Plans are proceeding at breakneck speed to change the history, geography, archaeology, philosophy and essence of Delhi. The central vista, the imposing secretariat buildings, Rajpath with its sprawling expanses on both sides, even the majestic Parliament building will all be gone. A completely new capital city will rise from the ashes. The master plan specifies the dates on which each new phase must be completed. The last one, the construction of the new common secretariat, must be finished in 2024, which coincidentally is the last year of Shri Narendrabhai Modiji’s present term.
Further details are not given out yet. But it is obvious that the capital idea’s soul force is the prime minister. Tradition demands that capitals bear the names of their builders. When Byzantium, the city that connects Asia with Europe, was rebuilt by Roman Emperor Constantine, it was renamed Constantinople, which popular usage turned into Istanbul. It will only be fair if we, too, follow such examples and give our brand-new capital city the name of its visionary builder.
As luck would have it, the re-imagining of the national capital is being handled by Hardeep Singh Puri, former diplomat who joined the BJP and became a minister. As with all new converts, he is more anxious than others to show his newfound loyalties. He has already got a master plan done, and got the cost reduced from Rs 500 crore to Rs 300 crore. That the company was from Gujarat must have helped. The project cost will be Rs 12,450 crore, he said. Dead cheap for the grand new capital of a grand new country. When he was a diplomat, Hardeep Singh Puri wrote books with apt titles. One was Perilous Interventions. Another, Delusional Politics, seemed to anticipate his post-retirement ambitions.
Delusional interventions have always been part of Delhi’s history. Seven centuries ago, Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlak had hit upon the same idea. This was no ordinary sultan. Highly educated, he is remembered as a man who thought ahead of his time. He conceptualised the idea of token currency and gave it up when economic chaos followed. He shifted his capital to Deogiri in Aurangabad area of today’s Maharashtra and renamed it Daulatabad. The population of Delhi were told to move to Daulatabad. Widespread misery and sufferings and deaths occurred as multitudes trekked to the new capital. He was saddened by that, abandoned Daulatabad and returned to Delhi. Widespread misery and sufferings and deaths occurred again as multitudes trekked back to Delhi. Tughlak became known as the “wise fool”.
Tughlak at least had the wisdom to undo his foolishness. These days we don’t see leaders who admit to mistakes, leave alone undoing them. Look at Donald Trump. But give the devil his due, he has made no effort to shift America’s capital out of Washington DC. He didn’t even try to change the skyline so that it will have a Trump look. That is one thing good about advanced countries. Once people reach a level of settled civilisation, they don’t tamper with their heritage. Landmarks of a nation’s legacy are treated with pride.
Can we ever imagine Englishmen giving up their Parliament house on the banks of the Thames in London because a prime minister wants it so? It is a symbol of Great Britain and it is a sight that fills every Englishman with self-esteem. The original building was destroyed by a fire in 1834. They rebuilt it. The Second World War caused extensive damage to the building. They rebuilt it again, as it was.(The building is said to be sinking now for geographic reasons. The Big Ben tower is leaning noticeably, though not as much as the Tower of Pisa. If things get real bad, they may be forced to abandon the building to its fate and put up a new Parliament House.)
Across the world, landmark buildings are loved and venerated as emblems of local culture. The Notre-Dame in Paris was damaged several times. Each time renovation and rebuilding were done with love and respect. If we had that kind of an approach, maintenance of the Taj Mahal in Agra would have been better. Instead, we started seeing it, too, in communal colours. Architecture reflects the nature of the society it represents. But let us be grateful for small mercies: Nobody has pulled down Qutub Minar to give the Mehrauli area a new Bharatiya look.