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‘Boycott’ Isn’t the Counter to Modi’s Attempt to Bypass the Indian Constitution

Even as the govt heralds undeclared presidential governance, Congress & Opposition parties' move decries democracy.

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When he took office in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi solemnly declared that the Constitution of India is a "holy book” for him. He also said it is the only “Dharm Granth” or scripture for his government.

In view of this, there ought to have been no debate, much less any controversy, on the question: “Who should have inaugurated the building of India’s new Parliament?" Obviously, the President of India. It cannot be the Prime Minister of India — if he follows the letter and spirit of the Constitution, that is.

It’s quite another matter if he wants to disregard the Constitution. Or if he wants Indians to accept that we now have an undeclared presidential system of governance in which Pradhan Mantri is the real and effective head of the Republic.
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The Centrality of the President of India

To understand the principle as laid down in the Constitution, there is no need for a postgraduate degree in “Entire Political Science”. Just a plain reading of the Constitution is enough. The Indian State and its parliamentary system of democracy rest on three pillars. The government or the Executive, of which the prime minister is the head, is only one of its three pillars. The Legislature and the Judiciary, its other two pillars, are independent and not subservient to the government or the prime minister.

The President of India, who is the head of the Indian State, is also the Custodian of the Constitution. Even within the working of the legislature, the supremacy of the president of India is categorically affirmed in the Constitution itself. Read Article 79: “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) and the House of the People (Lok Sabha).”

What does it mean? It means that the president is as integral to the Parliament as the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha are. It is for this reason that Article 86 of the Constitution confers upon the president the following responsibility:

  • The president may address either House of the Parliament or both Houses assembled together, and for that purpose require the attendance of members.

  • The president may send messages to either House of the Parliament, whether with respect to a Bill then pending in parliament or otherwise, and a House to which any message is so sent shall, with all convenient dispatch, consider any matter required by the message to be taken into consideration.

Between the president and Parliament, there is another Constitutional office — that of the Vice President, who also functions as the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

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Do Constitutional Protocols and Proprieties Apply to PM Modi?

The order or the warrant of precedence of the Republic of India clearly states that for official ceremonial purposes — the inauguration of a brand new building of Parliament is undoubtedly, one such official ceremony —the president and the vice president rank above the prime minister. Look at all the photos (available on the internet) of the opening sessions of the budget session of Parliament.

The prime minister always walks behind the president, vice president, and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. When the president addresses the joint session of the two houses, she or he is flanked on the dais by the vice president (as the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha) and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The prime minister does not sit on the dais but in the Assembly of MPs, in her or his capacity as the leader of the Lok Sabha.

Furthermore, if the prime minister is an elected member of the Lok Sabha, he cannot occupy the first seat in the Rajya Sabha. A member of the Rajya Sabha belonging to the ruling party becomes its leader and, in that capacity, occupies the first seat in the treasure benches. The prime minister occupies the second seat. Thus, Modi sits next to his own ministerial colleague Piyush Goyal in the Rajya Sabha.

These Constitutional protocols and proprieties are an integral part of the ethics and culture of parliamentary democracy. They determine not only the form of parliamentary democracy but also its soul and substance. Obviously, Prime Minister Modi believes these rules and norms do not apply to him since it is he who took the decision to build a new building for Indian Parliament.

Hence, he wants the posterity to remember only his name as its builder. This was obvious when the ‘Bhoomi Pujan’ for the new building took place on 10 December 2020. Neither the then President Ramnath Kovind nor the then Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu was invited to the function. Similarly, neither the incumbent President Droupadi Murmu nor the incumbent Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, invited to its inaugural function.

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Opposition Should Not Have Boycotted the Inauguration

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s impropriety in this matter is beyond doubt. However, there is a related question: Was it proper on the part of the Congress and other Opposition parties to have boycotted the inaugural function? In the opinion of this writer, they too, have taken a wrong and indefensible decision. After recording their protests in a legitimate way, they should have participated in the historic ceremony. Regardless of the government’s disrespect to the Constitution, the fact remains that the Parliament belongs to all the people of India.

The Opposition also stands on a weak wicket when the BJP points out, for example, that Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel invited Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and not the governor of the state, to lay the foundation stone of the new Vidhan Sabha Bhawan in 2020. Similarly, Telangana’s Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao inaugurated the new secretariat building in Hyderabad last month without inviting the governor.

Now the BJP’s spin masters will attack the Opposition’s boycott decision as an act of disrespect to the Parliament — and many common people might be influenced by this criticism since they are unaware of the provisions of the Constitution.

The ruling party’s propaganda machinery has already come up with another “stick” (pun unintended) to beat the Congress with. Its claims about the ‘Sengol'— the ceremonial sceptre from Tamil Nadu that Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, is claimed to have handed over to the first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on 15 August 1947 as a symbol of the transfer of power — are yet to be conclusively proven.

The sceptre is said to have been kept in a museum at Anand Bhavan, Nehru’s ancestral home in Allahabad, and displayed as “a golden walking stick”. The BJP has used this sensational “new discovery” to accuse Nehru — and thereby, the Congress of today — of disrespecting India’s cultural traditions.

The ‘Sengol’ also serves another highly important symbolic purpose for the Modi government. On 28 May, the prime minister ceremonially received it from Tamil Nadu priests and placed it in the new Parliament. But which transfer of power will the new ‘Sengol’ symbolise? Make no mistake, it will subtly proclaim that India has transitioned from a parliamentary system to a presidential system of governance — with the Rashtrapati formally reduced to a rubber stamp.

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New Building, Old Saga of Dysfunctional Parliament

The ‘Sengol’ debate, which the media has hyped up so much, is actually meant to distract the nation’s attention from the real issue of our malfunctioning democracy. True, we now have a swanky new Parliament building, which in due course of time, will house a larger number of MPs in line with the considerable rise in India’s population. But will it mark any change in the way the Parliament has functioned since the BJP won the past two elections? Will it herald a new beginning in terms of the government’s respect for the Constitution? Sadly, there is little room for hope here if we see the record of the past nine years.

Since the birth of the Republic in 1950, never have the relations between the government and the opposition been so acrimonious as now. There is absolutely no trust between the two. Indeed, there is hardly any dialogue between the two. Democracy cannot function without a minimal degree of mutual trust and dialogue between the government and the opposition. Their total absence proves that the Parliament has become dysfunctional.

There is more evidence. The Prime Minister rarely sits in the Parliament and almost never answers members’ questions. Adjournments are the norm, and not an exception, in the Parliament, which in any case sits for only about 60 days in a year — as against 134 days during the first Parliament in 1952. Dozens of important bills, including this year’s budget, have been passed by the two houses without any debate.

The government has disallowed discussion on several important issues — be it the tension on India-China border, farmers’ bills (which triggered a year-long peaceful kinas agitation), or corporate scams. The BJP, when it was in the opposition, used to decry the ‘Ordinance Raj’. Now the Modi government routinely bypasses the Parliament by bringing in ordinances. The latest, and one of the most odious, is the ordinance that nullifies the Supreme Court’s landmark judgement upholding the powers of the Delhi government to appoint civil servants.

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Of late, Prime Minister Modi never tires of saying, both in India and abroad, that India is the ‘Mother of Democracy’ in the world. Sadly, when India inaugurates a new Parliament, what the world sees is a broken democracy and a deeply divided polity.

It would perhaps, help if both Prime Minister Modi and leaders of the opposition recalled the wise and cautionary words of Dr Rajendra Prasad, our first president. Presiding over the last session of the Constituent Assembly on 26 January 1950, when the Constitution came into force, he said, “We have prepared a democratic Constitution. But the successful working of democratic institutions requires in those who have to work them a willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation. Many things which cannot be written in a Constitution are done by conventions. Let me hope that we shall show those capacities and develop those conventions.”

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.)

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