Narendra Modi’s long-standing desire to leave an architectural legacy

31 October, 2018

On 31 October, the birth anniversary of Vallabhbhai Patel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the “Statue of Unity”—a 182-metre tall statue of Patel, erected on the banks of the Narmada river in Gujarat—to commemorate the leader of the Indian independence movement. Built at a cost of Rs 2,989 crore, the statue is the tallest in the world, and forms part of a pattern that reveals Modi’s desire to construct monuments to his legacy.

Modi’s efforts to leave an architectural legacy trace back to his reign as chief minister of Gujarat. In this excerpt from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” Vinod K Jose’s profile of Modi in the March 2012 issue of The Caravan, he explored this long-standing aim and spoke to architects who had worked for the then Gujarat chief minister. An official, who worked with Modi on a project in Gujarat in 2007, said, “If an architect in front of him realises the stupidity of one of his suggestions, even a world-renowned designer will just be shutting up and delivering what’s asked.”

The scale of the massive architectural projects he is building in Gujarat suggests an equally grand desire to erect monuments to [Modi’s] legacy. I spoke to more than 20 top officials, architects, managers and planners involved in Modi’s construction spree, all of whom insisted on anonymity, as they continue to interact with him on a regular basis. “He can really screw me if he comes to know that I spoke with you,” one told me. “So keep me off the record.” Some of the designers and planners working under Modi are Indians returned from abroad; others come from Chinese construction companies; some are government engineers. But in Gujarat, there is only one architect, and his word always carries the day.

In the weeks prior to the 2007 Vibrant Gujarat summit, Modi decided that he wanted to showcase the plans for a massive urban renewal programme in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. The Sabarmati divides the city in half, and the proposed redevelopment will remove at least 10,000 people who live in slums on either side of the river, reclaim 500 acres of riverbed for 12 km along the shore, and build parks, promenades, markets, offices and business hubs. The riverfront redevelopment was not Modi’s idea: it was first proposed by a French architect 50 years ago, inspired by the example of great river-straddling cities like London and Paris. It had been mothballed for decades, and only moved past the drawing board in the 1990s, before being cast aside once again after the deadly earthquake that struck Gujarat in 2001, which helped drain the state’s coffers. But in the wake of the 2002 violence, Modi saw an opportunity. “The Riverfront was one of the first projects Modi embraced after the riots, as a way to show he was a pro-development man,” an official associated with the project told me.

At the time of the 2007 investment summit, the scope of the redevelopment was still not widely known, and Modi asked the project officials for a big visual depiction that could be displayed for the legions of visiting businessmen. “From the architects, we got a rendering on a huge canvas,” the project official told me. “It was 12 metres long and four metres high, and it took two dozen people to carry it.”

“On the eve of the summit,” the project official said, “Modi arrived to inspect the prototype. It wasn’t a literal model—it was like an architect’s drawing in black and white, with the river highlighted in blue. Everyone who saw it was jubilant, but Modi stood there, unsatisfied. He grumbled, and told us, ‘Your drawing looks like a barren widow. Make it colourful. Paint it.’”

“The architects were furious—they were like, ‘Does he even understand what architectural drawings are?’ But I said, ‘He’s the boss. Let’s get it done.’ That night we brought down the massive canvas, and over 40 artists worked on it, throwing up paints everywhere. By the next day, we had Modi’s barren widow dressed up like a Gujarati bride.”

“The man knows what he wants,” the project official continued. “And if an architect in front of him realises the stupidity of one of his suggestions, even a world-renowned designer will just be shutting up and delivering what’s asked.”

About 30 kilometres outside of Ahmedabad, on barren plains of dusty grassland, Modi’s most monumental construction project is taking shape: an entirely new and singularly massive financial capital—India’s own version of Shanghai, built from the ground up. Bearing the anodyne moniker Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (or “GIFT City”), the plans call for 124 skyscrapers nestled into an 886-acre plot, with more than 75 million square feet of office space, more than the financial districts of Shanghai, Tokyo and London put together. Modi’s goal is to lure the financial companies now headquartered in Mumbai to shift their operations to Gujarat by 2017. Between the capital markets, trading desks, hedge funds, software developers, and back-end operations of banks and insurance companies, India is expected to generate 11 million jobs and $425 billion in growth by 2020, and Modi’s plans for GIFT City are aimed at securing a large slice of that pie.

To build his own Shanghai, Modi has recruited his architects right from the source: the city is being designed by the East China Architectural Design and Research Institute, the designers of much of modern Shanghai. “Every bit of the drawing comes from China,” an architect who has worked on several of Modi’s projects told me. “Mr Modi trusts them—because he’s clear on what he wants, because he has been to China and is in awe of Shanghai. He wants a copy, an estate of glass boxes.”

The GIFT City project is currently in its second phase, a manager at the building site told me. The land has been leveled, and the first two towers are under construction, intended to provide some 2 million square feet of office space for computer and technology firms. “The tax incentives for the IT companies are coming to an end in 2013,” another project manager said. “So Mr Modi wants to lure the IT guys from Bangalore and Hyderabad before he builds the infrastructure for the financial companies.” When the final phase begins in 2013, more than a million workers will relocate to the site, making it the largest urbanisation project in Indian history. That’s also when most of Modi’s supersized glass boxes will go up—including the centrepiece Diamond Tower, an 80-plus story skyscraper designed to resemble the facets of a cut diamond, and the Naga Tower, so named because it resembles a coiled serpent.

“I was extremely shocked when I saw the design at one of the Vibrant Gujarat summits,” the architect continued. “It seemed to me like an awfully alien idea. I felt like it was the King asking, ‘Go and build a new kingdom for me’—and someone just executing it.”

Another architect who works for Modi put it even more dramatically: “I don’t know if I’m Albert Speer or Robert Moses. I hope it’s the latter.” Moses did more than any one man to shape the city of New York, though he rammed through a series of mega-projects that earned him the enmity of many New Yorkers. Speer, on the other hand, was Hitler’s architect.

This is an excerpt from The Caravan’s March 2012 cover story, “The Emperor Uncrowned,” by Vinod K Jose.