On 28 May, the ninth anniversary of Narendra Modi’s regime Delhi is slated to begin on an auspicious note—the Sangol (sceptre) with which Jawaharlal Nehru had accepted power on the eve of Independence will be resurrected with a 20-minute yagna homam and handed over to the Prime Minister at 7.20 a.m. Thereafter, Modi will carry it while inaugurating the new building, which shall henceforth be the seat of Parliament of India. It shall be placed on the right of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chair, symbolising the Raj-dand of democracy. The sceptre, designed on a Chola era model, was suggested by new India’s first Indian Head of State, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, as the symbol of transfer of power in 1947. Nehru received it from seers prior to delivering his “Tryst with Destiny” midnight clarion call to Free India. It disappeared from public eye thereafter. It had been packed and stored in a museum in Allahabad along with Nehru’s personal artefacts after his death in 1964. This item of India’s pride and heritage was forgotten all these years. Like many other attributes of Indianness retrieved from cobwebs of history since May 2014, this symbol of continuity of India’s heritage has been beatified to add glory to the event which serenades the Ninth City of Delhi—successor to the British-built Lutyens’ Delhi, known as New Delhi, which was the eighth after Qutubuddin Aibak’s Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlaqbad, Jehapanah, Firozabad, Sher Shah Suri’s settlements around Purana Quila and Shahjahanabad in recorded history( Delhi’s history can be traced to Indraprastha of the Mahabharat era).
Delhi Tourism’s website listing the eight cities of Delhi cites an ancient proverb: “Three things make a city: Dariya (a river); Badal (rain-bearing clouds); Badshah (ruler who can enforce his will).” Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, empowered by the “King Emperor” (as the British Crown was called) had overseen the building of New Delhi a century ago. Since 2014 the task of eclipsing British-era heritage of the city and redevelopment of the Central Vista, the seat of the Government of India, was entrusted to Housing & Urban Affairs Minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, a distinguished superannuated civil servant who in his youth had been an active student leader in the city and thus perhaps could relate to each blade of grass growing on the two sides of erstwhile Rajpath.
New Delhi’s central avenue or the Central Vista, named Kingsway by Lutyens, changed to Rajpath in 1947; was renamed Kartavya Path by Modi in September 2022. Inaugurating Kartavya Path he also filled the void in the central canopy of India Gate by installing the statue of Subhas Chandra Bose. The original statue under the canopy, of King George V (great-great grandfather of King Charles III) was removed in 1967. No government could decide on the replacement over 55 years. Modi thus not only filled the void under the canopy but also fulfilled an unfinished agenda of Free India.
The offices of the Central Government, which line the two sides of Kartavya Path, are located in Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri era buildings, which though majestic, had become overcrowded. Shastri Bhavan and Nirman Bhavan along with Udyog Bhavan and Krishi Bhavan are now to be replaced by state of the art green buildings. Ministry of Defence (MoD) offices and the offices of the Registrar General of India (tasked with census operations) were mostly housed in temporary hutments built during World War II when New Delhi was the Theatre Command of the
East and Far East. These dingy, leaky, damp hutments served as government offices since 1947 till Modi planned the revamp. Vanijya Bhavan, housing the Ministry of Commerce and Janganana Bhavan of the census commissioner as well as the new offices of the MoD are now dotting the vista around India Gate.
Once the redevelopment project is completed, an underground circular railway will connect all government buildings, thereby reducing the dependence on use of staff cars—green technology is being harnessed not only in the buildings but in also providing a new environment-friendly paradigm to the headquarters of the Government of India.
Apart from the new building for Parliament (its name has not been announced at the time of writing, it may be named by 28 May), World War II vintage hutments near South Block and North Block (which inter alia housed CBI offices) have been pulled down and two new complexes—for residence-cum-office of Vice President of India and of Prime Minister—are being built in the vicinity of both Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament. In 1947, the Viceregal Lodge had been made the residence of Head of State (renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1950). No permanent residence for Vice President or PM was assigned. Vice Presidents since the days of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan lived in a Type-8 bungalow on Maulana Azad Marg. The Head of Government, first PM Nehru, moved into Teen Murti House, which earlier was residence of the British Commander-in-chief (head of armed forces, somewhat like the present Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). On his death in 1964, it became a museum. In 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri occupied twin bungalows at the junction of Janpath and Motilal Nehru Place. His residence is a museum; 10 Janpath, which was Shastri’s office, is residence of Sonia Gandhi since 1990. Indira Gandhi in 1966 chose twin bungalows—1 Safdarjung Road for residence and 1 Akbar Road for office. After her gruesome assassination in these premises in 1984 a museum in her memory was set up. (Morarji Desai, who succeeded her in 1977, lived there; Mrs Gandhi moved back when voted back in 1980.) In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi set up twin bungalows, 5 and 7 Race Course Road as “Prime Minister’s House”. Later his successors also added 1, 3, 9 and 11 Race Course Road to the complex. Modi moved in here in 2014. He renamed the road, which leads to colonial era Race Course, as Lok Kalyan Marg. The Teen Murti Bhavan has now a new complex, in the memory of past PMs—yet another addition to the capital’s infrastructure in the Modi era. The new PM House complex will ensure that no new museums are necessitated for remembering iconic PMs henceforth.
The new Parliament project, besides providing seats for an expanded Parliament (Lok Sabha will have 888 seats as against the present strength of 542 and Rajya Sabha is projected at 300+, 75 more than present strength). The delimitation of seats will be done post the next census, which has been delayed due to the pandemic. Individual offices will be provided to MPs—somewhat like the US Capitol, the Kartavya Path complex will have professional facilities for elected representatives where they can interact with their constituents.
Diaspora outreach has been another milestone of Modi. He perhaps replicated the Israeli model—Israeli expatriates, like non-resident Indians (NRIs) enjoy niche position in their countries of adoption. Israel benefitted from their lobbying and influence. The presence of British PM David Cameroon in Modi’s Diaspora outreach in 2015 and the presence in Sydney recently of not only PM Anthony Albanese but a host of ex-PMs and Opposition leaders during the grand Modi show are testimony to the success of the outreach exercise.
Last week, during the G7-Quad gathering in Hiroshima, Japan, US President Joe Biden sought Modi’s autograph saying that he has been flooded with requests for invites to the State Dinner he is hosting for the Indian PM in Washington in end June. Albanese chipped in saying that he too is struggling to find ways to accommodate similar requests for the Sydney Indian Diaspora event. Diaspora outreaches, coupled with India’s diplomacy of the order not seen hitherto, have been hallmark of the Modi regime. Non-alignment, which in Nehru and Indira Gandhi days placed India favourably in the comity of nations, had the side effect of the US and the West alleging India’s tilt towards the Eastern Bloc led by the erstwhile USSR. Today Washington, London, Berlin, Rome, Paris and Brussels are as equally at ease with Modi’s India as is Moscow. Modi’s statement to Vladimir Putin—“this is not an era war”—has been resonating in international resolutions. In Hiroshima, when Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Modi, he was assured of humanitarian assistance, but no mention was made about Russia. Statesmanlike balancing of conflicting interests, keeping India’s self-interest firmly in the background, has been Modi era diplomacy’s leitmotif.
Relations with China and Pakistan have seen new lows—these are problems inherited due to historical reasons and will take time to resolve. The ceasefire pact with Pakistan has lasted 18 months, enabling infrastructure building effort in border areas. The Chinese ingressions have been firmly dealt with. A pact on troops withdrawal, honoured by India, is yet to see positive action from China.
Direct benefit transfers (DBTs) and accompanying welfare measures have created ease of life. However, the implementation of the robust schemes need audit. Pro-people measures sometime get lost in the labyrinth of official callousness. In 1973, coal mines were nationalized—the decision has now been reversed post 1991 liberalisation. In the 1973 context, when unscientific exploitation of coal by private players was to be avoided, the move was a reform. The minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet who visualised and implemented the reform, S. Mohan Kumaramangalam, chagrined by official crassness, had lamented: “We have nationalised the mines but not officials’ minds”. A recent survey done by a journalistic portal among street vendors in New Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar Market showed that most of them are not beneficiaries of the PM SWANidhi scheme introduced for them in 2020. If this be the case in a market hardly 5 kilometres from India’s seat of power, the efficacy of the welfarist measures need audit. Robust implementation of Modi’s reforms ought to be ensured. The new era since 2014 has ushered in new paradigm of pro-people policy making. But as Kumaramangalam had wryly commented, mindset of those tasked with implementation needs to be attuned to the reforms.