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Why India’s New Parliament Building Is So Controversial

8 minute read

On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate a new parliament building in New Delhi, unveiling an edifice intended to symbolize his vision as the leader of the world’s most populous country.

The large, triangular building stands directly opposite the old, circular building on a two-mile-long path—akin to D.C.’s National Mall—in the heart of the capital. It is part of the $2.8 billion Central Vista redevelopment project to revamp the British-era administrative offices near the Prime Minister’s official residence.

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But the building’s inauguration has faced heavy criticism. On Wednesday, 19 opposition parties announced a boycott of the event, accusing the government of “constitutional impropriety.” And the Supreme Court is expected to hear a case on Friday relating to the inauguration ceremony.

Here’s how the controversy surrounding the new parliament building is unfolding.

Labour workers seen near the construction site for part of
Laborers seen near the construction site for part of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project at New Parliament House, New Delhi.Manish Rajput—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Why is there backlash to India’s new parliament building?

Construction of the new, four-story parliament building began in January 2021 as part of the Central Vista project. The government has stated that the new building, which costs nearly $120 million, is a necessary parliamentary upgrade to allow for increased seating capacity and better facilities like air conditioning, lighting, and restrooms as the original building, which dates back to 1927, has shown signs of distress and overuse.

While the old building had 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House, which has 545 members) and 250 seats in the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House, which has 250 members), the new building will accommodate 770 and 530 seats respectively, allowing for the opportunity to increase the number of representatives in Parliament given India’s growing population.

Since the construction began, however, politicians, environmentalists, and civil society groups have criticized the new building over the cost and lack of consultation. Many have questioned why the government chose not to upgrade the old building instead.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also facing backlash for sidelining the President, Draupadi Murmu, by asking the Prime Minister to inaugurate the building instead. India’s president is a non-elected and non-executive position, but they are considered a ceremonial figurehead as the country’s first citizen and highest constitutional authority. (Notably, Murmu is also the country’s first ever tribal head of state.)

On Wednesday, a joint statement issued by 19 national and regional opposition parties stated that Modi’s decision to “inaugurate the new parliament building by himself” was “not only a grave insult but a direct assault on our democracy which demands a commensurate response.” The parties plan to collectively boycott the event, adding that “the soul of democracy has been sucked out from the parliament.”

On Thursday, a lawyer also petitioned the Supreme Court to invite the Indian President, rather than the Prime Minister, to preside over the ceremony. The top court is expected to hear the petition on Friday.

This controversy comes after years of growing concern over the state of Indian democracy: the U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House downgraded India’s democracy from “free” to “partially free,” while the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute has called India an “electoral autocracy.” India’s position has also slipped on the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

The opposition leaders have also criticized the inauguration date, which coincides with the anniversary of the birth of VD Savarkar, a divisive figure for his connection to the 1948 assassination of the freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi. The BJP hails Savarkar as a hero for birthing the nationalist idea of Hindutva, or ‘Hindu-ness’.

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The BJP has defended its decision by saying the new building is a matter of pride for all Indians and accused the opposition of “politicizing” the inauguration. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah said that all political parties had been invited to the ceremony, but that “everyone will act according to their own feelings,” at a press conference on Wednesday. The tussle is yet another reminder of the strained relationship between the governing BJP and the opposition parties, who most recently protested the parliamentary disqualification of Rahul Gandhi, the de facto leader of the Congress Party, India’s main opposition party after he was charged and convicted of defamation in March. A Congress spokesperson previously told TIME that the charges were “flimsy and cooked up.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi Inaugurates Revamped Central Vista Avenue, Unveils Netaji Statue
People listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of Kartavya Path near India Gate as part of the revamped Central Vista project on Sept. 8, 2022.Arvind Yadav—Hindustan Times/Getty Images

What is the Central Vista project?

The “Central Vista Project” is the larger architectural project to revamp the 46 hectares in the political heart of New Delhi, which encompasses British colonial-era monuments and government buildings, including Sansad Bhavan (Parliament House), the Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy’s House), and the Secretariat Buildings. The project’s name refers to the central administrative area, also informally known as ‘Lutyens Delhi,’ named after the British architect, Edward Lutyens, who designed many of the boulevards, sandstone buildings, and gardens for the British Raj between 1911 and 1931.

The project intends to give the buildings a facelift and cement Modi’s vision for a new, “self-reliant” India emerging out of the long shadow of its colonial past. One of the most notable renovations is the Kartavya Path or “Path of Duty,” also formerly known as Rajpath or “King’s Way,” which was originally designed as a ceremonial axis for the British capital and continues to be a popular thoroughfare for the public, especially when hosting the annual Republic Day Parade in January.

But the whole project—which began in the middle of a brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021—has been met with widespread criticism for its cost, environmental damage, and disregard for heritage buildings.

India redevelops its seat of power in New Delhi under Central Vista renovation
The round heritage building of the Indian Parliament can be seen with massive cranes for the construction of the new Parliament building on June 5, 2021.Pallava Bagla—Corbis/Getty Images

How does the new architecture symbolize Modi’s vision for India?

Political analysts have described the Central Vista project as the “capstone project” of Modi’s second term in power, calling it his attempt to reclaim India’s physical footprint from its colonial past by bolstering his own brand of Hindu nationalism, as well as transforming it from the India ruled by the Congress Party for 49 years since India’s independence.

Ahead of next year’s elections, Modi has frequently talked about how the Central Vista project incorporates numerous Hindu motifs like the peacock, the lotus flower, and the banyan tree, and boasted about the construction of new Hindu temples across the country as a way of delivering his Hindutva mandate.

Some have argued it is also an effort to demonstrate a ‘New India’: “a country capable of maintaining its ancient heritage and restoring its spiritual and cultural glory while simultaneously making advancements towards its modern aspirations.”

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The buildings are also a way for the prime minister to boost his own image, say critics. “Obsession with self-image and cameras trumps decency and norms when it comes to Modi ji,” D Raja, a senior Communist Party of India leader, wrote on Twitter. (“Ji” is an honorific in Hindi.)

Analysts point out that the connection between Modi and architecture isn’t unique to India—it is a common feature of right-wing, populist leaders leading modern autocratic democracies. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has built new mosques all over the country, including the Grand Camlica Mosque in Istanbul, while in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban reconstructed the 19th century Castle District to make it the seat of government.

“This international connection between populism and architecture is not a mere coincidence,” Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote in Foreign Policy. “These long-ruling figures have systematically sought to transform the built environment … in line with their understanding of who the ‘real people’ are.”

Ahead of Sunday’s inauguration, the final touches are now underway to get the parliament building ready. Some commentators say that the political row, despite its valid grievances, should not overshadow the historic moment. “It is necessary in this special moment when a nation gets a more modern and more capacious Parliament, that all parties stand on tiptoe and look to the future that will occupy the new House and that it will belong to,” wrote the editorial board of The Indian Express.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com