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Uncomfortable question: Is it a house of Narendra Modi or Prime Ministerial house?

Prime Ministerial House at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg as of today
By Mansee Bal Bhargava*
Why are the media and masses misguided about the Prime Minister’s House in the Rajpath as current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s House? For example, Geeta Pandey in bbc.com writes, ‘Central Vista: Does Indian PM Narendra Modi really need a new house?’ Another interesting example is when Sunil Prabhu and Deepshikha Ghosh write, ‘Government Sets Deadline For New PM House Amid Covid Crisis’. This almost sounds like a New PM, as many too may like this to happen soon.
Calling the PM House to be Narendra Modi’s House is a plain media misrepresentation, which is unnecessarily triggering emotions among the masses during the Covid massacre going around pan India. Let media be more responsibly using the words and avoid using such unlawful and unnecessary information, as it is also misleading the mindset of the current government, especially Modi.
It is indeed a bit weird to imagine that a New House for the PM is under construction as part of the Central Vista project and weirder is when the deadline for the completion of the project as December 2022 was set forth by the current PM right in the middle of the rise of the second Covid wave.
Interestingly, what that House will look like, will have and will cater to is not yet available in the public domain, except a few basics like its green clearance and its position in the Central Vista Project Plan. Despite this there is a hue and cry about the House because of the way it is being projected by the media, especially after the entire project being designated as essential good amidst the rising Corona crisis and city lockdown in Delhi.
Let us assume that there are valid reasons to build a New Prime Ministerial House, as the current space is insufficient, the current building is in bad condition like leaking plumbing-drainage, termites in the interiors, or even that the buildings’ life expectancy is over.
The latter two reasons seem genuine and have equally sensible and sensitive approach to deal with through heritage conservation and restoration with building retrofitting. Since, the British made buildings and those buildings in the developed countries, including that of our coloniser Britain, have the regulations of bringing down a building once its designated life is over and go for a redevelopment.
Considering this, may be the new House of the PM is under construction as a work in advance. However, since the reason for constructing a new House for PM is unclear in the public domain, the press and the politics is getting uglier than it should and is ending up with increasing ire among the masses due to the Covid misgovernance. Besides, the speculation and actions of uprooting of Delhi’s building heritage and the country’s social-cultural-political heritage by the current government is making the matter worse.

The former reason is often put up in defence of the decision to propose a New Prime Ministerial House as it poses a larger question of whether the ministers deserve and need government-aided luxuries like the residency in a democratic set-up, like those during the British-Moghul times and the Kingdoms.

The old Prime Ministerial house

It is difficult to accept that the current space is insufficient for a Prime Ministerial House in the larger purview of whether any minister deserves and needs government-aided luxuries like the residency in a democratic set-up.
The Prime Ministerial House in current state is a 12-acre complex on the 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (formerly known as the Race Course Road). It is part of the schema of the grand old Rajpath nested in the Lutyens Delhi and nearly three kilometres from the Presidential Palace and the Parliament buildings.
The bungalows of the complex were designed by Robert Tor Russell, who was the part of British architect Edwin Lutyen’s team, when he was designing the New Delhi in the 1920-1930s. The entire Lok Kalyan Marg is designated to the Prime Ministerial House, and therefore is subject to various aspects of high security as per the guidelines of the protection of the PM.
The Prime Ministerial House is an office-cum-residence arrangement, and rightfully, so given the state of urbanisation. Rajiv Gandhi was the first PM to stay at Lok Kalyan Marg in 1984 and later PM Vishwanath Pratap Singh permanently converted the complex as the PM’s residence in 1989-90. Before that, the Prime Ministers lived at the other bungalows allotted to them as MPs.
The 7 Lok Kalyan Marg is currently a complex of five residential bungalows (numbered 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9) on the lane. It includes the PM's residential quarter (5), accommodation for guests (3), offices, meeting rooms, a theatre, a Special Protection Group (SPG) security establishment (9), a tennis court and a helipad since 2003 (1). It also includes an underground tunnel connecting the complex to the Safdarjung airport completed in 2010 and used first time by Modi in 2014.
The complex has sprawling landscape with variety of trees, including gulmohar, semal and arjuna trees, and the road itself is lined with putranjiva trees which is a home to several birds, including the famous peacock that Modi has promoted. The ageold landscape echoes and merges with the heritage landscape of the Lutyens Delhi.
An important factor here is that the Prime Ministerial House is not a house per se, but an institution where a person in the position of the PM is invited to reside to be able live comfortably to engage effectively-efficiently in the institution’s desired tasks and goals. 
This is like any company accommodation, or we have in the academics when we travel to other universities as visiting scholars that one is provided with the campus facilities to focus on the job of invitation. It reminds me of my last residency as visiting professor at the beautiful campus of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto.
So, an uncomfortable question is, if the Prime Ministerial House is a public institution, why is the media and the ministers from all kinds projecting it has Modi’s house? As to me, the PM is Modi but PM is not equal to Modi and Modi is not PM for ever. First, the PM House is not Modi’s house. Because the current PM is Modi, but PM is not equal to Modi. A PM is represented by a person in the position but in practicality and legality, it is a person in the position with a set of institutions and rules and regulations.
By any means thus a PM House is not Modi’s house, so the press and politicians should stop howling over the matter to rage people’s angst in these difficult times of Covid and several other problems, the key being the rising unemployment and slowing economy. Because by doing this, we are reinstating the notion of fascism not only in the minds of the ruler but also the ruled. By all means, an individual is not a PM for ever, even in the rise of fascism.
Secondly, since the project was under discussion before 2014 also, giving a bit of benefit of doubt to the current government, it may be just a matter of situation that the project process is expedited now for various reasons known to the country very well, one being the reign over Delhi. 
What is interesting and ironic is that, as opposed to the Delhi Master Plan 2021 proposal that called for a decentralised government offices in the NCR region, whereby no new Central government or Public Sector Undertaking offices to be located in the inner Delhi, the assertion of the power houses at one place through the Central Vista Project has not gone down the throat of the masses, the ministers of the other parties and the media in these difficult Covid times.
Interestingly, Nehru too had a similar urge for a second PM house which should be modern building planned by Gujarat architect, Mansinh Rana, but the project did not take off. Another observation is the absence of walls keeping a transparency between the bungalows and the public realms through the green landscape. Now just imagine those high (fort like) opaque walls in the residencies of the ministers with number of security guards at the gate apart from cordoning off the ministers’ residencies and offices as high security areas.

Do our ministers deserve and need that residency?

The ire of the New Prime Ministerial House brings a great opportunity to open this discussion regarding need/use of the residencies for all the ministers, the governors as well as the President of India. The right question thus to be asked by the masses, and especially the media, is, why a minister be provided House and also why do they need a big house?
Why ministers need so much of perks, including security from A to Z, and a caravan of cars going with them? Why/what security? Security from whom? Why do the ministers overnight need so much of security from its own citizens who elected them and who are going to serve? Why are they scared of the citizens who voted them to power?
Similar question arises pertaining to the misuse of the government resources in the electioneering as that seem to be unlawful and unethical in a democracy. Ironically, the government resources used in the residencies, rallies and securities are bizarrely huge and divisive.
The perks to the ministers do not end at the residencies instead it goes way too far into securing their lifetime, including providing land parcels, etc. Yes, there can be some facilities, including residencies for a dignified life, as they serve the country, but then who is not serving the country to deserve that?
We need to ask some pertinent questions and raise a debate to amend the perks of the ministers, governors and even president and prime ministers, since they must present themselves and be treated as ordinary citizens with extraordinary responsibilities. Period! Else, this race to power and perks seems destroyer of the democracy.
Just to remind that all that was built in the Lutyens Delhi was part of the colonial rule, and we need not go that route of building a ruled Central administration after 75 years of Independence. The irony is that current PM wants to celebrate the 75th year of Independence with the New Prime Ministerial House! How far can we go in this obsession to rule Delhi? At this moment it pretty much looks like that the Central government is aiming to conquer state government.
Many of the developed countries’ heads of state just live and work as ordinary citizens. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lives in modest conditions. To add to it, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lives at her family home and goes to work by herself and not a caravan of automobiles.
I even recall, that during my PhD at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Dutch PM Mark Rutte cycled to the campus to attend a conference on Climate Change and was even humbly apologetic for 10 minutes delay in his arrival.
While the house of the Indian PM occupies an entire street, at our colonizer’s Britain, the 10 Downing Street, is just a door with a number that defines the PM house. Are we going to see such leaders in our country by living, lifestyle, etiquettes, etc.? I’m daydreaming!
I know, it may sound naïve, but I do wish the PM (and the President) of India to live like an ordinary citizen of the country, if not like Jose Mujica, the president of Uruguay, who lives on a ramshackle farm and gives away most of his pay to charity. The president and his wife work the land themselves, growing flowers.
There are several of our ministers too living with dignity with minimum facilities and serving the position and have not been threatened for their lives to acquire A-Z security. A minister who stands tall in this is Manik Sarkar, who served as the Chief Minister of Tripura for good 20 years from 1998 to 2018. The Chief Minister of West Bengal also lives in her house in Kalighat and expressed unwillingness to move to Chief Ministerial House; just like the Delhi Chief Minister had initially expressed reluctance to move from his own house.

Ask righter questions

Agree, everyone cannot be like the noble Manik Sarkar, but the media and masses must ask right questions to keep the ministers’ residencies to limit the needs and curb the luxuries. First, on journalism. In India, since we often use phonetic English in conversation and also translate those in the write ups, journalism becomes tricky.
When journalists frame words (knowingly or ignorantly) they do have in mind the notion of capturing the eyeballs-ears-minds-hearts with the whole idea of triggering masses’ imaginations. In this process, journalism is compromised and has adverse impact on society. Journalism has to pose right questions and put these forth to the masses.
Secondly, on the matter of PM House. The right questions to ask are: Why do ministers require mansions to live while in position? Were they homeless before holding the position? Yes, they need a decent workplace and if relocating they need a residency and if both can be integrated, it is most efficient and sustainable practice. For example, as Reshmi Dasgupta argues, the spacious Teen Murti House, if it had not been turned into a memorial to Nehru, it could well have been developed into the perfect office-cum-residence for the PM.
Why do government buildings, in this Digital India, when most business happens online, need to be there anyway? Why should the PM, whose every movement required security and a shutdown of traffic, live there when the inner Delhi is already high density? Importantly, why would the government not follow the Proposed Development Plan of Delhi and why not shift the government out of Central Delhi altogether?
Why did the Central government overrule the Proposed Development Plan of Delhi and went on with destruction of a near century-old heritage buildings and landscape? What will happen to the priceless, often fragile, centuries treasures lying in those many heritage buildings while the demolition and reconstruction ongoing? 
Why would a Central government be indifferent to and ignorant to any history before their own election, knowing that they will be history sometime soon? With this New Central Vista, is India entering a new internal colonisation by a radical ideology?
Thirdly, similar questions are pertinent to raise regarding all the ministers and governors’ residencies as well as even the President of India. Britishers are no more here, and we have to thoughtfully come out of that royal colonial culture for the public servants. One of the ways to do so, is to convert the colonial buildings into Museum.
I’d definitely advocate converting the Presidential Palace into National Museum and National Archives. Yes, ministers, governors, the President and the PM must be given dignified residencies, but these should be first placed among the neighbourhoods of the masses, and then may have extra facilities to ensure their effective functioning as leaders.
We cannot destroy our built heritage, and the cultural and environmental eco-system, for the offices that can happen in any building and digitally now. It takes few ruthless men to demolish and uproot things, but it will take generations of human empathy and engagement to make something meaningful.
The media and masses have to ask this great loss and how the government plans to compensate the history of Old India at the helm of making the New India? Let them and we keep in mind that they are the government servants to serve the masses, who appointed them to do so; and not the kings (ironically too many men in positions)/royals, who conquered the masses and the preceding government.
---
*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, water enthusiast, governance scholar, keen political observer. Click here for more about Mansee

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