Column | Political fight now centres around bungalows in Lutyens' Delhi

Column | Political fight now centres around bungalows in Lutyens' Delhi
Priyanka Gandhi and Narendra Modi
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The Congress has accused the BJP of vindictiveness over the move to evict party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from the government bungalow allotted to her. The government has argued that she had been given the house in the prime Lodhi Estate area because Priyanka, her mother Sonia Gandhi and brother Rahul Gandhi were given security cover by the Special Protection Group, being family members of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Since their SPG protection has been downgraded to Z-plus category, the need to house Priyanka and her family in a government-protected house has ended, it reasoned.

Priyanka herself has cleared the arrears and is getting ready to shift either to her family farmhouse in Delhi's Mehrauli area or to the bungalow of her grandaunt Sheila Kaul in Lucknow. She is the Congress general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh and also nurses her mother's Lok Sabha constituency Rae Bareily and her brother Rahul's former constituency Amethi, both being at easy driving distance from Lucknow.

However, both Sonia and Rahul retain their bungalows as Lok Sabha members. In Sonia's case there are two other qualifications: as the spouse of a former prime minister she is entitled to a government house, and also as the president of a national party. The Congress has raised questions why veteran BJP leaders like L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have been allowed to retain their bungalows even though they ceased to be Lok Sabha members in May 2019.

But the government has clarified that Advani as former deputy prime minister can retain the bungalow during his lifetime, while Joshi who is undergoing kidney treatment has been allowed the bungalow for another year. Only other non-MP or non- government official who is allowed to retain a bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi is former Youth Congress president and current president of the All-India Anti-Terrorism Front, M S Bitta, as there have been half-a-dozen assassination attempts against him.

Earlier politicians and officials who had been involved in the affairs of the then terror-hit Punjab were allotted bungalows for their lifetime. Prominent such beneficiaries included former governor and union minister Arjun Singh and former Punjab DGP K P S Gill, both now deceased.

The BJP has for long accused the Gandhi Family of 'bungalow culture' saying that the family members and organisations controlled by them had hold over more than 100 acres of prime land, allotted by the government. Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has been trying the political and judicial route to reclaim the buildings assigned to the organisations controlled by the Gandhis.

The Urban Development Ministry which handles the bungalow zone in the national capital has been under pressure to reclaim such properties. But the Congress argues that except the bungalows granted for residential purpose, all other bungalows have been provided for public use - the three bungalows provided to Congress were given because it was a national party, which is a privilege enjoyed by the BJP as well as other national and regional parties. Two adjacent bungalows on Akbar Road are occupied by the Congress and the Congress Seva Dal, while a third bungalow near the Parliament House is with the Youth Congress. There is litigation over the eviction notices.

Interestingly, the BJP too has not vacated the bungalow on Ashoka Road, even though it is now functioning from its swanky headquarters opened in early 2018. The party intends to use the bungalow, considered to be very lucky during its growing years, as a study centre dedicated to former prime minister and its founding president Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sonia has been divested of control over both the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, for which three bungalows with sprawling lawns were allotted by the Rajiv Gandhi government, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library which has come up in the Teen Murti Bhavan, the official residence of the first prime minister. The current IGNCA chairman and member secretary are active supporters of the Sangh Parivar, while the latter Nehru memorial has government nominees as directors, since Narendra Modi came to power. Following BJP president JP Nadda's recent charge that the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, set up on land allotted to the Congress, has received donations from China, there have been demands in the BJP to cancel the award and reclaim the Jawahar Bhavan, controlled by Priyanka.

The Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust runs the memorial for India's second-longest-reigning prime minister in two adjacent bungalows which had served as her residence and office on Safdarjung and Akbar roads. She was assassinated while walking from the residence to the home office, and the memorial which houses the memorabilia of both Indira and her son Rajiv, who was also assassinated, has high footfall. Sonia is the chairperson of the trust which does not depend on any grant from the government. She is also the chairperson of the Nehru Memorial Trust which functions from a building within the Teen Murti Bhavan, and there are court proceedings to evict the trust which popularises the works of Jawaharlal Nehru.

The decision of the Urban Development Ministry to take back possession of the National Herald building, just outside Lutyens' Delhi is being challenged before the Supreme Court. The ministry has accused the newspaper, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, of violating the rules of property allotment. The newspaper which was in dire financial trouble was earlier rescued by a loan from the Congress, but a few of its leaders, including Sonia and Rahul, are facing prosecution for violating financial laws in this regard after a complaint by Subramanian Swamy. The previous BJP government in Maharashtra and the one in Haryana had also cancelled allocation of plots to National Herald in Mumbai and Panchkula, and this too is under litigation.

By using the powers of the central government, the BJP aims to shrink the space the Congress leadership enjoyed in the capital, being the ruling party for over 55 years. The Congress with its battery of high-profile lawyers is resisting the moves.

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