The inauguration of India’s new parliament building at the weekend has been plunged into controversy after 19 opposition parties announced their intent to boycott the ceremony after learning that prime minister Narendra Modi, and not president Droupadi Murmu, would preside over it.
India’s president is an appointed, non-party executive with only ceremonial powers, but is considered the country’s first citizen and is the highest constitutional authority.
In a joint statement, the opposition said Mr Modi’s decision to place himself at the centre of Sunday’s inaugural ceremony by sidelining president Murmu “insulted” the president’s office and “violated the letter and spirit of the constitution”.
They claimed that undemocratic acts are not new to the prime minister, who they said had “relentlessly hollowed out parliament” by disqualifying opposition MPs and suspending and silencing them when they raised pertinent public issues.
In its most recent parliamentary session, India’s elected lower house functioned for 33 per cent – or merely 46 hours – of its scheduled time, while the upper or indirectly elected chamber operated for 24 per cent – or 32 hours – according to statistics.
“When the soul of democracy has been sucked out from parliament, we find no value in a new building,” the opposition statement said.
Privately, several opposition MPs also accused Mr Modi of politicising the new parliament building’s inauguration, ahead of general elections early next year, in which his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking its third five-year term in office.
The BJP hit back at the opposition, accusing it of “betraying intellectual bankruptcy and disturbing contempt for [the] essence of democracy”. Its statement urged opposition MPs not to vitiate and politicise such a historic occasion, but provided no explanation as to why president Murmu had been ignored for the inauguration.
“This unseemly standoff indicates that even as parliamentary functions move on from the 96-year-old colonial building to a swankier structure, so does the acrimony,” the Hindustan Times said in an editorial on Thursday.
A cross-section of constitutional experts supported the opposition’s stand, claiming that in the Constitutional Warrant of Official Precedence, president Murmu occupied the highest position in the country, while Mr Modi was at third place, after the vice-president Jagdeep Dhankhar.
“The president, who is India’s constitutional head, is omnipresent in governance and under the constitution the executive power rests with her,” said advocate Dushyant Dave, who specialises in constitutional and public law. Article 53 of the constitution, he added, clearly states that ministers, including the prime minister, were ranked below the president.
The new parliament building, whose construction began in late 2020 at a cost of more than €1 billion, replaces the one completed by the British colonial administration in 1927.