During the UPA II era, there was broad unanimity among all political parties that the old parliament building, built during the colonial era, had served its purpose and that there was an urgent need to construct a new building. Then Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and many senior Congress leaders, including ministers like Jairam Ramesh, went on record endorsing the proposal.
But since the UPA II was gripped by policy paralysis, the idea of a new parliament building met with the same fate as some other projects of national importance.
When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, those who were actively rooting for a new structure for the two Houses of parliament and its growing needs conveniently forgot about it. Modi too had other priorities during his first term (2014-19) in office. Perhaps he wanted the first-hand experience of working in the 1927-built old parliament House, to gauge what is needed for a new structure for the temple of democracy.
In December 2020, when India was recovering socially and economically from disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic, the government announced the Central Vista project, of which the new parliament House was an integral part. The Congress-led opposition boycotted its foundation laying ceremony by PM Modi. They had their own ideas for why Modi was doing this. Why in the middle of Covid restrictions, they questioned. While doing so they forgot about how nine months ago, Modi in a meeting with Chief Ministers, had moved from the mantra, ‘Jaan Hai to Jahan Hai’ to ‘Jaan Bhi Aur Jahan Bhi’ and thereafter to ‘Aapada Mei Awsar’.
Some went to the courts on various pretexts to stop the project but the courts rejected it, with the Delhi High Court declaring it a project of ‘national importance’.
Anyone who has visited New Delhi and driven around the India Gate circle has witnessed the transformation from Rajpath to Kartavya Path, all part of the Central Vista project.
The completion of the new parliament building followed, in a record time of less than two-and-half years, which is in sync with what sections of BJP leaders mention as their new motto – if they lay the foundation stone for a project, they ensure that they inaugurate it as well. Scale and speed are claimed to be the hallmarks of the Modi government.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this new building, built in Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, is in essence an expression of New India. There couldn’t be a more befitting time than this to make a big bold statement about the collective will of its people. History tells us that countries in their varying phases have expressed their strength, be it economic or political, and their ideas, dreams, and aspirations through town planning, architecture, building, and monuments – who you are, what you are, what you stand for.
Just how generations later we know that the old parliament House was designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker and inaugurated by Lord Irwin, coming generations over the next century or centuries would know that this was built and opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Early pictures and videos have already captured popular imagination.
That is where the Congress’s problem lies. Their objection to PM Modi inaugurating it and not President Droupadi Murmu is public posturing. Parties that are signatories to the boycott letter have never been charitable to President Murmu, neither when she was contesting the Presidential election last year, nor after she was elected to the highest constitutional post. AAP and Bharat Rashtra Samithi boycotted her maiden address to both Houses of parliament on January 31. Senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury called her ‘Rashtrapatni’.
Their problem is with the person, his name, and his post – Narendra Modi. It has been nine years but it seems the Congress and its allied parties and support system have not reconciled with the fact that Modi continues to be Prime Minister and that his popularity rating within the country and outside remains undiminished. It’s not just the Central Vista and the parliament Building, the Congress and its allies have opposed any project of national importance that Modi has either launched or inaugurated – the Statute of Unity, the War Memorial, the PMs’ Museum, the Ram temple, the Kashi Vishwanath Dham – the list goes on.
To add to their problems, the Sengol. The opening of the new parliament building couldn’t have been complete without PM Modi serving up a last moment, closely-guarded twist – the rediscovery and installation of the ‘Sengol’ by the side of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chair. The Speaker, though elected on the ruling party ticket, is considered to be the holder of an impartial position and the custodian of parliament’s premises.
The specially-crafted golden Sengol, as explained by Home Minister Amit Shah in his press conference two days ago, was presented to Viceroy Lord Mountbatten and then to Prime Minister-designate Jawaharlal Nehru to mark the transfer of power on August 14, 1947 in a Tamilian tradition from the ancient Chola period. But for some reason, Nehru and Congress scrubbed it out of public and institutional memory. The Sengol was called the “golden walking stick gifted” to Nehru and was sent off to the Congress first family’s Anand Bhawan Museum in Allahabad.
During Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, when India was celebrating unsung heroes and events during its freedom struggle, someone wrote and spoke about the Sangol, catching the attention of PM Modi. One realises that the Amit Shah media conference on the subject some days ahead of the inauguration was intended to initiate a massive debate on the issue. The Congress reacted on predictable lines, questioning the Sengol’s stated importance, and others called it a Hindu symbol and a step forward in the direction of making India a Hindu Rashtra, or a manifestation of Modi monarchy, and so on. All this gives debating points to Modi’s social support group.
Since the Sengol is associated with ancient Tamilian culture and pride, the DMK’s position on the issue also becomes slightly awkward. For once, the DMK has gone silent on an issue of Tamilian pride, real or perceived.
If 19 parties are opposing PM Modi’s inauguration of the new parliament building, Modi has secured the support of 25 parties. Mayawati has been particularly open in her support, pointing out the Congress’s vociferous opposition to Droupadi Murmu’s candidature in the Presidential election.
By questioning Modi’s credentials to inaugurate the new parliament building and deciding to boycott the event the Congress has opened itself up to many questions. Why did Sonia Gandhi inaugurate newly built assembly buildings during the UPA era? Why did Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 lay the foundation stone for a parliament library building? Why did Indira Gandhi inaugurate the Parliament Annexe building in 1975 and not the President? Why, if Motilal Nehru was present when Lord Irwin opened the parliament building in 1927, is his family boycotting the opening of an all-Indian parliament built to mark the onset of New India?
They seem to have failed in taking lessons from recent history, that negativity and hate towards anything and everything related to Modi will not yield benefits – the 2014 and 2019 election results are examples of that. Back in 2009, people punished UPA allies who were unnecessarily troubling Manmohan Singh and Congress. In that election, people were not charitable to the BJP because the party couldn’t present a positive agenda.
Rahul Gandhi and his team may perhaps consider this – is hurling so many negatives on an issue of such national importance the right way to open what he calls a “Mohabbat ki Dukan”?
(Sanjay Singh is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.