Magnificent edifice for a new era | Page 4 | Sunday Observer

Magnificent edifice for a new era

4 June, 2023

The inauguration of India’s new Parliament edifice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi last Sunday (19) was colourful 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 somewhat marred by the absence of the President of the country, Droupadi Murmu, who was apparently 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 main Congress Party.

Accepting the somewhat 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 some sheen away from this historic event.

Need for new building

The new Parliament, built at a total cost of US$ 120 million, has a vastly increased seating capacity and modern facilities including for any disabled Members of Parliament and visitors. It also has a modern 4K broadcasting centre for telecasting the proceedings live. The circular old Parliament, built in 1927 by the British (designed by British architects Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who also designed the city of New Delhi itself) who ruled India until 1947, was cramped with even service corridors being partitioned and used as offices. The building was also leaking at several 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 triangular building will accommodate 770 and 530 seats respectively. India hopes to have more Members in Parliament in consonance with its increasing population. In fact, India recently overtook China as the most populous nation.

In going for a totally new construction instead of improving on the existing one, Modi showed his characteristic chutzpah. Neither the pandemic with its lockdowns and ban on interpersonal interactions, nor the trenchant criticism from many respectable quarters on economic, moral and aesthetic grounds deterred him. Critics say that he had a political goal in mind – to impress the public and win the 2024 elections comfortably.

The new building has numerous mainly Hindu motifs like the peacock, the lotus flower, and the banyan tree. The old building also had Indian motifs, but they were not necessarily 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, ambience and décor, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindutwa or Hindu nationalist ethos which is an amalgam of modern ideas and ancient Hindu wisdom.

If the controversy within India was not enough, a major furore has broken out in Nepal over the mural of the Indian subcontinental landmass in the newly inaugurated Parliament building. The mural has been interpreted as a map of Akhand Bharat or undivided India, which has drawn angry responses from Nepali political leaders across party lines. The mural apparently shows Lumbini, the birth place of Gautama Buddha, as part of India. However, it is also well known as Premier Modi is an ardent admirer of the Buddha and Buddhism in addition to his devotion to Hinduism.

Furthermore, to show that India under him has abandoned the dry and clinical rather Nehruvian concept of secularism per se, Premier Modi participated in several elaborate Hindu rituals during the opening ceremony, prostrating before the priests like a typical Hindu devotee.

However, he also got Christian and Muslim clerics to recite prayers which he listened to reverently with closed eyes. This was to contrast his attitude with that of Shri Jawaharlal Nehru who largely shunned religious rituals and functions because he wanted to portray India as a secular State.

There was also 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, is also considered the father of the Hindutwa ideology which aims at the establishment of “Hindu Rashtra” or Hindu Rule.

The Congress and other secular parties had earlier 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.

Premier Modi also revived the Tamil Hindu kings’ tradition of ceremonially accepting a “Sengol”, a scepter that marks the transfer of authority or symbolises just rule. He got a group of Hindu priests from Tamil Nadu (TN) State to hand over the Sengol to him.

The BJP played up the importance of the Sengol. Home Minister Amit Shah criticized 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 receiving a Sengol to symbolize the transfer of power. The Sengol in the Allahabad Government Museum is thought to be just one of the many gifts India’s first Prime Minister got from various institutions in India and elsewhere. At any rate, as historian Madhavan Palat pointed out, Nehru would not have countenanced receiving a monarchic symbol like Sengol.

As expected, Premier 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.

The inaugural ceremony clearly showed its links to the all-important Parliamentary Elections (PE) due in mid-2024. The building of a large and flashy new Parliament, its inauguration by himself and not the President, and ceremonially receiving a “Sengol” or a totem authority from priests, were perhaps aimed at projecting himself as a frontrunner in the coming PE.

The Sengol may also have symbolized his ambition to conquer the one area in India where he faces the strongest ideological resistance – the staunchly secular TN.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist residing in Sri Lanka)