New Delhi, India – On Sunday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate a new parliament building in capital New Delhi – a decision that has led to at least 19 opposition parties announcing their plans to boycott the event.
In a joint statement, the national and regional parties on Wednesday said India’s President Droupadi Murmu should open the new parliament and have accused Modi of sidelining the country’s first tribal head of state.
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India’s president is an indirectly elected, non-party executive with only ceremonial powers, but is considered the country’s first citizen and is the highest constitutional authority.
“Prime Minister Modi’s decision to inaugurate the new parliament building by himself, completely sidelining President Murmu, is not only a grave insult but a direct assault on our democracy which demands a commensurate response,” the statement issued by the opposition parties said.
“When the soul of democracy has been sucked out from the parliament, we find no value in a new building. We announce our collective decision to boycott the inauguration,” it added.
The Congress party’s spokesperson, Supriya Shrinate, told Al Jazeera that Modi does not have “the moral right” to inaugurate the parliament as “he is killing democracy every single day”.
“Mr Modi is making it all about himself. When he laid the foundation stone, former President Ram Nath Kovind was not invited. Now for the inauguration again, President Murmu has been sidelined,” she said.
“She [Murmu] is the custodian of the constitution, she is the first tribal woman president of the country and to not invite her for the inauguration is indeed shameful and this is the worst insult that can be meted out to a tribal woman who rose to become the president,” Shrinate said, adding that “history will remember” their protest over the inauguration.
‘Obsession with self-image’
Opposing Modi’s decision, D Raja, a senior Communist Party of India leader, wrote on Twitter that the Indian prime minister is an executive organ of the state while parliament is the legislative organ.
“Obsession with self-image and cameras trumps decency and norms when it comes to Modi ji,” Raja wrote. “Ji” is a common honorific in the Hindi language.
Shehzad Poonawalla, a spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), argued that the inauguration of a new parliament is “an issue of common importance” and accused the opposition parties of politicising the opening.
“While the temple of democracy will be inaugurated on the 28th [of May], the mother of hypocrisy, the Congress, is trying to create excuses to stall it. Congress leaders themselves had pressed for a new building in the past, but are today labelling it as ‘vanity’,” he told Al Jazeera.
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), another opposition party opposed to Modi opening the new parliament, said the Lok Sabha speaker or the chairman of the Rajya Sabha should do it.
“There are bigger needs the nation has and they go beyond buildings for parliamentarians. In the last 10 years, the country has aged poorly. We need resources for the poor. Buildings do not fill empty stomachs, grains do,” Syed Asim Waqar, AIMIM’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
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The new parliament building, part of a $2.8bn revamp of British-era offices and residences in central New Delhi, is being inaugurated two days after Modi’s government completes nine years in power and ahead of crucial general elections due by May next year.
The “Central Vista” project – as the revamp of the British-era capital is officially known – includes the $120m new parliament, the residences of the prime minister and vice president, and 10 blocks of buildings to house government ministries and departments.
In December 2020, Modi laid the foundation of the new parliament, which is said to have an increased seating capacity of 888 members in the lower house, called the Lok Sabha, as opposed to the current strength of 545, and 384 in Rajya Sabha, the upper house, as compared with 250 now.
The construction of the buildings in the middle of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread criticism, especially during the brutal second wave in the summer of 2021. The WHO estimates a total of 531,843 people died in India since the pandemic began in January 2020.
Congress’s Shrinate said the project was launched and prioritised over people’s suffering, and the loss of lives and livelihoods during the pandemic.
The Central Vista project also received criticism for being inconsistent with the government’s environmental policies and raised concerns regarding damages the project would cause to heritage buildings in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill area.
Ishwar Marandi, professor of political science at Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Jharkhand state’s Dumka town, remembered the day Murmu was sworn in as the president.
Marandi, who belongs to the same Santhal tribe as Murmu, said the community felt empowered by one of its members holding the top constitutional position in the government.
“But now we see that she is nowhere, uninvited, it shakes the community,” he told Al Jazeera.