At the bhoomipoojan of the proposed new Parliament building it was heartening to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak about the ancient democratic traditions in India, and modern India’s belief in the theory and practice of democracy. It is, indeed, a matter of pride that defying the Cassandras who predicted the early demise of democracy in independent India, our Republic continues to be the world’s largest democracy.
However, the PM’s espousal of democracy sits in rather strong contrast to the actual practice of the government he heads, where more and more decisions appear to be in the nature of farmans. Demonetisation, which caused immense economic dislocation, and from which the country has still not fully recovered, was announced by the PM himself like a bolt from the blue one evening. Similarly, the decision to impose the lockdown at the onset of the Covid pandemic was done at four hours’ notice without adequate advance preparation causing unprecedented suffering for millions of migrant labour.
The categorical statements by home minister Amit Shah that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA) will be explicitly linked to the patently discriminatory NRC exercise, was unpreceded by consultation and deliberation, thereby leading to nationwide protests. Most recently, the three farmer’s bills were rammed through Parliament through a voice vote, without sufficient discussion, and without referring them to a select committee of Parliament for widespread consultations with legitimate stakeholders. Consequently, the farmer’s agitation is there for all to see.
In a democracy there is a tangible dialectic between intent and process. In dictatorships the process can be overlooked, and the ruling dispensation can proceed unchallenged in implementing its intent. That is why, undemocratic polities may give the illusion of taking decisions faster, but their foundations are brittle and their decisions, precisely because of the lack of democratic debate, questionable and unsustainable. When the intent, even if laudable, is unaccompanied by democratic processes, the result causes unease, apprehension, and social instability.
At the bhoomipoojan, the PM’s eloquence on India’s democratic credentials, and the importance of civilised discourse, could not hide the fact that the plan for the massive restructuring of New Delhi has suffered from an overwhelming opacity and lack of transparency. Once again, it is evidence of the current government deciding unilaterally what is good for the people, and then proceeding to implement that decision without fully consulting the people.
The facts speak for themselves. The building of a new Parliament is only one piece of a larger decision to almost rebuild the key heritage areas of New Delhi. As per the plan, the existing Parliament will be junked and made into a museum; the North and South Blocks of the central secretariat will also be junked and made into museums; the iconic Central Vista will be jettisoned, and make way for a new residence for the PM and the Vice President. A new Central Secretariat to house all the babus of the government will be constructed. Several key buildings in these areas will be demolished. In other words, the existing Master Plan for New Delhi will be more or less thrown into the dustbin.
Cities cannot be fossilised and should change with changing times and needs. We can, therefore, give the government the benefit of doubt in terms of its intent. Lutyens, who built New Delhi along with Herbert Baker, was an incorrigible racist, and what he left us with is not sacrosanct. But, in terms of the process for change, the government has been opaque to the point of being undemocratic.
The original brief for a project of this magnitude simply said that New Delhi must represent “the values of a new India” and be “rooted in the Indian culture and social milieu”. Should not what this should entail be a matter of democratic discussion, among experts and in Parliament? Then, why was an open design competition not held? This was the methodology followed for the rebuilding of the World Trading Centre in New York, the renovation of the Notre Dame in Paris, and the Indira Gandhi Centre for the National Arts in New Delhi. Again, the selection was based on tenders for which 80 per cent was allocated for quality, and 20 per cent for price. But who decided what constituted the best quality? The government itself. The result was that a Gujarat based company got the contract even when its price bid was reportedly the highest.
Nor were the technical scores for the winning company disclosed. No convincing study was presented to show that the existing Parliament building is falling apart, and cannot be repurposed for future needs. No public jury of eminent architects, environmentalists, landscapists and town planners was appointed to judge the proposals. Why was the meeting of the Central Vista Committee held without the presence of non-government members? Why were environmental clearances sought to be obtained piecemeal, rather than for the project as a whole? Why has the approval of the Heritage Conservation Committee not yet been obtained? The only thing we see is a tearing hurry to complete this architectural megalomania by March 2022, and to start construction even when petitions against it are pending before the Supreme Court.
In a democracy, the democratic bona fides of a government depend on its willingness to follow the democratic process of discussion and debate. In the absence of this, eloquence with regard to our democratic past appears less than convincing.