Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, credited as being one of the founding fathers of the Hindutva ideology, may have never imagined that a new Parliament building will be inaugurated on his birth anniversary, May 28. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently on an international tour, will inaugurate the building, of which he had conducted the ‘bhoomi puja’ as per Hindu tradition and laid the foundation stone on December 10, 2020.

This is not the first time Hindu Mahasabha leader Savarkar has been ‘attached’ to the Parliament, often referred by politicians and the media as the ‘Temple of Democracy’. In 2003, Savarkar’s portrait was unveiled by then President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam in the Central Hall of Parliament. The Prime Minister at that time was Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Interestingly, that unveiling event honouring the Hindutva ideologue with a ‘presence’, as it were, in Parliament, was “boycotted by the entire Opposition, barring former prime minister Chandrashekhar,” stated news reports from that year.

Today, a new Parliament building is ready for inauguration by the Prime Minister, and not the President. This, say observers, is not the norm. News debates have been ignited on the issue and many say it is the President’s prerogative to inaugurate the new Parliament, and not that of the PM.

On Wednesday 19 Opposition parties issued a statement to announce their boycott of the inauguration function on May 28. They stated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to inaugurate it himself, amounts to insulting the office of the President. They stated that while they had disapproved “the autocratic manner in which the new Parliament was built”, they were not “open to sinking our differences and marking this occasion.”

However, they added that PM Modi’s desire to inaugurate the Parliament building himself, has sidelined and insulted President Murmu.

The Opposition cited Article 79 of the Constitution of India in their statement, “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 and the House of the People.”

“The President is not only the Head of State in India, but also an integral part of the Parliament. She summons, prorogues, and addresses the Parliament. She must assent for an Act of Parliament to take effect. In short, the Parliament cannot function without the President,” they stated, adding “Yet, the Prime Minister has decided to inaugurate the new Parliament building without her. This undignified act insults the high office of the President, and violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution. It undermines the spirit of inclusion which saw the nation celebrate its first woman Adivasi President.”

The parties who have signed the statement include: Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), Janata Dal (United) (JDU), DMK, , Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), Communist Party of India (Marxist), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Communist Party of India (CPI), Samajwadi Party (SP), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Kerala Congress (M), Muslim League, National Conference, Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called the move “an insult to the country's highest constitutional post” adding that the “Parliament is not made of bricks of ego, but of constitutional values.”

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, posted a string of tweets, stating that the Modi government was “repeatedly disrespecting propriety”. He stated that the President’s office has been “reduced to tokenism under the Bharatiya Janata Party–Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh government.”

“Modi Govt has ensured election of President of India from the Dalit and the Tribal communities only for electoral reasons. While Former President, Shri Kovind was not invited for the New Parliament foundation laying ceremony…

“The President of India Smt. Droupadi Murmu is not being invited for the inauguration of the new Parliament Building. The Parliament of India is the supreme legislative body of the Republic of India, and the President of India is its highest Constitutional authority. She alone represents government, opposition, and every citizen alike.

“She is the First Citizen of India. Inauguration of the new Parliament building by her will symbolise Government’s commitment to Democratic values and Constitutional propriety,” he tweeted.

Vinod Tiwari, a Chattisgarh based Congress leader even held a signature campaign in Raipur to get the Parliament House inaugurated by the President Draupadi Murmu.

Images of an ‘invitation card’ have also been doing the rounds of whatsapp groups and social media. This card too does not have President Draupadi Murmu’s name on the front, or that of Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar. The President addresses the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha at the beginning of the first Session of Parliament. The Vice President is also the ex-officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha, and presides over its sessions.

According to Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Vivek Tankha these omissions are highly objectionable. “Rajya Sabha Chairman cannot be ignored. This is a constitutional objection,” he tweeted, adding “Obviously Vice President cannot be invited if Prime Minister is the Chief Guest !! Please follow the constitutional path !! President & Vice President both are indispensable for the occasion.”

D. Raja, General Secretary, Communist Party of India, called it “Obsession with self-image & cameras trumps decency & norms when it comes to Modi Ji!”

In an article for legal news portal The Leaflet, S. N. Sahu, once Press Secretary to President of India late KR Narayanan wrote that the inauguration was a “Modi-centric programme”

According to Sahu, “The President of India, along with the two Houses, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, constitutes the Parliament as per Article 79 of the Constitution. In this sense, the President forms part of the apex legislature, which in the scheme of separation of powers, has a distinct place along with the executive and judiciary in the constitutional structure of governance.

“Modi is a member of Lok Sabha and by virtue of being the Prime Minister, is the head of the executive. In employing the meaning and logic enshrined in Article 79 that the President of India along with Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha constitute the Parliament, the President should have been deservedly invited to inaugurate the new Parliament building.

“The President of India occupies the number one position in the warrant of precedence, and the Prime Minister is third, after the Vice President of India. So how is it that the Prime Minister, who is at number three, is inaugurating the new Parliament building, and the President, being at number one, remains out of reckoning for this purpose and is not even invited to the programme?”

In his article, Sahu recalled examples of previous parliamentary inaugurations, such as when “President of India V.V. Giri laid the foundation of the Parliament House annexe building on August 3, 1970. Five years later, on October 24, 1975, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did the honour of inaugurating it.

“In 2002, then President of India K.R. Narayanan was invited by then Lok Sabha Speaker Bala Yogi to inaugurate the newly constructed Parliament library building named Sansadiya Gyanpeeth. Due to pressing engagements, Narayanan could not indicate the date and time for inaugurating it. The Lok Sabha Secretariat preferred to wait for the convenience of the President.”

But Where Is the Central Hall?

One of the most jarring realisations, especially for Parliamentarians, and journalists covering the beat, has been that the new Parliament House will not have a Central Hall. The Central Hall has been one of the most celebrated spaces in Parliament House. It is the venue of joint sessions of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. According to news reports, including that in the Mid Day, the Lok Sabha Hall in the new Parliament House will be the venue of future joint sessions. It reportedly has the capacity to seat 1,272 people.

However, this erasure of the Central hall has been noted long before the current controversy over the building’s inauguration began. In 2022, Sitaram Yechury wrote in the Deccan Herald that one “cannot conceive of an Indian Parliament without the Central Hall. Call it by any name but you need such a space…

“This hall was central to the struggles for freedom, it was central to the erection of our political structures that defined independent India, the adoption of the tricolour, the adoption of our national anthem, and the drafting of the Constitution, everything happened there…

“When you are in Parliament, this is where leaders and MPs cutting across ideological divisions meet to discuss. There is a conversation in the lighter vein, some are serious chatter. Stalemates are broken here…

“To me, the Central Hall is not just integral but crucial in a situation of crisis. You require a place to find solutions for every knotty situation. That is why I find it absolutely impermissible that when I hear that there will be no Central Hall in the new Parliament building. It deprives the space that is required to make democracy functional.”

It may be recalled that the Central Hall was also a venue where journalists observed the goings-on from the press gallery, and met various leaders for informal conversations and insights. That kind of media access, however, has also changed in recent years. The entry of mediapersons in Parliament was restricted in 2020 citing the Covid-19 pandemic. Journalists were not allowed to access media galleries in the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the Central Hall.

Then a ‘lottery’ system was put in place for some limited access to certain areas of the Parliament premises. This was protested against by the media which had requested that the old functioning system not be tampered with.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership has been on overdrive reasoning that it was permissible for the PM to inaugurate the New Parliament Building. Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri cited examples of PM Indira Gandhi inaugurating the Parliament Annexe in August 1975, and in 1987 PM Rajiv Gandhi inaugurating the Parliament Library. “If your head of government can inaugurate, why can't this head of government do the same?” he asked.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also issued a statement that “it unequivocally condemns the decision of 19 political parties to boycott the inauguration of the new Parliament building on 28th May. The audacity of these opposition parties to preach about parliamentary decency and constitutional values is, in the light of their actions, nothing short of laughable.

“Their hypocrisy knows no bounds – they boycotted the special GST session presided over by the then President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee; skipped the ceremony when he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, and even extended a late courtesy call to Shri Ramnath Kovind Ji upon his election as President. Further, the disrespect shown towards our current President, Smt. Droupadi Murmu, is a new low in political discourse. The staunch opposition to her candidature is not just an insult to her but a direct affront to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of our nation.”

Twitter was flooded with partymen such as Amit Malviya who heads BJP's National Information & Technology Dept, citing examples of government buildings being inaugurated by politicians other than the Governors. “In Chhattisgarh, at the time of the foundation stone laying ceremony (in August 2020), the governor was Anusuiya Uike ji. She comes from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. Belongs to tribal society.

“Her name is not on the inscription but the names of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are inscribed. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are mere MPs. Then under which protocol did they get Bhoomi Pujan done? Why was the governor not called?”

The Ministry of Home Affairs, meanwhile, said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will receive the “sacred symbol of fair and equitable governance, Sengol" and install it in the new Parliament House” on the day of the inauguration. The same Sengol was accepted by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru at his residence on August 14 night.

At the press conference on Wednesday, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “Even after 75 years of independence, most of the people in India are not aware of this event in which India's transfer of power took place through handing over of Sengol to Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. It was a special occasion on the night of August 14, 1947, celebrating India's independence.

“On this night Jawaharlal Nehru received the 'Sengol' from the Adheenams (Priests) of the ThiruvaduthuraiAdheenam (Mutt) in Tamil Nadu, who had specially arrived for the occasion. It was precisely the moment in which power was transferred by the British into the hands of Indians. What we are celebrating as independence is actually marked by the very moment of handing over the 'Sengol'.”

He added that the PM “took a decision to adopt the Sengol as a national symbol of the Amrit Kaal. The new building of Parliament will witness the very same event, with Adheenam(Priests) repeating the ceremony and vesting the Hon’ble PM with the Sengol.

“The Sengol is profound in meaning, which is derived from the Tamil word “Semmai”, meaning “Righteousness”. It is blessed by the high priests of a leading Dharmic Mutt in Tamil Nadu. The Nandi, with its unyielding gaze as the beholder of “Nyaya”, is hand-carved at the top. Most importantly, the recipient of the Sengol has the “order” (“Aanai” in Tamil) to rule justly and fairly. This is what is most appealing, for those elected to serve the people must never forget this.

“The same Sengol from 1947 will be installed by the Hon’ble Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha, prominently close to the Speaker’s podium. It will be displayed for the Nation to see, and will be taken out on special occasions.” Shah said that the “Parliament House is the most appropriate and sacred place to install the historic Sengol” and that “it will be a symbol of the Amrit Kaal, which will witness the glorious era in which India will be taking its rightful place.”

However, the ‘sengol’ itself is slowly being used to fan another potential controversy. A television debate on Times Now hailed its relocation to the New Parliament Building calling it a “reminder to all Indians of India’s civilizational legacy”. The show featured G. Gurumurthy, Editor ‘Thuglak’ detailing the religious ceremony that had been held at the time of the transfer of power. “Questioning all traditions is not secularism,” said Gurumurthy.

According to another message floating on social media it is the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund (JNMF), which administers Anand Bhawan where the Sengol was reportedly kept be taken from Anand Bhawan to New Parliament. It asks if the JNMF has “given permission” to move the sceptre and install it in the New Parliament. The controversy, it seems, is only just beginning to brew.