With just a year to go for the 2024 general elections, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a new Parliament complex last week in New Delhi, asserting that it is a symbol of a “new India” and how it will fulfill the aspirations of its “youth and women.”
Less than a kilometer away at Jantar Mantar, a designated site for protest in the Indian capital, young women wrestlers who have been camping on the road for over a month in quest of justice, were brutally dragged and manhandled by the Delhi Police.
Inside, basking in the pomp and pageantry of the inauguration of the new Parliament building, along with Modi and other parliamentarians, was Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Singh, the man accused by the Olympic medal-winning wrestlers of sexual harassment. He is a member of the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This was not the only travesty on the august occasion. In a grave violation of constitutional norms, Modi inaugurated the Parliament himself. In a parliamentary democracy, the Head of the State i.e., the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, should have inaugurated it. Neither the president nor Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar, who is chairman of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, was even invited to the inauguration.
Slamming the Modi-led government’s “grave insult” to the president and the “direct assault on our democracy,” 21 opposition parties, including the Congress Party, boycotted the event. In a joint statement – a rare thing for India’s divided opposition — they stated: “When the soul of democracy has been sucked out from the Parliament, we find no value in a new building.”
In addition to undermining constitutional propriety, the inauguration rejected the fundamental principle of the Indian state, namely it being a secular republic. The inauguration ceremony was a Hindu religious “puja” (worship ritual) conducted by saffron-robed Hindu priests and religious seers chanting Sanskrit “mantras“ (religious chants). Modi prostrated himself in the manner of a devout Hindu, ignoring the secular credentials of his high office.
India is a multi-religious, multi-sectarian country with no place for religion in governance. Since it came to power in May 2014, the Hindu nationalist BJP has made it abundantly clear that Hindu majoritarianism would be the norm under its rule. Last Sunday’s religious ceremonies further underscored the aim of the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella grouping of allied organizations including the BJP, of creating a “Hindu rashtra” (Hindu nation).
The lead story on page one of The Telegraph, a leading English daily from Kolkata, a day after the inauguration was aptly titled “2023 BC.” It was a reference to the archaic rituals on display at the inaugural.
Harking back to the traditions of ancient Chola kings of south India, Modi first worshipped and then installed a golden scepter or holy “sengol” next to the Lok Sabha Speaker’s seat.
The sengol, Modi said in his address to Parliament, was a symbol of duty, service and nationhood and it was being restored to its “rightful dignity.” The government went to great lengths to claim that the scepter was gifted to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by a holy sect from Tamil Nadu, indicating the transfer of power but that it was subsequently forgotten. Political analysts argue that the sengol controversy was generated to belittle the Congress and Nehru.
The sengol was a pivotal part of the inauguration ceremony and political analysts insist it was a political stunt by the BJP that was aimed at impressing Tamil voters. Significantly, the BJP is still recovering from its humiliating election defeat in another southern state, Karnataka.
The day of the inauguration was chosen to coincide with the birth anniversary of the Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar — a controversial figure eulogized by the BJP but reviled by the opposition.
Built at a mammoth cost of $117 million and located just in front of the grand circular old Parliament dating back to British times, the hexagonal structured new building was completed in a record time of three years.
Opposition members accused the government of opacity on the project; right from the approval of the plan to its execution, there was neither transparency nor consultations.
Back in 2021, during the deadly second COVID wave, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had charged the Modi government with wasting money on the new Parliament and the Central Vista instead of focusing on saving lives. The “prime minister’s ego is bigger than people’s lives,” he said.
The Congress described the new Parliament building as Modi’s “personal vanity project.” The inauguration was a “one-man show,” Gandhi tweeted. The “coronation is over. The arrogant king is now crushing the people’s voice on the street,” he said referring to the violent action against the protesting wrestlers the same day.
Opposition parties have repeatedly questioned Modi’s hollow claims of India being the “mother of democracy,” even as his government continues to silence their voices in Parliament by disqualifying MPs, switching off microphones, and suspending non-BJP parliamentarians.
When I started reporting from Parliament as a journalist, the sloganeering, shouting, and frequent walkouts by MPs — all seemed inexplicable to me. However, I soon realized that these are conventional parliamentary tools used by opposition parties to stop the bulldozing tactics of the government and to demand accountability from it.
Parliamentarians also often resort to “storming the well” of the house i.e., the center of the chamber of the upper and lower houses, to lodge their protest before the presiding chair.
The two important chambers (upper and lower) of the new Parliament have been strategically designed now to ensure that there is no space in the “well of each house.” This is to ensure that MPs cannot protest there. The Central Hall of Parliament, a space where MPs as well as ministers cutting across party lines used to meet as well as interact with journalists has reportedly been done away with too.
Previous prime ministers have been forced to face and answer questions from a demanding opposition. Modi has only made speeches in Parliament, but not answered any questions from the opposition, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said.
Ostensibly, the new Parliament marks the “new India of the 21st century… leaving behind the mentality of slavery.” However, the real intent is that the Modi government plans to “increase the number of MPs” in Parliament and therefore needs to ensure a larger seating capacity for them.
In place of the current 543 members in the Lok Sabha, the new Parliament has provisions for 888 members in the Lok Sabha, and 384 members in the Rajya Sabha. This expanded Parliament, through a process of “delimitation,” as political analysts have pointed out would substantially benefit the BJP. Seats in the Hindi-speaking northern states are slated to increase, while the southern states would lose power at the center.
Electorally, the BJP wins most of its seats from the 10 Hindi heartland states. In the last general elections of 2019, the BJP won 80 percent of its 225 seats i.e. 178 seats from the northern states.
To control the damage done by the opposition boycott of the inauguration, Modi and the BJP went on a publicity overdrive, roping in celebrities and film stars to trend #MyParliamentMyPride. However, it was the disturbing visuals of the #wrestlersprotest that same morning, which dominated social media. It took off the sheen from what the prime minister was hoping to be a grandiose spectacle of his achievements in the run-up to the 2024 polls.
The Hindu supremacy pitch by the BJP during the inauguration of Parliament is significant. It indicates that it will intensify this pitch in the coming months to consolidate its core constituency in the Hindi heartland, ahead of the general elections next year.