Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday inaugurated the magnificent new Parliament complex, part of a more than $2 billion project to renovate India’s colonial-era government center in New Delhi.
But the inauguration ceremony, which reflected Mr Modi’s penchant for Hindu religious and nationalist symbolism, was boycotted by the political opposition. And outside on the streets, the police brutally broke up the demonstration.
A majority of opposition lawmakers from both chambers, about 250 people, stayed away to protest what they called the latest example of the prime minister’s overreach, which they said undermined India’s constitutional democracy.
In a rare statement of unity, about 20 opposition parties accused Mr. Modi of taking a role they say is reserved for India’s president, Droupadi Murmu, who has a symbolic but important role as guardian of the Constitution.
“The President is not only the head of state in India, but also an integral part of the Parliament. He summons, prorogues and addresses the Parliament,” the party said in a statement. “When the soul of democracy has been sucked out of Parliament, we find no value in new buildings.”
Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has disputed the claim, pointing out that previous prime ministers had inaugurated additions and annexes to the old Parliament building.
But opposition parties say Mr Modi’s choice to preside over the inauguration is consistent with a wider breach of the parliamentary process by his party, including pushing through, with little debate, a controversial bill that changes the foundations of India’s unity.
The inauguration (which the leader of the opposition, Rahul Gandhi, compared to “coronation”) was held under tight security, as women wrestlers who have been camping out in protest for more than a month in central Delhi have vowed to hold a march on the same day. The protesters, who included Olympic medalists, accused the head of the wrestling federation, who is also a member of parliament in Mr Modi’s party, of sexual harassment and complained that the government was trying to brush aside their concerns.
When the wrestlers’ march breached the security barricades, the police broke into the chaotic and violent scene, detaining the wrestlers and dismantling their camp.
Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the accused member of parliament, attended the inauguration, posting a photo of himself in the new parliament.
The old Parliament House is the site of great moments in the nation’s history, such as the 1947 declaration of independence from Britain and the adoption of the Constitution that made India a democratic republic. But it cannot meet the needs of the country that will become the most populous country in the world. There is no room for 543 MPs in the lower house, a number that will increase in the coming years. Pieces of the ceiling sometimes fall on members, and a few years ago, the air conditioner smelled so bad that sessions had to be postponed.
The new complex, built for about $120 million and designed by Bimal Patel, an Indian architect, incorporates the latest technology and expands the seating to 888 in the main room of the lower house.
Ronojoy Sen, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore and author of a book on the history of India’s Parliament, says symbolism and timing are also important.
“The new parliament is being built in time for the 2024 general elections,” Mr Sen said. “More importantly, it will remain part of Modi’s legacy, and a link to India’s “timeless” and “ancient” democracy – something Modi often talks about.
Campaigning for next year’s general election has been hectic, with opposition parties scrambling to find a formula to challenge Mr Modi’s grip as he prepares to seek a third term in office.
India’s ruling party presents Mr. Modi as the leader it needs as India rises on the global stage. At an event in New Delhi on Friday to mark nine years of Mr Modi’s rule, party leaders cited the progress under his watch – massive infrastructure investment, improved social welfare programmes, a rise in global standing – as reasons for a third term of “resolute leadership”. .”
While the opposition parties have often fought, many face a public threat when Mr. Modi loosens the hand of the state against them. In recent months, they have appeared united around a common narrative: Mr. Modi is turning the country’s democracy into a one-party rule that has failed to bring the economic growth, especially jobs, that India needs.
“The muzzling of democratic dissent and expression has forced the opposition parties to sink their differences and come together to oppose Mr. Modi,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator based in New Delhi. “The opposition hopes that the protection of democracy and federalism will be at the center of next year’s general elections. However, more work needs to be done to shape a popular and appealing narrative on these issues.
Analysts and rights activists say Mr Modi has centralized power in himself in a way not seen since the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency brought Indian democracy the closest it has come to an outright dictatorship.
What makes Mr. Modi’s approach different from Mrs. Gandhi’s authoritarian turn, he says, is the religious undertone: He is a lifelong member of a right-wing Hindu movement that aims to transform India’s secular system into a first-class nation.
In a Hindu prayer ceremony at the inauguration (which also included an interfaith ceremony later), Mr. Modi bowed before the stick, an object that has come to encapsulate the meaning of the new Parliament – the new beginning of an ambitious builder. , one is determined to shed not only the remnants of India’s colonial past, but also increasingly to replace the secular governance that follows it.
The ruling party said the scepter, given by Hindu priests to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a symbol of the transfer of power from Britain in 1947, had been relegated to a corner of a small museum.
In a social media post showing Mr Modi clutching a stick today, the party leader explained what it means to return: to restore Hindu dignity which he feels has been wrongly destroyed by India’s secular constitutional structure.
Mr. Modi, flanked by a dozen Hindu priests, carried a cane down the aisle of the new Parliament, placed to the right of the speaker’s chair.
“The new parliament is not just a building; it is a reflection of the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians,” Mr. Modi said. “This is the temple of our democracy.”