Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the new Parliament House, March 30, 2023 (Photo: PIB)
THERE WAS SOMETHING utterly predictable about the Congress-led “boycott” of the inauguration of the new Parliament building. There was never any chance of the Congress brass attending a function where Prime Minister Narendra Modi would hold centrestage and where they would be, at best, elements of an attendant orchestra. It is only on occasions like Republic Day that members of the Congress first family can be spotted and, again, their seating arrangement is often a matter of comment. And if truth be told, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders will not pine for the missing company at the May 28 function either. The BJP leadership will just go ahead and mark the occasion as a major milestone in the Modi government’s tenure.
As the new Lok Sabha prepared to meet after the 2014 election, Sonia Gandhi told party functionaries to do their best to secure the Leader of Opposition (LoP) status for the party’s leader in the House even though Congress failed to achieve the benchmark of 10 per cent of the seats. Negotiations between the government and Congress did follow but the demand was turned down. BJP leaders figured that there was no need to make concessions, irrespective of whether the LoP post was held by Rahul Gandhi or anyone else. Reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, Congress had to lump in and sit in its corner of the House. It did not take long for relations between Congress and BJP to deteriorate. Egged on by the Left, Congress and some other opposition parties began blockading legislation in Rajya Sabha where BJP did not have the numbers. In an unprecedented act, they forced amendments to the president’s address in a bid to embarrass the government. The Goods and Services Bill was delayed for close to two years over the absurd demand that the tax rate be capped at 18 per cent and this be written into the legislation. The bill to give legal backing to the use of Aadhaar had to be declared a money bill to ensure it did not fall to the opposition veto. Even bills that had been cleared by parliamentary committees (sometimes two committees) were opposed in the Upper House. There was no LoP even after the 2019 election but by now, BJP’s strength in Rajya Sabha increased and it also struck useful alliances with AIADMK, BJD and YSRCP to secure a safe passage for bills in Rajya Sabha. The indirectly elected Upper House of Parliament was envisaged as a check and balance, and to provide wider representation to the states. But it was not intended to wilfully thwart the will of Lok Sabha where the government of the day commands a majority, as BJP very clearly did.
Was BJP’s desire to dominate the political space a reason for the government-opposition acrimony? The new BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was certainly more hard-headed and unsentimental than its predecessors, and this may well have worsened matters. Yet, public memory remains short and even commentators, who ought to know better, forget that things were often less than cordial even when the Vajpayee government was in office. It was inevitable that the new Parliament would bring ideological fault lines to the fore. The rediscovery of the “Sengol”, the consecrated sceptre given to Jawaharlal Nehru at Independence and which was languishing in a museum in Prayagraj, is fresh fodder in this regard. The Sengol will now find pride of place in the new complex. The choice of the date, which is Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar’s birth anniversary, is hardly a random choice either. But apart from real or perceived provocations, lies the Congress leadership’s sense of dispossession that BJP has done nothing to ameliorate. The ostensible objection of Congress and other opposition parties to the “sidelining” of the president in the inauguration of the new Parliament is a fig leaf. If things had been any different, some other reason would have served. Congress kept away from the midnight function at Parliament’s Central Hall to launch the momentous GST reform saying it would not be part of a publicity gimmick. Such events, it said, had been held rarely and always to celebrate India’s independence. The real grouse, it was not hard to guess, was unhappiness over a midnight event being associated with anything apart from Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech, even if it was one as significant as the rollout of a one-nation, one-tax system. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, despite being invited, did not share the stage with Modi and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda.
The new Parliament has also been criticised as a ‘vanity project’ along with the redevelopment of the Central Vista while the ageing, heavy, Soviet-style masonry of Shastri Bhawan and nearby complexes has been extolled as ‘heritage’. Yet, the proposal for a new building to house the Parliament was discussed when Meira Kumar was the speaker of Lok Sabha in 2009-14. The discussion did not progress as UPA 2 got
distracted by corruption scandals requiring urgent firefighting
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The 20 parties that decided not to attend the weekend function include Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Kerala Congress (Mani) and Revolutionary Socialist Party who have one MP each in Lok Sabha. The Communist Party of India, National Conference, Samajwadi Party and IUML have three each and MDMK has none. Taken together, the boycotters account for around 25 per cent of Lok Sabha. They have a more scattered presence in Rajya Sabha. Despite listing the three Left parties individually, the numbers are actually less than impressive. More importantly, the dissenters are old associates and their tally has not changed much since 2014. The leading lights of this grouping had petitioned the Supreme Court ahead of the 2019 polls seeking a return to paper ballots—a proposal to take Indian elections back to the Stone Age. While the court expectedly rejected the demand, it was astonishing that the opposition leaders felt this could be an important electoral issue. And if the idea was to sow doubt over the integrity of elections, the high voter turnouts and a decisive verdict were a resounding snub. Their track record makes this G20 a club of habitual dissenters.
The new Parliament has also been criticised as a “vanity project” along with the redevelopment of the Central Vista while the ageing, heavy, Soviet-style masonry of Shastri Bhawan and nearby complexes has been extolled as “heritage”. Yet, the proposal for a new building to house the Parliament was discussed when Meira Kumar was the speaker of Lok Sabha from 2009-14. The discussion did not progress as UPA 2 got distracted by corruption scandals requiring urgent firefighting. There was concern over a new mega project attracting fresh controversy. Indeed, given a slowing economy, rising inflation and corruption scandals, talk of a new Parliament building would certainly run the risk of being labelled a wasteful effort. In any case, the idea languished until Modi’s second term. The facts of the matter are plain enough. The old Parliament House, despite its superb symmetries and imposing architecture, will not be able to seat MPs once the number of Lok Sabha seats is enhanced. It has been running ragged for a while with no office space for many ministries, even as its second and third floors are cluttered with broken furniture, loose wiring and redundant offices of obscure committees. Piles of unwashed dishes are a common sight as the Parliament canteen struggles to supply food (which remains cheap despite price hikes) to hundreds of employees and visitors. But the “facts” of the matter are irrelevant to the discussion and just as obscured as the Sengol was for the last 70-odd years.