Narendra Modi and a 14th-century Delhi Sultan: A Study in Megalomania

Vinay Lal

The 14th-century Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, was by all accounts a stern, puritanical, and yet generous ruler, characterized above all by capriciousness and a brutal exercise of power.  Perhaps the most reliable and certainly one of the most detailed narratives of his rule comes from the hand of ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveler who spent six years at the Sultan’s court.  Ibn Batuta observes at the outset that “this king is of all men the most addicted to the making of gifts and the shedding of blood.”  Over the next thirty pages, ibn Batuta details the gifts that the Sultan showered upon nobles but especially foreigners, following it up with gruesome accounts of the punishments he meted out to those who dared so much as to disagree with him.

An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”)
drawn by Léon Benett. IbnBatuta is shown with his guide in Egypt. Source:  http://www.artfinder.com/work/ibn-battuta-in-egypt-hippolyte-leon-benett/

It is, however, ibn Batuta’s account of the devastation that Tughluq wrought upon Delhi, then and now a capital city, that is utterly riveting.  Its citizens, agitated by the Sultan’s bloodthirsty ways, “used to write missives reviling and insulting him,” and one day he decided by way of retaliation to lay the entire city to waste.  He issued an edict commanding all of Delhi’s residents to abandon their city and make their way to Daulatabad, a thousand miles to the south, where the Sultan proposed to set up a new capital.  Ibn Batuta writes that he dispersed his slaves throughout Delhi to ensure that everyone had complied with his order.  They dragged into the streets two men who had gone into hiding, “one of them a cripple and the other blind.”  The cripple was flung from a mangonel, and the blind man was dragged from Delhi to Daulatabad, “a distance of forty days’ journey.” Pieces of the blind man fell along the way; at journey’s end, “all of him that reached Daulatabad was his leg.” Meanwhile, in Delhi, the Sultan reportedly looked out upon the city from the roof of his palace, and seeing “neither fire nor smoke nor lamp”, exclaimed: “Now my mind is tranquil and my feelings are appeased.”  Two years later, as if in palpable demonstration of the dictum that under despotism the life, limb, and liberty of no one barring the despot is secure, Tughluq ordered everyone in Daulatabad to march back to Delhi.

Muhammad Tughluq orders his copper coins to pass for silver: caption (slightly modified) and picture from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations (no date, published in London), sourced here: https://archive.org/details/hutchinsonsstory00londuoft [p. 171]

Present-day India has its own Muhammad Tughluq.  His name is Narendra Modi. The Indian Prime Minister is known for being obsessive about power.  He runs the country like his personal fiefdom and brooks no dissent.  His management of the coronavirus pandemic is now recognized all over the world—and even among a few in the BJP, though few dare to say as much in public—as a catastrophic dereliction of duty.  He has been disdainful of scientific expertise and there is increasing indeed overwhelming experience that warnings of the deadly second wave which has left the country reeling, the object of pity and concern everywhere in the world, were ignored by him and his ministers.  India has recorded nearly 4000 deaths for several days running and, as this is being published, the virus is making deep inroads into towns and villages.  Yet, earlier this year, Modi triumphantly announced that India had not only conquered the virus, but had quite evidently set an example for the rest of the world.

Much else binds Narendra Modi to Muhammad Tughluq.  The two rulers’ ill-begotten experiments with money come to mind.  The Sultan, always in need of revenue, had heard of the invention of paper money in China and thought he would do the same in his domains with copper.  As related by Elias Canetti in his startlingly original Crowds and Power, he had “a large number of copper coins struck, arbitrarily fixed their value at that of silver coins and ordered them to be used instead of gold and silver.”  Every house became a mint; before too long, the value of the new money fell, copper coins were worth no more than pebbles, and “the shortage of money became acute.” Modi had a similar brainwave:  in a bid to free the country of the scourge of black money, he announced to a stunned country, on the evening of 8 November 2016, that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would immediately cease to become legal tender and could be exchanged for new banknotes.  His demonetization scheme plunged the country into chaos, creating an acute shortage of banknotes and depriving tens of millions of the poor who are dependent on a cash economy of their livelihood.  By the admission of the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s own central bank, demonetization was a colossal failure:  99.3% of the demonetized notes were returned to the banking system, showing that black money had not been removed from the economy.

Coins from the reign, 1325-1351, of Muhammad III ibn Tughluq. Top: Gold Tanka. Weight: 10.87 gm., Diameter: 22 mm., Die axis: 9 o’clock. Legend, in the name of the Abassid Caliph al-Mustakfi /Legend, including mint name Delhi. Bottom: Copper Tanka, struck to look like a silver coin and set at the same value. Weight: 9.33 gm., Diameter: 22 mm., Die axis: 10 o’clock. The mint name Tughluqpur ‘urf Tirhut is in the margin.

However, to divine the precise similarity between the Muslim Sultan Muhammad Tughluq and Modi, who seeks to turn the Republic of India into a Hindu Rashtra (Nation), we have to turn to Modi’s grand project of reshaping Delhi into an imperial capital.  Where Tughluq sought to punish the recalcitrant citizens of Delhi by evacuating the city, Modi seeks to punish the citizens of Delhi by imposing upon them a new project billed as the “Central Vista”.  At the heart of the project, which seeks to place in Delhi a new ensemble of government offices and a central secretariat, is a grand Parliament.  The project was approved in 2019 and construction commenced in January 2021.  Modi has justified the new initiative on the grounds that the 100-year old complex, particularly the Indian Parliament, is inadequate for modern times.

Central Vista Project, New Delhi: the projected addition of new imperial complex constituting the Indian Parliament and a vast block of administrative offices

The “Central Vista” project met with resounding criticism.  Many question whether there is any need for such a project, more particularly since the Indian economy is in shambles, and India more than any other major country has been economically ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.  India’s economy contracted by 9.6 percent in 2020.  The project’s estimated cost is, conservatively speaking, Rs 20,000 crore, a huge sum of money for a country whose health infrastructure has collapsed and is unable to meet the needs of 90 percent of India’s population.  Others have also objected on the grounds that the new project would severely disrupt the architectural harmony of the imperial complex that was designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker to project British power. 

Panoramic view of the Capitol Complex, New Delhi, undated photograph by A Savin. Source: https://worldarchitecture.org/article-links/eehmv/new-delhi-capitol-complex-from-edwin-lutyens-herbert-baker-on-to-bimal-patel.html
Undated photograph of the new imperial complex representing the glory of British power in India, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker.

Modi, much like the Sultans of Delhi, the Mughal Emperors, and the British, has sought to place his stamp upon India by leaving behind a grand architectural legacy in Delhi—even if it means sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Indians.  In Delhi, the funeral pyres have been burning twenty-four hours a day; the shortage of ventilators, ambulances, hospital beds, medicine, PPE, and increasingly medical personnel is well-documented; thousands are gasping for air, with oxygen in acute supply; and the death-toll has been horrifying.  The city is yet again under protracted lockdown.  And yet, in the midst of what the established English newspaper The Guardian called “India’s descent into Covid hell”, the work on the Central Vista Project continues, day and night—if only because the workers have been, by the imperial fiat of Narendra Modi, deemed to be rendering “essential” service.  Can there be any greater mockery of human lives than to offer them as a sacrifice to nurse the ego of a man who fancies himself the ‘Supreme Leader’?

Workers at the Central Vista project site. The Economic Times from where the photograph is sourced had this headline on 7 May 2021: “SC refuses to entertain plea for hearing on PIL for halting construction in Central Vista project.


First published under the same title at ABP Live, here.

Translated into Hindi as नरेंद्र मोदी और 14वीं सदी की दिल्ली का सुल्तानः अहंकार और भ्रम के शिकार and available at ABP’s Hindi website, here.

Translated into Bengali as ব্লগ : নরেন্দ্র মোদি ও দিল্লির চতুর্দশ শতকের সুলতান : ক্ষমতা দম্ভের বিবরণ and available at ABP’s Bengali website, here.

Translated into Tamil as நரேந்திர மோடியும், 14-ஆம் நூற்றாண்டு டெல்லி சுல்தானும்.. மேலாதிக்கம் ஒரு ஆய்வு – வினய்லால் and available on the ABP Tamil website, here.

7 thoughts on “Narendra Modi and a 14th-century Delhi Sultan: A Study in Megalomania

  1. Hello,professor. Indeed, Central Vista Redevelopment Project is a unreasonable engineering project when India have serious situation about COVID-19 in recent time. Modi has been criticized by a lot of people and the most public and opposition politician insist that India ought to built more hospital rather than this unbefitting project for COVID-19 in India. At the same time, opposition has become fiercer recently, with politicians attacking the plan as a “vanity” project. However, Modi believes the renovation is necessary because the parliament building is now 100 years old and unfit for further use. “The construction of the Houses of Parliament, representing the minds of the Indian people, is one of the most important milestones in our democratic tradition.” This subject of Modi express a ramstam idea of him. In the special time, Modi government should pay more attention to COVID-19 because in the past few days, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people a day in India. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) weekly outbreak report, India accounted for a quarter of all novel coronavirus deaths worldwide in the past week. Many international media outlets have also blamed the damaging effects of the second wave on the Modi government, whose plans to boost India’s image abroad through the production of vaccines have been dealt a serious blow.

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  2. Hello Professor,
    India currently lives in a democracy in the 21st century, but Modi’s action is as if he were implementing Muhammad Tughluq’s despotic monarchy. India’s democratic index has reached a high global level, but after reading your article, I realized more clearly that the democracy index is just an indicator. Many Indians seem to be suffering under the current Prime Minister of India, Modi. An even more unfortunate reality is that India has now had nearly 4,000 deaths in the past few days due to the coronavirus, which stems from India’s Prime Minister Modi’s misjudgment. Besides, I was astonished by Modi’s plan to reshape Delhi into an imperial capital amid this serious situation in India. As the professor mentioned above, the “Central Vista” project requires a huge budget. India, however, is one of the world’s deadliest countries due to Covid and lacks medical infrastructure and budget to treat people. India’s Prime Minister Modi is now struggling to show off his authority at the expense of tens of thousands of Indians. In reality, the Indian government should stop projects such as “Central Vista” that threaten the lives of Indians. New projects must be implemented to invest in healthcare infrastructure and protect the lives of Indians. Modi’s policies are being authoritative and to be exploitative as same as British India had exploited Indians in the past.

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  3. This was a very informative post and it grants much information about past and presents India. It feels like leaders did not really learn how to allocate their power to improve the condition of their citizens. Moreover, the new projects that are purposed like the Central Vista Redevelopment Project are not urgent cases that politicians should look into. The urgency to fight the pandemic and save lived should be on top of any proposed plan if there is such a plan to be discussed. Many countries that lack a healthcare system do acknowledge their struggle during the Covid-19 pandemic, and India as such should consider limiting the deaths of 4000 people that are entering the poor sides of the country. I strongly believe that better access to healthcare should be the first on every discussion list, if not the only one to be improved immediately.

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  4. Hello Professor,

    One of my favorite things about studying history is seeing history repeat itself (yes, I know this is a massive cliché). I cannot help but wonder, however, the reasons for why the Central Vista project has been allowed to continue in Delhi today. Despite Modi’s despotism–which is apparent even as a complete outsider to Indian politics outside of your blog posts and internet memes–am I correct in saying that he does not have the punitive power as a leader like Muhammad Tughluq, for example? I know that going against leaders, especially ones with dangerously cult-like followings, is difficult, but it surprises me that there has not been more legitimate pushback against the abject mismanagement of government resources in the middle of a country-wide emergency. Some things in history make sense when they are repeated. I understand why a Modi, or even a Trump, was elected. Sacrificing people to build a temple, however, is a tradition that ought to be left in the past.

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  5. My first thought was “wow, this did not age well, it only got even worse” due to the awful COVID situation in India right now. And I always knew this, but history really does repeat itself. Pictures of Trump and Modi together on the Punjabi news always made me laugh too.. Part of me feels like the political landscape is currently perfect for him to enforce these policies. From an outsider view, it seems like Hindu nationalism has been on the rise in India (they seem supportive of Modi? Please correct me if I’m wrong!), COVID is awful, among a number of many other things. Oh and the exploitive nature of Central Vista (wow I knew nothing about this, sometimes I forget there’s a whole world outside of America) – it’s all a recipe for disaster. He’s got interesting priorities, that’s for sure.

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  6. Throughout the article, it seemed as though the similarities between Muhammad Tughluq and Narendra Modi would not end. Government officials that seem to be battling themselves to see how quickly they can bring their own people to ruins is truly astonishing to see. Of course, this phrasing is very loose-ended, and they are not dictators actively committing genocide against their own people, but seeing rulers make non impactful plans when their country clearly needs a different form of aid, it seems much more like neglect of the country. At this time, India is not in need of “Central Vista” plan, and the citizens are right to criticize it. What’s needed from the government is leadership and control, there’s an oxygen crisis, and COVID rates have been spiking back up again, yet instead of paying attention to the people, the layout of the city seems a big concern. In cases like these, it becomes worrisome, as COVID seems to be slowly becoming more of a “third-world issue” as certain first-world countries begin to use vaccines and their access to treatment as a means to end everything.

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  7. The Modi government is despicable, to say the least, and your article is very revealing about the attitude that the BJP government has toward the whole of India. All democratic institutions of India it seems have become compromised by the BJP party by bribing or threatening any obstacles, leading to a government that virtually has no opposition- the ‘opposition’ of the congress party is laughable. The government really has devolved into a despotism where no one’s property and life is safe except those who are in favor of the BJP. There is also an absolute disdain for the academic institutions, as was evidenced by the police brutality at the Jamia Islamia college. All in all things don’t look too bright for India but there is a glimmer of hope. The recent loss of the BJP part in Bengal I’m hoping is a trend that continues, so that India can be finally free from the clutches of this ineffectual and and quite, frankly, bigoted government.

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