vista remained power-intoxicated during colonial and post-colonial times, the National Mall kept up its public orientation and allowed for additions and changes that at times challenged the state’s political views.

In 1791, Charles L’Enfant, the architect chosen by General Washington, designed the new capital city and laid out wide diagonal boulevards and monumental spaces befitting an aspiring country. The vast and long National Mall connecting Potomac River and Jenkin’s Hill became the showpiece. However, unlike in the case of Delhi, the Mall did not focus on the presidential palace but on the Congress building (Capitol). The White House stood away from the principal axis. The Capitol too began as a relatively modest building but later expanded and acquired monumental dimensions.

Architectural historian Pamela Scott demonstrates that L’Enfant designed the Mall as a place of “general resort” and “where the Goddess of Liberty reigned”. Even when the place was redesigned in 1901, the Mall did not lose its pubic orientation: libraries, museums and art galleries were lined up in front. The space had its share of memorials, but over the years transformed into one of the most popular public places.

Uncomfortable memorial

In the 1980s, it accommodated the daring Vietnam Veterans Memorial that challenged the state’s version of the war. It was an uncomfortable memorial focusing on tragedy and loss and not heroics. The recent addition of the National Museum of African American History and Culture has pushed the envelope further. It differs starkly from the well-behaved buildings around and poses difficult questions to a city known for its role in the slave trade. However, in recent years, conservationists have managed to regulate changes, additions, and the use of the Mall.

In comparison, Central Vista exhibits no such impressive public gestures. Though the people of Delhi use the space, it is not yet a well-endowed public space. Neither are there any such intentions in the new scheme.

Then there is the new capital complex built after the unification of Germany. It shows how design can avoid vulgar display and embody democratic values if there is political will.

After World War II, West Germany’s capital was shifted from Berlin to Bonn. And from the start, the government eschewed all architectural grandeur. The chancellor’s residence (German Chancellery) epitomised modesty and the parliament settled for an unassuming building. Journalist-author Michael Z. Wise dubbed Bonn the capital of self-effacement.

Visitors lounge on the grounds of the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

Visitors lounge on the grounds of the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

To the leaders in Bonn, it was a logical thing to do since federal buildings were the “laboratory of democracy”. The new Germany also did not want anything to do with its Nazi past. Architecture and city planning avoided any resemblance to the megalomaniacal plans, overpowering axis and soaring buildings of Germania designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect.

Sober approach

Then, in 1990, when West and East Germany unified, the government decided to shift the capital back to Berlin. Wise says that the design for the new capital complex also deliberately avoided architectural grandeur. As for the federal strip (Band des Bundes), designed by Charlotte Frank and Alex Schultes, it was also conceived as a central green strip with the Chancellery at one end and library buildings at the other, but the scale was modest, and the architecture, sleek and welcoming. Public spaces adorned the river front.

The only aberration in an otherwise sober approach was in the reuse of the Reichstag, an imposing building with a chequered history. The Reichstag Building housed the German parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it was damaged in a fire. After it was fully restored following German reunification, people had mixed views about it becoming a seat of power. But the building’s designers assuaged public apprehensions by placing a glass dome on top of the Reichstag to emphasise transparency. They went a step further, allowing people to walk inside the glass dome and look at parliamentary proceedings below. It thus placed people above politicians.

The views of German architect Günter Behnisch, the designer of the parliament building in Bonn, are worth revisiting in the present context. He believed that “architecture sends distinct signals about the nature of the society in which it is designed.” In a democratic society, as he pointed out, architecture and planning projects “would not be cheap but modest; self-confident but not pompous; diverse but not bombastic.” Behnisch confidently declared that when real democratic conditions prevail, democratic architecture will arise.

Will it in the BJP’s Delhi?

The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed here are personal.

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