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DAVID JONES: As millions suffer in its pandemic, India’s narcissistic leader is building a folly

Hidden away in some half-forgotten chambers in the heart of New Delhi, there are two blocks of white sandstone — relics of India‘s long years under the yoke of the British Raj.

Laid down in 1911 by King George V and Queen Mary, who later reclined on thrones of solid gold, shaded from the blazing sun by golden umbrellas, they are the foundations of the nation’s vast and splendiferous seat of government.

It took legions of workers a further 16 years to complete this great acropolis, designed by Surrey-born architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, the centre-piece of which is a circular Parliament House combining classical and Mughal styles.

The vainglorious man who now presides over the world’s biggest democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is determined to expunge this symbol of despised colonial rule, and build its replacement far more quickly.

In August 2022, when India celebrates its 75th year of independence, he aims to open a garish new parliament resembling a triangular wedding cake, the enormous scale of which will obscure Lutyens’s masterwork.

In a seemingly vengeful act, the magnificent chamber Lutyens created will become a mere museum.

Mercifully, other British-built landmarks, such as the magnificent 340-room palace where the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, once resided, will be allowed to remain as the Indian president’s residence.

However, the revamped Central Vista will become a symbol of Modi’s much-vaunted ‘New India’.

It will include futuristic offices for its political secretariats, an underground railway, and an opulent mansion for the 70-year-old premier, which was quietly slipped into the plans after they had been approved.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he delivers a speech to the nation during a ceremony to celebrate India’s 74th Independence Day, which marks the end of British colonial rule, at the Red Fort in New Delhi on August 15, 2020

In August 2022, when India celebrates its 75th year of independence, he aims to open a garish new parliament resembling a triangular wedding cake, the enormous scale of which will obscure Lutyens's masterwork

In August 2022, when India celebrates its 75th year of independence, he aims to open a garish new parliament resembling a triangular wedding cake, the enormous scale of which will obscure Lutyens’s masterwork

Rashtrapati Bhavan, or Presidential Residence of India, locates on the Raisina Hill in the capital city. It was designed by Britain architect Sir Edwin Lutyens as the home of the Viceroys of India in 1921 and completed in 1929

Rashtrapati Bhavan, or Presidential Residence of India, locates on the Raisina Hill in the capital city. It was designed by Britain architect Sir Edwin Lutyens as the home of the Viceroys of India in 1921 and completed in 1929 

Building work began last December (when Modi laid his own foundation stone in a ceremony every bit as showy as the one George V presided over) despite last-ditch legal attempts to block it.

The howls of protest are being led by such prominent figures as the brilliant British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, and Opposition politicians who have dubbed the new complex the PM’s ‘Vanity Palace’.

This week, as a disastrous second wave of the pandemic continues to sweep through India, demands for the project to be halted have become more strident, even though Modi, who tacitly controls much of the media, has largely succeeded in keeping cameras away from the vast site, in central Delhi.

Despite the death and despair all around him, however, this shameless demagogue — who on Tuesday agreed a £1 billion trade deal with Britain during a virtual summit with Boris Johnson — insists that the drive to complete the new building, derisorily dubbed ‘Modi’s Dream’, must continue apace.

Ludicrously, having all-too belatedly placed the rest of Delhi in lockdown, he has even decreed that erecting this monument to his colossal ego must be classed as an ‘essential service’. The huge construction site has thus been exempted from Covid restrictions along with supplying food and tending the sick.

So, as Delhi’s 30 million desperate citizens beg for oxygen and hospital beds, and cremate their loved ones on makeshift funeral pyres in car parks, and as bodies lie in the potholed streets, some 2,000 workers continue to be bussed in each day to toil in a chaotic-looking crater bigger than 50 football stadiums.

In return for this perilous task, the builders, many of them migrants who need to feed poor rural families, are paid about 12,000 rupees, or £120 a month — if they are paid at all. For some workers complain of their wages being withheld.

And the cost of this hideously ill-timed exercise? Initial estimates suggested it would be an eye-watering £2 billion, but those familiar with India’s often corrupt and wasteful public building programmes suggest the final bill could be twice that amount. Even assuming it is ‘only’ £2 billion, it is a sum India sorely needs for other uses, as its health system collapses and it is forced to put pride aside by accepting international aid.

Not least, ironically, from Britain, which is sending 495 oxygen concentrators and 140 ventilators, and this week agreed to drop its demands for the export of five million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which our government had ordered from the Serum Institute of India.

If Mr Modi needs reminding how the funds for his Vanity Palace could be redirected, Derek O’Brien, an MP with the Indian opposition party Trinamool Congress has done the maths for him. ‘You could have vaccinated 80 per cent of the population of India for what you’re spending on that project,’ he declared angrily a few days ago.

For frittering away such a huge chunk of public money when his people were dying in their hundreds of thousands, he seethed, the premier had ‘blood on your hands’.

Watching the hellish scenes unfolding in India, where the number of Covid cases this week topped 20 million and the official death-toll now exceeds 226,000 (on-the-ground evidence suggests it is considerably higher) one can only concur.

By my own estimate, that £2 billion could also pay for 40 large, fully-equipped hospitals. The number of oxygen cylinders, PPE outfits, and remedial drugs it could buy is vast.

The big question, of course, is why Modi is risking his reputation, and indeed perhaps his position as leader, by continuing with this grandiose scheme. For whatever else he might be accused of, this charismatic populist is nobody’s fool.

A health worker walks inside the Common Wealth Games stadium temporarily converted into the Covid-19 Coronavirus care centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021

A health worker walks inside the Common Wealth Games stadium temporarily converted into the Covid-19 Coronavirus care centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021

India seven-day average cases

India seven-day average deaths

India is now reporting a seven-day average of more than 350,000 Covid cases (left), while the average number of deaths over the last week has risen to nearly 3,500 – which most believe is an under-estimate (right)

For half a century after Independence, Indian politics was dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, yet he rose from one of India’s lowliest castes to break their grip.

He won over the masses with scintillating oratory, pledging to raise 1.4 billion largely impoverished people out of penury, revitalise the economy with Thatcher-style reforms, and restore India’s pride and standing with his brand of Hindu nationalism.

He pledged after winning the 2014 general election by a landslide, that he would create a New India that served everyone’s interests, not just those of the wealthy elite.

Echoing Donald Trump, who pledged to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, Modi promised to drain Delhi of corruption and favouritism. Tired of being downtrodden and ignored, and spellbound by his scintillating rhetoric, the voters, in their hundreds of millions, bought into it.

When he made his victory address, in what is still known as ‘Lutyens Delhi’ — a name that has become synonymous with the cronyism and moral laxity at the heart of modern Indian politics — there was no hint that he planned to replace it.

On the contrary, he kissed the steps of the old colonial parliament building and declared that the ‘hopes and aspirations’ of the Indian people were ’embedded in this temple of democracy’.

India now accounts for almost half of the global total of Covid cases reported each day, figures show, outstripping entire continents such as Europe, South America, and North America

India now accounts for almost half of the global total of Covid cases reported each day, figures show, outstripping entire continents such as Europe, South America, and North America 

Relatives of a woman suffering from Covid fetch an oxygen tank to help her breathe at a hospital in Delhi amid the country's virus crisis

Relatives of a woman suffering from Covid fetch an oxygen tank to help her breathe at a hospital in Delhi amid the country’s virus crisis

Rohan Aggarwal, 26, a resident doctor treating patients suffering from Covid, talks to staff during a mammoth 27-hour shift at a hospital in New Delhi

Rohan Aggarwal, 26, a resident doctor treating patients suffering from Covid, talks to staff during a mammoth 27-hour shift at a hospital in New Delhi

The body of Karuna Vadhera, 74, is taken from a hospital in Delhi to a crematorium to be burned, as data showed India accounted for one in four global virus deaths in the last week

The body of Karuna Vadhera, 74, is taken from a hospital in Delhi to a crematorium to be burned, as data showed India accounted for one in four global virus deaths in the last week

Why, then, is he now in such haste to consign to history a seat of government that has been compared with the Palace of Versailles and Capitol Hill in Washington DC? Why would he press on with this grotesquely expensive folly at a time when his standing has never been lower?

Modi is being held personally responsible for causing India’s catastrophic coronavirus second wave by encouraging — and personally addressing — mass political rallies, permitting crowds at cricket matches, and giving his blessing to a Hindu festival which drew nine million people to the banks of the Ganges.

Worse even than this complacency was his appallingly misplaced triumphalism.

As the respected Indian writer Kapil Komireddi reported in last Friday’s Mail, in January Modi boasted that India had finally defeated the virus, and held up this supposedly great victory as a beacon for other nations to follow.

His reckless and ignorant pronouncement instilled disastrous complacency in the Indian people, compounded by the Delhi government’s utter lack of preparedness for the apocalyptic rebound.

To explain his obsession with building the new parliament, let’s return to his humble background. Born and raised in the western state of Gujarat, as a boy he served on his father’s tea-stall, and schoolteachers remember him as an unremarkable, solitary pupil.

India also accounts for around one in four Covid deaths reported each day, though experts have warned the true figure could be up to ten times higher

India also accounts for around one in four Covid deaths reported each day, though experts have warned the true figure could be up to ten times higher

Hindu tradition states that bodies must be burned within 24 hours of death, meaning crematoriums have been forced to expand to deal with the number of Covid victims

Hindu tradition states that bodies must be burned within 24 hours of death, meaning crematoriums have been forced to expand to deal with the number of Covid victims

Women wait in line at a vaccination centre in Assam state, India, to get their Covid jabs - even as some states warned they have run out of doses

Women wait in line at a vaccination centre in Assam state, India, to get their Covid jabs – even as some states warned they have run out of doses

In his teens, however, his disillusionment with the ruling order led him to join the RSS, an extreme Right-wing organisation whose ideological vision for a traditionalist, nationalist India borrowed much from Nazi Germany.

He became a so-called ‘pracharak’: an activist whose devotion to Hinduism demanded that he took a vow of celibacy (a discreet veil has been reportedly drawn over an early marriage), renounce vices such as alcohol and become a vegetarian.

It is an ascetic lifestyle that this stocky, white-bearded man still professes to follow.

Even his enemies don’t suggest, then, that he is in power to line his bank account, like so many other Indian politicians. Nor that he is building the monstrosity in New Delhi because he hankers after its creature-comforts. Materialistic he is not. According to expert India-watchers, however, what Modi has craved since his days as a youthful revolutionary is recognition. Further, they say, he harbours an almost messianic desire to assume a place in the pantheon of great Indian statesmen alongside Gandhi and Nehru.

The design contract for Modi’s revamp of the capital was formally put out to tender, and half a dozen plans were shortlisted, each an affront to those who admire Lutyens’s work.

It was all a sham. For as Komireddi says, everyone knew the contract would be awarded to a company from Modi’s home state, closely allied to him.

Lilaben Gautambhai Modi, 80, who is suffering from Covid, sits inside an ambulance as she waits to be admitted to a Covid ward in Ahmedabad, India

Lilaben Gautambhai Modi, 80, who is suffering from Covid, sits inside an ambulance as she waits to be admitted to a Covid ward in Ahmedabad, India

A graph showing India's daily Covid deaths as a seven-day average, with the figure continuing to climb amid calls for a national lockdown

A graph showing India’s daily Covid deaths as a seven-day average, with the figure continuing to climb amid calls for a national lockdown

A graph showing India's daily Covid cases as a seven-day average, which is continuing to rise as doctors warn it could be months before the crisis eases

A graph showing India’s daily Covid cases as a seven-day average, which is continuing to rise as doctors warn it could be months before the crisis eases

Describing Modi as ‘vain, impetuous and self-absorbed’, the writer avers that the PM has ‘poured his energy into creating a cult of personality unmatched anywhere in the democratic world.’

It is this, he says, that truly impels Modi to recreate the nation’s capital in his own image. One prominent architect likens the massive new complex to Mussolini’s Rome and Berlin in the creation of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer.

To Anish Kapoor, the project is ‘Modi’s way of placing himself at the centre and cementing his legacy as the maker of a new Hindu India.’ He claims the plans were passed ‘without due process.’

Thus Modi, who has renamed India’s biggest cricket stadium after himself, will plough billions into a vanity project that makes Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurb seem peanuts.

Yesterday, pathetically-paid minions skittered about the vast construction site and giant cranes lurched overhead. Within a mile or two, people were still dying for lack of care in the dusty streets.

In recent days, the Indian government has striven to censor social media posts critical of their handling of the pandemic, but some posts have got through.

‘Why we do need #CentralVista when the country can’t breathe!’ one demanded to know. It is a question on the lips of millions. But from the self-styled People’s Prime Minister, a modern-day emperor in all but name, there comes no answer.

n Additional reporting: Amrit Dhillon and Sanjay Jha, in Delhi

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