What could be behind the Centre’s plan to transform Lutyens Delhi

An essay in these columns by popular author Ashwin Sanghi, on the controversial Central Vista Redevelopment Plan (‘Evolution Is Always Noisy’, February 12, 2021), brilliantly summarised the compelling need for an alternate Indian version of Washington DC’s iconic National Mall or the grandiose Champs-Elysees in Paris. But we must look at the Central Vista project beyond its proposed architectural aestheticism and tourist footfalls.

A chagrined opposition is calling it a grotesque monstrosity, an individual’s (PM Modi’s) extravagant indulgence with megalomania. Modi dismisses this as Congress’s characteristic pettifogging. The project will fructify in 2024, showboating his New India. BJP’s political business model has always been to alter India gradually and imperceptibly, but make the ultimate change of spectacular magnitude. Memorable, like the new parliament annexe.

But we may be missing the woods for the trees here. The Vista’s real significance lies in something which hasn’t yet captured public imagination: The future of representative democracy in India. Without worrying about mathematical exactitude, former President Pranab Mukherjee had said that India needed 1,000 Lok Sabha Members of Parliament. There was a reason.

In 2014 Manish Tewari, current Lok Sabha MP, casually asked me if I was interested to contest general elections. Although I didn’t say no upfront, my mind was already made up. There’s an intrinsic fault-line in India’s electoral ecosystem. For one, being brought up by an unassuming professor with humble middle class values – which meant frugal pocket money – ruled out for me using the parallel economy to fund campaign expenditure.

Secondly, unknown to many, the sheer gargantuan size of a parliamentary constituency makes an elected representative’s task a Herculean one. For instance, a British House of Commons MP has an average constituency of 72,000 people (they have 650 MPs for a 68 million population). By contrast, his average Indian Lok Sabha counterpart has a staggering 20-25 lakh people per constituency, almost 35 times more.

Now, whether one loves fish and chips or paneer paratha, human beings have the same time-space bandwidth. Even the US House of Representatives peaks in constituency size at 5 lakh. Since 1952, our average constituency size has ballooned four times. If voters are usually discontented and disillusioned with their LS MPs, it’s therefore hardly surprising. That’s why the frequent lamentation: “ We never see our MP after they win.” An MP has to attend parliament sessions, pay obeisance to their royal excellency in the Delhi darbar, travel as a star campaigner to other states etc.

No wonder anti-incumbency is an intrinsic character of Indian elections, unless one is a charismatic personality like Modi, Pawar, Kamal Nath, or a popular dynastic brand-name like the Gandhis (Rahul was still defeated in Amethi).

Once must indeed question the opaque selection criteria to choose the Central Vista construction company or the project’s likely environmental costs. Or its humongous budgetary allocations at a time of enormous human misery following the devastating coronavirus. India’s cultural elite feels understandably short-changed, but BJP dismisses that as their habitual propensity to get their knickers in a twist. Actually, Modi’s once again assiduously biting the bullet on an oceanic transformation of Indian politics.

He’s likely to push for the delimitation exercise, pending since 1971. Besides creating a historical marker that will far outlive him and give his New India a state-of-the-art physical infrastructure, it will also be a permanent manifestation of the entrenched penetration of Modi’s legacy. It will be deep in the soil of India’s capital city, once ruled by Mughal emperors and the British Raj. The Hindu Hriday Samrat would have ensured comeuppance. Just as post-1947 became the Nehruvian era that Congress eulogised, BJP will have the Modi narrative for future generations.

Modi’s penchant for risk-taking as opposed to Congress’s guarded incrementalism is turning out to be a political masterstroke. A new aspirational India prefers bold decision makers; nothing else can explain why Indians tolerated gigantic goof-ups such as demonetisation, GST execution, lockdown, unemployment etc. But the Central Vista project is a right call.

Opposition parties who are flummoxed by Modi’s cult-creating fetish may find this an unplayable googly. Modi will justify it as pro-democracy, backed by a constitutional mandate. Rapidly increasing constituency size has consequences such as sub-standard local governance, poor voter turnout, anti-incumbency and grossly inadequate servicing of constituency imperatives.

Politically too it gives Modi a secret weapon; he can crucially turn around the genuine trepidations about India’s illiberal democracy. The internet shutdowns, Twitter blockades, relentless targeting of journalists, arrests of stand-up comic artistes, ED raids on news portals, arresting young Disha Ravi, have diminished Modi’s carefully cultivated global reputational capital. The delimitation exercise can boost his flagging ratings on the democracy scale while giving him an enduring edifice of the Central Vista to accommodate 888 LS and 384 RS MPs.

India will have to increase the size of the Lok Sabha either by 2029 or 2034 general elections to approximately 848, according to Milan Vaishav and Jamie Hintson. Since the scientific barometer for seats-per-state has to be the population, it’s very likely that UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal will see big jumps. But ironically, southern states that have been both socially emancipated and economically advanced will remain frozen at current levels. Based on current trends, this will advantage BJP.

Nothing that Modi does isn’t carefully structured towards definitive electoral impact. The much excoriated vanity project is Modi’s trump card in the December of his political career. Modi has often ridiculed Edward Lutyens denizens who have lived in the opulent luxury of its sprawling bungalows. The Central Vista is his way of bearding the so-called arrogant lion in its own stately den.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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