A complex born out of a complex. This is not a cryptic crossword clue, but India’s new reality. In the frantic run-up to the 2024 general elections, Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu potentate and prime minister, unveiled the new four-storey parliament on May 28th. The signature edifice has been put up in time for the big election event, when Mr Modi will seek a third term. Inevitably, as India’s opposition parties claim, the new parliament’s opening ceremony mirrored Mr Modi’s deep-rooted edifice complex.
Exposing the Fault Lines
The allegations should worry Mr Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, aka BJP. Particularly because the opening ceremony was marked by protests and boycotts by 21 parties, including the Congress party, India’s principal opposition. Though the inaugural event was attended by 25 parties, including Mr Modi’s, the widely-televised ceremony showed the deepening fissures between an election-focused Modi and a hardened opposition. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/parliament-building-inauguration-21-parties-boycott-congress-calls-it-rajyabhishek- 8634016/
The fissures stood out glaringly as the opening ceremony of the $2bn parliament exposed the fault lines in Indian politics. For Mr Modi, a Hindu nationalist, the new parliament is a matter of personal pride and prestige. He is sure to present the new edifice as a proof of his acerbic animosity towards India’s colonial masters who had erected the old parliament in 1927. He will project the new parliament as an evidence of his ability to get things done.
Video Courtesy: YouTube/Al Jazeera English
Mr Modi’s One-Man Overreach
However, the ceremony offered a foretaste of things to come in Modi’s Hinduised India. The event was high on Hindu religious rituals and loud on symbolic nationalism. Enraged, India’s opposition escalated their protests against a non-secular event in a constitutionally secular country. As high-handed cops cracked on the protesters, the forces had little success in breaking up the solidarity of around 250 opposition members of parliament. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/28/world/asia/india- parliament.html
The protests were primarily against Mr Modi’s obsession with himself. Debunking the ceremony as one-man overreach, India’s opposition parties were decrying his attempts to enfeeble India’s constitution and its democracy. They had a point when they claimed president Droupadi Murmu ought to have unveiled the edifice as India’s head of state and custodian of its constitution. They were aghast that she was not even invited for the event. Going by parliamentary protocol, Mr Modi should have allowed the House speaker to inaugurate the new parliamentary building.
Travesty of Free Speech
These infractions got the opposition’s goat. As the president calls and addresses the national parliament, the opposition parties cried foul. They declared the soul of democracy had been sucked out of the new parliament and thus they could not find any value in it. As they boycotted the opening ceremony, they pointed fingers at Mr Modi and his blatant attempts to impose and inscribe himself on national edifices.
The opposition parties’ claimed their ire was heightened by Mr Modi’s complicity in breaking parliamentary processes and ramming crucial bills through, with little debate. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi even went to the extent of calling the event Mr Modi’s coronation. As if the event was a travesty of democracy and free speech, police were cracking on India’s Olympian wrestlers, who were protesting right outside the new edifice. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/pm-modi-treating- inauguration-of-new-parliament-building-as-coronation-rahul- gandhi/articleshow/100565660.cms?from=mdr
Cruel Irony Was Not Lost
The wrestlers’ protests are against alleged sexual harassment by their federation’s chief, an elected parliamentarian from Mr Modi’s party. Mr Modi is yet to act against the accused, a known vote-catcher. Enraging the wrestlers further, the alleged offender was allowed to grace the opening ceremony with his invited presence. Through all these, Mr Modi maintained that the new edifice was a dire necessity for India’s fast-growing democracy.
Mr Modi could not have inaugurated the new parliament on a more auspicious date. The new edifice has been thrown open on the 140th birth anniversary of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, aka Veer Savarkar, an icon and ideologue of political Hinduism and Mr Modi’s inspiration. Ironically, Mr Savarkar was an accused in the murder of Mohandas Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. This cruel irony was not lost on the protesting opposition. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/new- parliament-bldg-to-open-on-may-28-savarkars- anniv/articleshow/100340674.cms?from=mdr
Weaponising Mr Modi’s Disregard
India’s opposition parties are also averse to Mr Modi’s oneness theme – one elections, one party and one leader for the Indian nation. They fear Mr Modi’s projects are calculated steps to transform India into a presidential autocracy. They see the new parliamentary edifice, whose work began in Covid-hit India in 2020, as a vanity project and a sheer waste of resources when joblessness runs high in India. It was to happen, the new parliament has brought India’s opposition together.
The opposition parties are aiming to use the new edifice as a trigger to denounce Mr Modi’s disregard for democracy and federalism. They will weaponise his democratic disregard in time for the general elections. Centralisation and concentration of power by Mr Modi will be their prime theme. For them, Mr Modi hogging the opening ceremony, with Hindu rituals in a secular India, was a red flag. Mr Modi carrying a sceptre, like a royal, had confirmed their fears. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/symbols-and- substance-on-the-inauguration-of-the-new-parliament-building- and-beyond/article66908554.ece
Fodder to Opposition’s Cannon
This was not the only red flag. The new parliament project and its details were not transparent from the start. In fact, they were mired in controversies. What provided fodder for opposition’s cannon was the inclusion of a new palatial private residence for Mr Modi in the project. Assailed as blatant favouritism, the project had been awarded to one Bimal Patel, an architect from Gujarat, Mr Modi’s home state.
Unfazed, Mr Modi did argue that the 800-seater parliament building, designed by the British architects Edward Lutyen and Herbert Baker, was inadequate for the growing political and democratic needs of a populous India. According to him, the number of parliament seats was under review and would touch the 1,300-mark in 2026. Perhaps this is why the new edifice is three times more spacious and has 1,272 seats in two chambers. https://sundayguardianlive.com/news/india-prepares-new- parliament-members
Unfortunately for Mr Modi, the storm over the new edifice has come quickly after a series of global downgrades between 2019 and 2021. These demotions had hit India’s reputation as a democracy. During this period, the American non-profit Freedom House had downgraded India to a ‘partially-free’ status, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute had branded India as an ‘electoral autocracy’ and the prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit had pushed India down by 10 places, to 51, on its prestigious Democracy Index. https://qz.com/india/1985500/v-dem-freedom-house-data- show-democracy-at-risk-in-modis-india
Agitated, India’s well-wishers are viewing the new parliament as the capstone project of Mr Modi’s second term. His edifice complex puts him at par with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The former is keen on building new mosques and the latter is rebuilding the 19th century Castle District as his official seat of power. Seen through this political prism, India’s new parliament is an extra dimension to Mr Modi’s edifice complex.