Parliament buildings across democracies reflect antiquity, aesthetics and grandeur that is implicit in the sovereign. Almost sacred in imagination, they play a deep part in symbolising and reassuring the citizenry with continuity of experiment in democracy. After all, democracy is a choice.
Therefore, Parliament buildings are amongst the most recognised architectural symbols of political and national depth, culturality and commitment to democracy.
Parliaments Across the World
Think the Palace of Westminster serving both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Built in the Gothic Revival style, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was first built in 1016 and then rebuilt in 1840-76 (post the fire of 1834). Tsar Nicholas I of Imperial Russia had called it un reve en pierre (A dream in stone).
It has constantly evolved, adapted, and developed to the needs of the time, but the primary impression of the same remains, as was. The necessities of modern political rituals and expansions never dimmed the suggested patterns of political culture and spirit, that constitute timelessness for British democracy.
It is the same for the imposing American neoclassic style United States Capitol, the seat of the United States Congress. Completed in 1800, it has seen the vicissitudes of American democracy and its oft-controversial decisions, the Presidential swearing-in, to even the infamous incitement of insurrection by the illiberal Donald Trump supporters on 6 January 2021.
The Capitol building is a subliminal imprint in the consciousness of American citizenry of the fabled ‘American Dream’. It too never left its foundational site, but gradually expanded and even embellished the sine qua non of American democracy and hope, through its ups and downs.
The Palais Bourbon, the meeting place of the French Assembly was completed in 1728 with many more subsequent changes to the base structure eg, Napoleon’s French Empire era saw the addition of the Neoclassical façade etc, Originally an aristocratic house, it witnessed the transition from monarchial rules to the Revolution and subsequent stages of the Republic.
The storyline is almost the same for the Japanese narrative where the National Diet building (completed in 1936) was a silent and somber witness to the wounded transition from Monarchy to Democracy, post the World War 2 – it still stands today, as a measure, testimony, and witness of its past, glorious or otherwise.
It is pertinent to note that almost all the Parliament buildings in most democratic countries (even those in the undemocratic ones like the State Duma in Moscow or the Great Hall of the People in Beijing) have had conflicting and even controversial history that is linked to the ruling forms of governments, fundamental persuasions, and even partisan sensibilities of a time that may no longer be applicable and may even be an anathema.
Yet, the buildings are simply treated as part of an undeniable history and heritage that still needed to be persevered, certainly adapted, and most definitely expanded to the requirements of the times that be – but visibilised ‘continuity’ was the essence to avoid re-writing or reimagining history.
Importantly, almost all these Parliament buildings in participative democracies, predate the existing Parliament House (Sansad Bhavan), that was opened in 1927.
Demand for a New Parliament Building
However, questions about this magnificent and marque building abounded about its stability structural and capacity, and in 2012 (UPA Government) it was noted, “The Parliament building was constructed in the 1920s and commissioned in 1927 has been declared a Heritage Grade-1 building. Over the decades on account of ageing and over-use the Parliament House building started showing the signs of distress at various places. The present sitting capacity of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is likely to go up after 2026”.
A 5000-year-old civilisation, but a relatively young country had seemingly, simply, and perhaps even financially recklessly sought to forsake the route taken by almost all other countries to retain, improvise and perhaps even expand a priceless piece of history – it just sought a new Parliament!
That this building was the backdrop to India’s journey and tentative steps towards experiments and tribulations for persisting with the ‘Idea of India’ was forgotten.
From one of the most definitive and transformational oration, when Jawaharlal Nehru majestically stated at the stroke of midnight, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially…..” to the wounded attack by terrorists trained from across the Line-of-Control in 2001 – the Parliament building stood like a beacon to guide India’s destiny, through all, and standing tall and magnificent, always.
Attempts at Re-Writing History
Recent times have seen enthusiasm to pander to revisionism with a slew of renaming and discarding attempts that have been questioned for a combination of counter-partisanship, profligacy in monumentalism, and crude one-upmanship.
Invoking hyper-nationalistic pride to justify and contextualise virtually any avoidable expenditure (especially given the reality of deficit financing and substandard investments in realms like health, education, poverty alleviation, agriculture, defence affairs etc,) – a grandiose sounding Central Vista Redevelopment Project, subsuming a new Parliament building was announced with much fanfare 2019.
Even the crippling COVID 19 pandemic that inflicted backbreaking impact on livelihood and life itself could not force a rethink, and the gargantuan 13,500 crore project went ahead, nonetheless. Delhi with its myriad problems like irregular supplies of water supply, electricity, pollution, schooling etc, to name a few, went ahead as if no tangible issue afflicted Delhizens, ever. New Sansad Bhavan became a fait accompli and a Gujrati architect, Bimal Hasmukh Patel of HCP Design Planning and Management Private Limited undertook the mega project.
The grand opening is slotted for 28 May and the Hon’ble Prime Minister would be inaugurating the same. Already questions of propriety and symbolism around the date abound, for as significant as the inauguration of the new Sansad Bhavan finds a telling omission in the invite list ie, Rashtrapati of India, the highest Constitutional authority of India!
Others have commented on the unlikely coincidence of the birth anniversary of VD Savarkar (who remained opposed to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi) on the said date. Importantly, President KR Naraynan had inaugurated the Sansadiya Gyanpeeth (Parliament Library Building) when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, though President Ramnath Kovind, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces was excluded from inauguration of War Memorial. So, from that context, the fronting by the head of the executive is in line with recent trends.
Nonetheless, petty partisanship aside, it is hoped that the new building will truly symbolise the spirit of self-reliant India or Atmanirbhar Bharat, as alluded by the Hon’ble Prime Minister.
It should represent each and every citizen without fear or favour towards any, and as Atal Bihari Vajpayee movingly said, “Indian democracy’s greatest strength is that we have always put the nation above politics”. It is time that those words of wisdom from the man of letters and constitutional dignity are remembered, as India opens a new Sansad Bhavan.
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