‘We Shape Our Buildings & Then Our Buildings Shape Us’: Does India Really Need New Parliament House?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And probably don’t rebuild it, either. Which brings us to the question, why is the central government planning a redevelopment of Delhi’s Central Vista that includes the iconic Parliament House?

Minister of housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri said last month that a new parliament building with offices of ministers and MPs may be constructed. “Our experts will shortlist ideas and then somebody will take a political call,” he told reporters.

Apparently, this is part of the government’s plan for a makeover of Lutyens’ Delhi. The idea is to redevelop the three-kilometre stretch from Rashtrapati Bhavan and North and South Blocks to India Gate. A composite complex for different ministries will also be part of the project. “And, by 2024, at the time of the next elections, it is expected that we will be in a new parliament building,” Puri said.

The government has already floated a request for proposal (RFP), inviting design and architectural firms from across the globe for the “development or redevelopment of Parliament Building, Common Central Secretariat and Central Vista”.

While Shastri Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, and other structures that house government offices may be razed, the present parliament building, being a grade-I heritage construction, will escape that fate. Puri said, “It is a heritage building, and therefore its facade cannot be touched.”

So why a massive project of this nature in the heart of the national capital? With an economic downturn steadily tightening its grip on the country, will this not put added pressure on the exchequer? Why not make alterations to government buildings as needed? Why raze them to the ground? And, more importantly, why a new parliament?

It would be instructive to recall what the British did when their parliament was damaged during the Second World War. On the night of May 10, 1941, one of the last bombs of the last serious raid destroyed the House of Commons. The-then prime minister, Winston Churchill, said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. I believe that will be the opinion of the great majority of its Members. It is certainly the opinion of His Majesty’s Government and we propose to support this resolution to the best of our ability.”

A true conservative, Churchill wanted the House to be “restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity”. He went on to add, “I am, therefore, proposing in the name of His Majesty’s Government that we decide to rebuild the House of Commons on its old foundations, which are intact, and in principle within its old dimensions, and that we utilise so far as possible its shattered walls. That is also the most cheap and expeditious method we could pursue to provide ourselves with a habitation.”

Notice the pun: old foundations of the House of Commons “are intact”. Also notice the insistence to “utilise so far as possible its shattered walls”. Ostensibly, it was ostensibly, for the world’s biggest and richest empire in which the sun never set could not have been so poor even during its darkest hour as to not be able to afford a new parliament building; it was actually the love of conserving the old and the traditional.

Compare the British government’s attitude towards its parliament with that of India’s first truly and unabashedly conservative regime: the two are diametrically opposite. The desire to build a new parliament highlights the fundamental differences between conservatism in the West and in India, one of the most important being the respective attitudes towards the past.

While in the West conservatives study their past, learn from it, and zealously conserve what they cherish, their Indian counterparts are suspicious of recorded history, derive very different lessons from it than the usual, and have an unimpressed attitude towards conventions and traditions that don’t match their worldview. Remember how swiftly finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman abandoned the convention her predecessors followed of bringing the Budget papers in a black briefcase? And how effortlessly Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla shed the tradition of saying ‘Ayes have it,’ replacing it with ‘Haan paksh jeeta’?

The desire to have a new parliament building is the function of the same indifference towards convention and tradition. For once, India’s traditional red-tape culture tying something up neatly probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)