India needs a Mahatma now to call out Modi’s ‘kingly’ fancies amid a pandemic

With the Centre pumping in ₹20,000 crore into the Central Vista project despite a pandemic, the Opposition is expected to launch a more interventionist and inspirational politics and a leader who, just like Mahatma Gandhi, could put his body on the line as a political weapon

Through the Central Vista Project, Modi is erecting a new history, the monumental beginning of the Hindu Era. Photo: PTI (File)

One of the things a hostile power does when it conquers a country is to raze its buildings down. Because, a temple, a mosque, a place, even a statute is memory, signage of the way you have traversed to the present.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though not the leader of a foreign, hostile power, aims at altering the signage, wipe your mind clean as far as possible and gift a new collective memory. Like all kings, he would like his people to believe history began with him. Each king potentially brings with him a new calendar and would like to hang it on a new wall.

The work on the Central Vista in New Delhi, a stretch of regal-looking avenues and ‘people’s palaces’ built by the British in the 1920s, which free India inherited in 1947, will look different by 2024 when the next general elections take place.

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Roads leading to India Gate being dug up and barricaded for the Central Vista Project work. Photo: PTI

In all likelihood, Modi will continue his third term in the face of an Opposition that will still be looking for a ‘national leader’ despite the great show put up by Mamata Banerjee or Pinarayi Vijayan. Neither is likely to leave their home state for long periods for fear of incursions from the BJP in their absence which a national leadership entails.

But Banerjee, eccentric as her personality is, among all the Opposition leaders shows a way out of the passivity that has stymied Indian politics in recent years from being an instrument of change.

And it centers around her readiness to stake her life at the altar of politics. This is evident from the way she fearlessly mingles with the crowd, her confrontationist attitude to top BJP leaders, and her great histrionic talents. She attaches little importance to her appearance and even life. In short, she is brave beyond understanding.

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The fact is that Banerjee brings back the politics of the body, of the physicality of life, into play. It’s the way a Mahatma Gandhi, the most physical of Indian leaders ever, would do in Natal, Pune, or Calcutta or, as it happened, soon after Independence, in Delhi, when he put his body on the line, fasting, for reparation for Pakistan, fighting against his own government.

But this involves a certain time-tested conviction, and courage to believe one’s cause is greater than one’s life. That is lacking in contemporary Indian politics. At no time since the Emergency is it needed more either.

The COVID death toll is crossing 2.5 lakh. There is a vaccine shortage, and oxygen mess, and non-availability of beds. The economy has been laid waste. Even the middle class is finding it hard to find a way out of financial uncertainty. It is in this context, as pointed out by many, that the Modi government is rebuilding a perfectly beautiful part of Delhi, the Central Vista. It is like forcing Aishwarya Rai in her prime to go in for plastic surgery.

The new vista will cost ₹20,000 crore and will go up in estimates in the near future. It will accommodate a new residence for the prime minister (and Modi certainly plans to be its first occupant) a vice president’s palace, and a parliament house.

The new parliament at 694,270 sq ft through four floors will accommodate more MPs than at present when the 2024 general elections will deliver hundreds more than the current 543 representatives, as constituencies undergo reorganisation. The new Rajya Sabha hall will have a capacity of 384 seats, and the new Lok Sabha 888 seats, with an additional capacity of up to 1,272 seats for hosting joint sessions.

Albert Speer (Hitler’s personal architect and later the armaments minister) talks in his book, Inside The Third Reich, of the megapolis that Hitler proposed to build in Berlin, as war clouds gathered over Europe. Hitler’s own palace was to measure 22 million square feet. Compared to that monster dream the new Central Vista (7 million sq feet) is not much.

But the intent remains the same: to change the idea and the face of those who built India in the minds of people lucky enough to survive the virus. The money meant for the buildings, for instance, could ensure free healthcare cards to millions. Or doles to those who acutely need in direct cash transfer.  But this alternative husbandry of resources would not convince the current dispensation, who would tell you budgeting for social welfare cannot be at the expense of other developments.

And nothing to this government is more likely to matter than changing the face of a city so it looks like a monument to a Hindu Empire, come into existence some 1,500 years after the mythical Gupta period; indeed no other dispensation as the one in power now looks so forward to the past.

Perhaps the real issue is not even the misspent ₹20,000 crore. It is that nobody can do anything about it. The weak cries of protest from the usual social media echo chambers cannot be a substitute for the political will of the Opposition, which remains in a state of paralysis.

Rahul Gandhi has grown in his role. There are great parliamentary finds like Mahua Moitra. There are public intellectuals like Shashi Tharoor. Yet not one of them, with the possible exception of Mamata Banerjee, can inspire a mass movement against the extravaganza of a government that finds not enough money for cremation grounds for its COVID-dead, but declares the deconstruction of New Delhi an ‘essential service’ so Delhi gets a makeover.

What would a Mahatma do in a situation like this? Would COVID deter him from, say, an indefinite fast in protest? Would he think he would not get the support of the people? The answer to the first is ‘yes’. The answer to the second is that he would not care. The reason why the Opposition is helpless and will continue to be so till the foreseeable future (which is 2024 when the general elections must happen, and nothing is likely to change) is that, largely, its politics is no better than the gushing tears and bleeding hearts of the Good People on permanent display in social media. There is no skin in the game.

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If the Opposition politics must be more interventionist and inspirational, it must bring the ‘body’ back into the game as a political weapon. Think of what a hunger strike by Rahul Gandhi at India Gate or Parliament House might have done (when COVID lockdown was not in place before the surge of the second wave).

As the new Central Vista comes up — along the stretch from India Gate to Parliament — parks are being dug up and drainage pipes being laid now. Modi is erecting a new history, the monumental beginning of the Hindu Era. It is an act of vandalisation from within. And India’s political Opposition believes working for Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey round the clock for free is enough to alter the course of history. Opposition politics was never no powerless as now. Is it any wonder the old parliament house is soon to become a museum?

(CP Surendran’s novel, One love, And The Many Lives of Osip B is scheduled to be released in June)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)


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