In January 1927, the just completed grand structure of the Imperial Legislative Council -- that would, upon India’s independence, serve as the Constituent Assembly and then India’s Parliament -- was opened by the Viceroy, Lord Irwin. As the Crown’s representative, he was effectively the head of state, while leading British India’s governmental authority.
In Britain, it’s very different. The monarch as head of state and the Prime Minister as head of government are as distinct as chalk and cheese. The public would likely rise in revolt if the PM tried to be King or Queen even for a fleeting second; or if the monarch sought to usurp power as head of government. Such an eventuality is unthinkable.
Not so in India. Here we were witness to a spectacle not envisaged in the Constitution. On May 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for all real purposes, assumed for one day the mantle of the Viceroy, or indeed President of India, as we are no longer in colonial times.
The PM inaugurated the new Parliament, having earlier performed Vedic rituals in its precincts, conducted by a posse of Hindu priests -- a sight that is alien to the letter or spirit of our Constitution.
India’s Parliament has figuratively been called the temple of democracy. In a secular state, it is decidedly not the house of prayer of any religious denomination. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, whose expulsion from Parliament appeared to have been carefully planned by the government earlier, was the first to alert us that something was amiss if the Prime Minister was to inaugurate the new Parliament, not the President. The idea caught on with a large section of the political system. Mr Gandhi’s party and at least 19 others resolved to stand in defence of the precept of the Constitution, and stayed away from the so-called inauguration.
It was not the boycott of an historic event aimed at deepening India’s democracy. The roots of our democracy are embedded in the six-decade anti-colonial mass struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, and not in any religious movement or uprising. What transpired on Sunday was the anointing of the PM as President for a day by his party and a clutch of others whipped into submission. It was tantamount to usurpation of the President’s constitutional authority and status.
A short Hindu religious mace called the "Sengol", said to be a traditional marker of the transfer of authority from one ruler to the next, was extricated from a museum and put in the new Parliament, disregarding the fact that it is the Indian people who are the sovereign rather than an individual, and won their freedom from colonial rule after a long struggle and had established a modern state, not a kingdom.
The day will also be remembered for the pusillanimity of the Supreme Court, which is an integral pillar of our democracy but has so often fallen short of expectations. When a petition was brought to question the PM’s inauguration of the new Parliament, and to prevent this, the court airily observed it was "not inclined" to hear it.
The people of India are entitled to be dismayed. It may be time for the Supreme Court to turn the spotlight on itself, and weigh its actions in the balance on matters concerning judiciary-executive interactions, and its actions over protection of citizens’ right and liberties.
Why is it a necessity that in keeping with constitutional norms and etiquette, it is the President who should inaugurate the new Parliament building and not any other functionary? There are several reasons: the President is the head of state; is an integral part of Parliament which, besides the Rashtrapati, comprises the two Houses of Parliament; the President is elected by Parliament and the state legislatures, summons Parliament to meet and prorogues it, and is entitled to address both Houses jointly or separately.
The PM, in contrast, is only a Member of Parliament, elected by the Lok Sabha to lead the government. The PM has no jurisdiction or control over Parliament. He is not even entitled to dissolve the Lok Sabha without the concurrence of the council of ministers. It is not within the PM’s gift to inaugurate Parliament or open any of its sessions.
Similarly, the presiding officer of each House (the Speaker and the vice-president of India, who is also Rajya Sabha Chairman) is charged with the conduct of proceedings, as per rules, and nothing beyond this. Yet, what we saw on May 28 was that the President was edged out altogether, the PM held centre-stage, and the Lok Sabha Speaker and Rajya Sabha deputy chairman were practically summoned to be present and perform subsidiary roles. It will be remembered for long that these worthies gave
themselves to praising the PM and did little else, like the vice-president’s message read out by the deputy chairman.
Alas, President Droupadi Murmu too saw it fit to send a message on the occasion in praise of the Prime Minister, wholeheartedly endorsing the inauguration by the leader of government, showing no awareness that she had been deprived of her constitutional privilege. A sturdy holder of that office could have contemplated taking the government to task, or even withdrawing from the highest office. Theoretically, the President sending a message on this to the two Houses remains a possibility, but the odds of this happening are too remote to consider.
To complete the baleful story of the day, the PM held forth for half an hour as only he can -- blasting his audience with full-scale government propaganda, and with the assurance that India will be a "developed" country in the "Amrit Kaal" -- that is, in the next 25 years that will mark the hundredth year of India’s Independence. The assurance sits poorly with the record, however. Under the present government, 32 million middle class Indians have been dragged back to poverty and nearly 20 per cent of the country goes to sleep on an empty stomach.
Two noteworthy events occurred on the day the PM practised the rituals of his faith in the new Parliament, fuelling communal minds, and then proceeded to "inaugurate" it at the cringe-inducing invitation of the Speaker whose remit doesn’t extend beyond the Lok Sabha. India’s greatest sportswomen (wrestlers), who brought the country laurels in the Olympics, who sat on protest against sexual attack by a BJP MP, were dragged to detention centres by the police when they tried to march to the new Parliament in protest. And, in the middle of intra-group skirmishing in sensitive Manipur, the chief minister claimed that 40 "terrorists" had been killed.