Laying the foundation stone of the new Parliament building on Thursday, the centrepiece of the Central Vista redevelopment project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke eloquently about democracy — a fuller and stronger articulation of the democratic principle and practice than he has made before. He spoke of its ancient rites in India and many successes despite the naysayers and the odds, its living presence as culture, value and samvad (conversation), not just as formal procedure or process. He also spoke about Parliament’s role in consecrating democracy by linking past and future, “nootan” and “puratan”, new and old. We, the people, together own this Parliament, and we will construct the new one, “hum Bharat ke log, mil kar…”, he said. If the old Parliament gave direction to post-Independence India, the new Parliament would embody the aspirations and optimisms of Aatmanirbhar India. It was a soaring speech, apt for the momentous occasion. But its very capaciousness also served to draw attention to an absence. Leaders of Opposition parties were missing at the foundation-laying ceremony. And the bhoomi pujan rituals, followed by inter-faith prayers, were conducted by the sole figure of the Prime Minister, imprinting his persona on what should have been a more inclusive and encompassing national moment of a multi-religious and diverse country.
As the PM rightly said, the Parliament, old or new, is more than just a building. Its “pran pratishtha”, or life force, is infused by the people’s representatives, who may differ with each other in their politics, but who participate in a shared ethos of speaking and listening to each other. Surely, for the foundation stone-laying of a new high-tech and modern house for this old institution, all efforts should have been made to encourage and ensure the presence of parties and politicians across the political spectrum. During the pandemic, the Prime Minister has been able to hold quite a few meetings with states and other parties. Surely, it wouldn’t have been difficult to avoid the impression of a one-man show. For, in a sense, Thursday’s ceremony framed a narrowing of the parliamentary spirit that has been visible for some time now. In too many decisions and moments, it has seemed that the BJP-led government, having won a large mandate not once but twice, is not taking the next step to reach out and draw in the Opposition and civil society in its projects and policies.
The Modi government’s argument — that it is the Opposition that has not yet reconciled to its electoral marginalisation and is always looking for an opportunity to bite back — may well be true. But what is also undeniable is this: The government, which has the power and the platform, is not showing the large-heartedness and generosity, or even the democratic humility, to engage those who are less powerful or in a minority. The ‘we, the people’ that the PM invoked on Thursday is an abstraction that must be constantly imbued with meaning in a democracy, especially by the government, else it becomes a hollow piety. On a historic occasion on Thursday, it fell short of doing that.