By P.K.Balachandran/Sunday Observer
Colombo, June 4: The inauguration of India’s new parliament house by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi last Sunday was colorful and thrilling. At long last, India was getting a parliamentary complex of a size and sophistication it desperately needed in place of a nearly 100 year old building showing signs of strain.
But the event was marred by the absence of the President of the country, Droupadi Murmu. She was not invited. The sidelining of the President, who is a woman and a Tribal on top of it, triggered the boycott of the ceremonies by at least 21 opposition parties including the Congress. Accepting the unusual situation gracefully, President Murmu issued a statement saying that she was “deeply satisfied” that Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the new complex. Be that as it may, the controversy over the President’s absence and the opposition boycott took away some sheen from the historic event.
Need for New Building
The new parliament, built at a cost of US$ 120 million, has a vastly increased seating capacity and modern facilities including for the disabled. The circular old parliament, built in 1927 by the British, was cramped with even service corridors being partitioned and used as offices. The building was also leaking at places.
While the old building had 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House, which has 545 members) and 250 seats in the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House, which has 250 members), the new building will accommodate 770 and 530 seats respectively. India hopes to have more members in parliament in consonance with its increasing population.
In going for a new construction instead of improving on the existing one, Modi showed his characteristic chutzpah. Neither the pandemic with its lockdowns and ban on inter-personal interactions, nor the trenchant criticism from many respectable quarters on economic, moral and aesthetic grounds deterred him. He had a political goal in mind – to impress the public and win the 2024 elections comfortably, and he would allow nothing to stand in the way.
The new building has numerous Hindu motifs like the peacock, the lotus flower, and the banyan tree. The old building also had Indian motifs, but they were not Hindu religious motifs as such. The new building is also designed as per the Hindu spiritual “vastu” principles to get the maximum spiritual and material benefits. Modi’s idea was to have the building reflect, through its architecture and décor, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutwa or Hindu nationalist ethos which is an amalgam of modern ideas and ancient Hindu wisdom.
To show that India under him has abandoned the dry and clinical Nehruvian concept of “secularism”, Modi got elaborate Hindu rituals performed in which he participated with manifest devotion, prostrating before the priests like a typical Hindu devotee.
However, not to be seen to be too biased in favor of Hinduism, he got Christian and Muslim clerics to recite prayers which he listened to reverently with closed eyes. This was to contrast his attitude with Jawaharlal Nehru’s who shunned religious rituals and functions because he was heading a secular State.
There was an important political and ideological message which Modi conveyed by having the inauguration done on V.D.Savarkar’s birthday. Savarkar (1883-1966), an anti-British freedom fighter, was also the father of the Hindutwa ideology which aims at the establishment of “Hindu Rashtra” or Hindu Rule. The Congress and other secular parties denigrated Savarkar as a Hindu bigot and a divisive force, and downplayed his role in the freedom struggle. Modi’s act of opening the parliament on Savarkar’s birth anniversary was an affirmation of his faith in Savarkar’s Hindutwa ideology.
Modi also revived the Tamil Hindu kingly tradition of ceremonially accepting a “Sengol”, a scepter that marks the transfer of authority or symbolizes just rule. He got a large of body of Hindu priests from Tamil Nadu to hand over the Sengol to him.
The BJP played up the importance of the Sengol. Home Minister Amit Shah criticized the previous Congress governments, especially Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for keeping the Sengol that had been given to him by Tamil priests on August 14, 1947 in a museum in Allahabad with a tag saying “walking stick” thus vulgarizing a sacred object.
However, historians said that there was no reference in any contemporary document about Nehru’s receiving a Sengol to symbolize transfer of power. The Sengol in the Allahabad government museum was just one of the many gifts India’s first Prime Minister got from various institutions. At any rate, as historian Madhavan Palat pointed out, a democrat like Nehru would not have countenanced receiving a monarchic symbol like Sengol.
As expected, Modi was lambasted by the opposition parties and modernists for reviving a monarchic and feudal tradition. But Modi was undeterred because for him optics is an essential ingredient in political projection. He would go for sartorial changes to suit the culture of the place he happens to be in at any given point of time. When in Rajasthan or Maharashtra or Karnataka, who would wear the local turban and when he had talks with Xi Jinping in Tamil Nadu he was in a South Indian Vetti.
Modi is by no means shy of indulging in kingly showmanship, as he is, in fact, an authoritarian and knows that his followers hail him for being just that – a “strong man” who will lead from the front undeterred by the opposition.
The inaugural ceremony clearly showed its links to the all-important parliamentary elections due in mid-2024. The building of a large and flashy new parliament, its inauguration by himself and not the President, and his ceremonially receiving a “Sengol” or a totem authority from priests, were aimed at projecting himself as the front runner in the coming elections.
The Sengol also symbolized his ambition to conquer the one area in India where he faces the strongest ideological resistance – the staunchly secular Tamil Nadu.