Unlike other former colonies, India did not build a new capital; he appropriates the old and pursues the project of syncretistic mixture. Modi clearly saw this as a mistake, and he made it his mission to “free us from the slave mentality.” He appears to have planned to rebuild the heart of New Delhi from the first days of his premiership. The previous government had proposed that parts of the capital, including the entire Central Vista, be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, preserving them in perpetuity. The candidacy was under consideration when Modi became prime minister in 2014. The following year, according to UNESCO, the Indian government requested its postponement. (A spokesperson for India’s Housing Ministry denies this.)
In 2019, after Modi’s resounding re-election to a second term, a public announcement appeared in major Indian newspapers. It sought “consultancy services for comprehensive architectural and technical planning for the ‘development/redevelopment of Parliament Building, Joint Central Secretariat and Central Vista in New Delhi'”, specifying that interested companies would have to transfer five million rupees “deposit” to an escrow account. (After the architects’ backlash, the monetary requirements were cut in half.) The deadline was incredibly short. The British had spent years planning the capital of India. The Modi government has asked for a redevelopment proposal in six weeks. SR Sikka, an architect who fled to Delhi during Partitiontrained under Le Corbusier and went on to found one of the most successful architectural firms in the country, told me: “Of course, as an architect, you wish you had more time for a single project on the most important land in the country.
In September, an information meeting turned into a contentious affair. Representatives of interested companies gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table in a conference room of the Central Public Works Department, which has overseen civic improvements in India since 1854. When the question room was opened, the participants took turns expressing their dissatisfaction. How could a publicly funded project of this scale not be awarded through a more open process? The deposit requirement ensured that only established architects could participate. Some participants wrote a petition to demand fairer competition. As they canvassed the room for signatures, only one representative from a major company refused to sign: HCP’s Bobby Desai, in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi’s home state of Gujarat .
In the end, only six companies – HCP and five others – were selected. Their mandate was largely unlimited; the guidelines did not specify whether to modernize the existing Parliament or build a new one. (In any case, the old Parliament House, like many Raj-era structures, should be protected due to historic preservation laws.) At least two of the companies have suggested locating a new Parliament House at middle of Central Vista. Hafeez Contractor, director of one such firm, known for his flashy designs, said he had set up his Parliament, which would be built in the shape of an abstract lotus flower, “on the main axis, so if you look from all roads of New Delhi, from anywhere and everywhere, you will see it. It would have been five hundred feet higher than the viceroy’s palace. “People said, ‘Oh, it shouldn’t be higher than the president’s house,’” he told me. “Why not? It should be higher!”
HCP took a different approach. Its founder, Bimal Patel, knew Modi from Gujarat and had been doing projects with him for almost two decades. The company requested bland sandstone office buildings lined with unadorned columns. Patel left Parliament out, although he proposed including some of the more subtle multi-faith details of the old Central Vista, such as the stone trellises. Meanwhile, on land on the other side of Central Vista, he proposed a new housing and office complex for the prime minister. In the Indian parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is a member of the legislature, the first among equals. Just as the British Prime Minister lives in a modest townhouse at 10 Downing Street, Modi lives in a bungalow on an ordinary street in Lutyens’ Delhi. Patel called for Modi to be moved to Central Vista, to a huge residence that can accommodate a staff of five hundred people. (According to later reports, the complex will be surrounded by twenty-five watchtowers and will include a VIP tunnel connecting it to the new Parliament.) Building a new house for the Prime Minister was not part of the design competition’s brief , and only one of the other five participants had included one. Patel won.
Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, has long been an architectural center. Soon after independence, Ahmedabad’s textile magnates and their allies in government hired a group of renowned architects, including Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, to build offices, museums, and university campuses in the city. These international luminaries influenced a generation of local architects, who continued their modernist legacy. One such resident was Hasmukh C. Patel, whose company, HCP, later put its mark on Gujarat through banks, hospitals and university buildings.
In 1981, Hasmukh’s nineteen-year-old son Bimal crossed Europe by train and VW van. He was amazed at “how comfortable ordinary life can be for ordinary people.” Crowded but well-maintained, the urban streets, squares and markets of Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona offered ordinary Europeans a quality of life accessible only to India’s most privileged. In 1985, Bimal moved to the United States, where he obtained degrees in architecture and urban planning at the University of Berkeley. He then returned to Ahmedabad to take over HCP, hoping to transform Indian cities, which he said were “deprived of public space”.
In January, I met Patel on a seven-mile pedestrian promenade he had begun building, in the early 2000s, along the Sabarmati River, which bisects Ahmedabad. Before the Central Vista Commission, this was its largest urban redevelopment project. I rented us an “aquacycle” – a Dr. Seuss-like floating bike for two with bulbous exterior water wheels. Patel, who is slim and fit at sixty-two, wore thick black glasses and threw a canary yellow life jacket over his Nehru green waistcoat. As we pedaled to the middle of the river, the city skyline appeared above the boardwalk. We could see a revolving restaurant, designed by his father, that looked like a concrete flower blooming on a narrow stem, and many newer, taller, shinier structures rising around it. Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, presided over Ahmedabad’s spectacular boom in the 21st century; he used this narrative of progress in the campaign that propelled him to national power.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of Modi during this period, told me that the rising Gujarati politician was inspired – and envious – by the model of development he saw in China. In 1980, the economies of China and India were roughly equal in size, but India had since lagged far behind its neighbor. On his first trip across the border, in 2006, Modi visited Shenzhen, which had grown from a fishing village to a metropolis of nearly ten million people, and Pudong, the financial district of Skyscraper-dotted Shanghai, which two decades before had been a mix of warehouses and rice fields. Modi “has been very impressed by the Chinese government’s urban development policies,” Mukhopadhyay told me, “especially the fact that there is very little public participation when the government wants to take land.”