Column | India weary of gifting parliament buildings as Taliban roam Afghanistan's streets

Afghan Parliament house
An Afghan Air Force's helicopter rovers near the Afghan Parliament house in Kabul on August 2, 2021. Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP

The sight of gun-toting Taliban fighters roaming inside the parliament house in Kabul generated disquiet in Indian government circles as the home of Afghanistan's democracy was built by the Central government and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani five years ago.

The gift had been sanctioned by Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh in 2005 to symbolise the rebirth of the western neighbour after decades of foreign occupation and civil war. Originally, India's Central Public Works Department planned to use the famous Samangan marble of Afghanistan, but quarrying was difficult due to security challenges and modern building materials were used for the Rs 1,300 crore Afghan Parliament complex.

The National Assembly or the Afghan Parliament had been a live hub of discussions in the short period it was in use. Unlike other Indian investments in dams, roads, electricity grids, which are into everyday use, there is now either the certainty of Taliban's unilateral rule or the uncertainty of a civil war, both of which would make a functional parliament redundant. There were questions whether the Indian faith and investment in Afghan democracy was misplaced. But the supporters of the gift argued that the intentions had been fulfilled as a whole generation of Afghans would remember the Indian contribution, and when the wheel turns again in the strife-torn country, the goodwill would get paid with good relations.

Similar unsavoury experiences

But gifting parliament buildings has not been a happy experience for Indian diplomacy. India gave a grant for building the new parliament building in Ghana which was accepted by the ex-British colony, whose first President Kwame Nkruma was a strong supporter of India in the Non-Aligned Movement. Built by a Bombay-based construction company, the new edifice in the sprawling compound of the capital Accra's Flagstaff House, where the British Resident lived, the twin tower building with a big legislative chamber and huge lobbies was officially called Jubilee House. But because of its conical towers, it came to be known as the Drum House. But superstition that the building was inauspicious for parliamentarians and the predatory eye of a new president caused parliament to be relocated and Jubilee House became the President's office and residence.

Within India's Madhya Pradesh, when some legislators died in quick succession, there was demand that the new legislative assembly (Vidhan Sabha) building in Bhopal was cursed and was haunted. But Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who has had a long tenure, insisted that there was nothing wrong in the building, known as Vidhan Bhavan, though successive assembly speakers have done purification rituals.

Latest commitments

Though there was disappointment in the government over the decision of Ghana to abandon the new parliament building, New Delhi maintained that it respected the sovereign decisions of foreign governments, as the building remained in use, that too by the president of the West African country. But the Ghana experience dimmed the enthusiasm among diplomats to gift parliament buildings, though India is fulfilling its commitments of a building gift to the Kingdom of Eswatini (earlier known as swaziland) and a construction loan to Gambia, also in Africa, for its parliament house in the capital Banjul.

Diplomatic convention

But in international diplomacy, richer nations gifting a parliament house to a weaker country where democracy is young and weak is widespread, especially in Africa and to an extent in Asia. It is an irony that China, which has a single-party autocracy, has contributed generously funds for construction of parliament buildings in 18 countries, including Nepal which is a neighbour of both India and China.

The lone contribution of Pakistan in parliamentary architecture is the gift to the Maldives with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif present at the inauguration of the Maldivian parliament house known as the People's Majlis or Rayyithunge Majilis.

As Jamaica, a Caribbean island nation does not have enough funds for its parliament building, rich Jamaicans settled in the United States and Europe are now contributing for its construction. (Currently, the Parliament of Jamaica meets at the 1960-built Gordon House in Kingston.) A French company which dominates the economy of Gabon donated the parliament building to the African country. The United Arab Emirates combined with Australia to fund the building of parliament house in Granada, another Caribbean island. Even North Korea, which is a total dictatorship, gave a grant for the Parliament of Burundi.

India too to get a new one

Many countries which had a colonial past have continued with the magnificent buildings of the colonisers. After seven decades of using a British-built edifice, India will have a new parliament house in two years time. The present circular Parliament House is set to be made into a Museum of Democracy. However in Sri Lanka, there is controversy on the plans of the government to lease the old parliament house, along with neighbouring buildings, in Colombo's commercial area to a Chinese company. Sri Lanka had built a new capital complex including a parliament house in Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, an island outside Colombo.

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