The foundation stone laying ceremony (aka the bhoomi pujan) of the new parliament building on December 10, 2020, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marks a transitional moment in Indian politics.
Besides other disputable issues, the choice of the prime minister as the ‘master of ceremonies’ underscores the near-complete hegemony the executive has established over the legislature. Although this process has been steadily underway for several decades, its acceleration since 2014 after the return of single-party majority in the country cannot be denied.
The decision to get the prime minister to perform religious rituals, bestowed on Modi the status of ‘karta‘ of the bicameral legislature, although the office of the prime minister has no function in the management of the parliament. This was facilitated by the Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla who announced the function via a tweet on December 5 although he is the presiding officer of only one of the two houses.
Modi also delivered the all-important speech of the ceremony. He waxed lyrical on the history of democracy in India, the value of democratic practices, the significance of the parliament building and his emotions after entering its portals for the first time as a member in 2014. The issues the prime minister touched upon, served as a reminder of the government’s credibility gap – between its assertions and actions insofar as democratic practices are concerned.
Repeated mentions of parliament as ‘temple of democracy’ and the prime minister laying the foundation stone were reminiscent of Ayodhya’s Ram temple – whos construction he had kickstarted with a bhoomi pujan in August after a decades-long political and legal battle. The overlap between these two narratives and the likely completion date of both projects being 2022, when India will celebrate its 75th anniversary of independence, will further narrow the gap between religion and the state.
The primacy accorded to Modi at the foundation laying ceremony is at odds with Article 79 of the Indian constitution, which specifies: “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses…”
This Article was debated and passed “without amendments” by the constituent assembly on January 3, 1949. During the discussion, economist and advocate KT Shah, who later contested India’s first presidential election against Rajendra Prasad, moved an amendment to “delete President” from the draft Article.
Shah argued that making the President the de facto head of parliament was an instance of “unnecessary imitation of the British system”. According to him, the “President is merely an ornamental head of the nation and should not be an integral part of the legislature.”
Members disagreed and eventually adopted Article 79 after accepting that the “Indian Constitution gave prominence to the President – he/she was the Executive Head of the nation.” Consequently, it was “important to include President in the legislature.”
The position of the president as the head of parliament continues. M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdher in their veritable ‘Bible’ of Practice and Procedure of Parliament wrote, “on the one hand, President is the head of the Executive, and on the other, (s)he is a constituent part of Parliament.”
The president summons, prorogues or dissolves parliament besides addressing the two houses jointly before the first session after each election of the Lok Sabha and at the commencement of the first session of each year.
In the rush to enable the prime minister to put his signature on a plaque that will henceforth be part of national history, this regime missed harvesting political dividends by getting a ‘Dalit President’ to lay the foundation stone of parliament 31 years after a Dalit performed shilanyas in Ayodhya. Social inclusion certainly does not come at the cost of the leadership’s glory.
Most opposition parties refrained from attending the function in the parliament estate – they mainly cited the situation arising from the outbreak of COVID-19 and the unnecessary expenditure at this stage, as reasons for staying away. A few like Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of CPIM and former finance minister P. Chidambaram were critical because the bhoomi pujan was being performed by the prime minister and not the president.
In the order of precedence, if the president is unavailable, the vice president can be asked to take his place. In this case, however, the VP couldn’t have been there because the honours were being done by the prime minister. More importantly, the prime minister has no position in parliament except as head of the council of ministers or as leader of either house.
The hegemonic hold of the executive on the legislature was highlighted in the backdrop of the Supreme Court disallowing construction on the Central Vista project but not staying the foundation ceremony in parliament.
It is thus safe to assume that the apex court is likely to reject pleas against the project as the foundation stone has already been laid, that too in the presence of dignitaries and envoys of numerous countries. The government’s counsel in the court would likely reason that stopping or delaying the project now would lead to loss of national face.
This sub-chapter in the episode also flags questions about the extent to which the judiciary is ‘mindful’ of the executive’s objectives.
Although several Congress leaders contended that the bhoomi pujan should have been performed by the president, the process of the executive performing ceremonial rituals of parliament, and thereby undermining the doctrine of separation of powers between the three institutions of the state, began almost half a century ago when the Congress party was in power at the Centre and most states.
French social commentator and political thinker Baron de Montesquieu provided one of the earliest and clearest statements of the separation of powers in 1748. He wrote in The Spirit of the Laws:
“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty…there is no liberty if the powers of judging is not separated from the legislative and executive… there would be an end to everything, if the same man or the same body… were to exercise those three powers.”
Yet, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 24, 1975 – four months after imposing an Emergency that curtailed fundamental rights and led to the detention of most opposition leaders – inaugurated the parliament annexe building or the Sansadiya Soudha. Its foundation stone was, however, laid by President V.V. Giri on August 3, 1970, when Indira Gandhi was still several years away from mutating into an authoritarian leader who established hegemonic dominance over other arms of the state.
The process of institutional subversion started in 1973 when her cabinet colleague Mohan Kumaramangalam mooted the idea of a ‘committed judiciary’ after the verdict in the Kesavananda Bharati case.
The process of the executive taking over the legislature’s privileges was witnessed again in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation of the parliament library. The Lok Sabha secretariat cited these instances to ward off criticism of Modi performing the ground-breaking ceremony.
Yet, both the annexe and library building are supplementary structures in the parliament estate merely providing service to members and space for the staff.
In contrast, the new building will be the sanctum sanctorum of the much-vaunted temple of democracy of ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ and it would have been conventionally appropriate if the aadharshila (foundation stone) was laid by the president.
It must be recalled that the foundation stone of the present building was laid on February 12, 1921, by the Duke of Connaught as the British Crown’s representative. The inauguration was by the then Viceroy and Governor-General Lord Irwin, again a royal representative.
Kaul and Shakhder wrote that constitutionally, as well as in practice, “the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature is one that is most intimate and ideally does not admit of any antagonism or dichotomy.” In addition, rules specify that every member of Parliament before taking a seat in the house, “is required to make and subscribe the oath or affirmation before the President” or his/her nominee”.
Given that the prime minister is first a member of Parliament and that the precedence of the president insofar as parliament is concerned is reiterated in multiple ways, it would have been fitting to get the head of state to lay the foundation of a new parliament building.