What Narendra Modi Is Taking From Me

In redeveloping the Indian capital, the prime minister is remaking it in his image.

Narendra Modi delivers a speech.
Money Sharma / Getty

New Delhi is more than 2,000 years old and has served as the center of multiple empires and kingdoms, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. By the 17th century, what is now known as Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughal empire. The British, who came later, sited their capital in Calcutta (now Kolkata) before eventually deciding to move it back. In 1911, King George V laid the foundation stone of a new capital to be built within Delhi—New Delhi. The city was at that point not fully equipped to accommodate India’s governing apparatus, requiring huge amounts of new infrastructure, which was ultimately designed by Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens. Finally, in 1931, New Delhi was inaugurated. Today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are seeking to impose Modi’s image on the capital architecturally as he has politically, remaking it and doing away with what came before.

“Built environments,” the academic Leslie Kern writes in Feminist City, “reflect the societies that construct them.” The Indian capital is no different. All of these Delhis, old and new, have been visible to visitors. In less than an hour, you could walk from the gardens of the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb to India Gate, which was unveiled on the eve of New Delhi’s inauguration. When I worked in Connaught Place, a shopping and business hub that was itself built during New Delhi’s 20-year gestation, I would often visit one or the other, or much else besides.

But now Modi is undertaking an ambitious plan to refashion the entirety of what we call Lutyens’ Delhi, due to be completed in 2024. The Central Vista Redevelopment Project involves revamping much of Rajpath—the main route linking the capital’s government offices—spurring the construction of new buildings and new residences for the vice president and the prime minister, and the conversion of old buildings into museums. Modi’s supporters say the plan combines heritage conservation and capacity expansion, and will lead to efficient, effective, and improved governance. The project’s chief architect has called the redevelopment a thoughtful modernization, one that respects tradition but is not “held hostage to it.”

How I wish that were all true. In fact, Modi’s government rushed the plans through, with barely any consultation. Almost overnight, the government dug up the area, blocking roads, creating diversions. The $2.8 billion budget is, at minimum, questionable, given the parlous state of the Indian economy and the livelihoods of our compatriots reeling from a brutal pandemic. The project lacks foresight about its impact on the environment, or Delhi’s horrific air pollution.

Already, my beloved Rajpath and India Gate have been cordoned off to visitors. These were spaces for people like me—loafers, gadabouts, young lovers, old couples, schoolchildren—to sit, to walk, to explore. As someone who takes pleasure and meaning in walking, the redevelopment has come to manifest as an obstacle, physical and durable, against the free movement of people. Once, I could walk the city, map its contours, and experience its landscapes. Now I am homebound again.

I first moved to Delhi in 2017, when I was 26. In my hometown of Kanpur, a smaller city some 250 miles away, I had been an inveterate walker. As a kid, I measured the length and breadth of my neighborhood on foot. I ventured to the local grocery store, friends’ houses, and my extra classes after school this way. While at university, while working, or while on vacation, I would end up walking for leisure. Walking has always represented a declaration of independence, a way of wielding some power, of exercising some agency, of forging my own identity and path, particularly in a country where being a woman has often meant being confined indoors.

So it was in Delhi. To live in the city was to walk it. I would stroll alongside white-collar commuters, daily-wage laborers, students, all of us submerged in the mundanity of our everydays. History was all around me, and everything lent itself to meaning. The tree-lined roads radiating the central vista, which converged in hexagonal nodes, gave me a sense of pride I could never quite place. The boulevards dotted with white bungalows—some pristine, others dilapidated—that had colonnaded verandas and spacious gardens made the area feel like not just a relic from a colonial past but a special part of our present too.

On summer nights, after work, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I would meander to one of the number of canteens housed in the capital’s state-representative offices, eating Goan food one night, Keralite cuisine the next, before hopping on an auto rickshaw to go to the India Gate. From there, we would walk some more, heading down Rajpath to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the nation’s president. Sitting on cement benches outside the magnificent palace, we would stare up at the inky-black sky, which stretched like an imaginary awning, sheltering us new lovebirds.

In its narrowest definition, a flaneur is simply someone who wanders. Yet it is also something much more than that. Being a flaneur allowed me to explore corners of New Delhi that I never would have thought to visit, the term’s implied lack of direction or destination leading to moments of serendipity. Being a flaneur suggests also a freedom—to roam, to go in whichever direction one chooses, unencumbered by the authorities. I learned more about Delhi in this way than I ever could have on guided tours or determined museum visits.

Before the pandemic, and the harsh lockdown that India imposed, a stroll around the India Gate’s lawns would transport me to a bygone era. The history of the place, the common heritage it represented, as well as its aesthetics and greenery, helped convert any visit to an experience.

In this, I am not alone. I know, because at these places I was always with others—fellow wayfarers. For these people, people like me, Modi’s transformation of Delhi does not simply refashion the city’s geography; it changes our emotional attachment to a place. With the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, the cultural history of Delhi, its uniqueness, and its people all stand singularly altered.

Like much of the world, successive coronavirus lockdowns beginning in the spring of 2020 cut me off from my adopted city. Unlike much of the world, I have had to bid farewell to it for good.

The Central Vista Redevelopment Project tells us a great deal about the new vision of belonging that Modi offers to India. In announcing the plans when he did, in limiting the consultation (and potential opposition), in seeking to complete these efforts in 2024—timed, perhaps too coincidentally, with India’s next general election—Modi is telling us something.

The project’s bid documents specify that India’s new parliament building will be completed in October. Earlier, officials had planned for it to be ready ahead of the country’s 75th independence day. This is not coincidental: Previous Indian governments have seen parts of the area as reminders of an era of imperialism and subjugation.

The overall target completion date is also not without symbolic value. Along with general elections, 2025 marks the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the Hindu-nationalist organization from which the BJP was birthed, and from which Modi started his political career.

These anniversaries are important because of Modi’s place in India’s political history. His poll ratings remain high, and the opposition is in disarray; he is likely to win the next election. First elected prime minister in 2014, he will by then have been in power for a decade, with no end in sight.

In that time, he will have reshaped the country like no Indian leader since Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s founding prime minister. Indeed, he is Nehruvian if in no other ways than the devotion he triggers in his followers, and in the grandness of his vision: Modi’s leadership is, to his followers, not simply political but social, moral, spiritual. His policies can be sweeping in their ambition: doing away with nearly 90 percent of the country’s currency, for example, or locking down a country with more than 1 billion people, both with mere hours’ notice.

Similarly, the Central Vista Redevelopment Project is grand in scope, a bid to redraw the democratic icon of India’s capital, in much the same way his efforts to reshape Indian politics, culture, and the country’s understanding of its history are all extensions of his personality.

Modi knows he is doing this. Delhi is a city exhibiting its multiple histories. Its transformation from the seat of various empires to the capital of a vibrant democracy point to one telling of the Indian story, of a cherished civilizational continuity. This infuses the city with the idea of India. Last year, shortly after visiting the Central Vista project site, Modi noted, “A capital is not just a city, but it is a symbol of a country’s ideas, promises, capability, and culture.”

Under the Central Vista redevelopment, Delhi’s circuitous roads, perambulatory walkways, and scenic parks as we once knew them will disappear. This represents the loss of an idea of what the capital should represent, the removal of a place that was an idler’s haven. Spaces where I have spent countless hours walking and loitering, where I learned to love this city, where I learned to live in it, will soon be gone. This feeling is worse for women: Although Delhi has rightfully earned its reputation as a place where sexual harassment is all too common, it is also a place where, as the writer Lauren Elkin put it in Flâneuse, a woman can ​“seek fame and fortune or anonymity”; where she can “liberate herself from oppression”; where she can “declare her independence.”

While pushing forward with this complete and irreversible loss, the government did not allow us time to seek comfort in what were once familiar places. What was a living, thriving destination is now barriered and hidden away from the people who populated it. When it reemerges, the new Delhi will no longer be a city for explorers, a city for flaneurs.