President’s Exclusion From Parliament Inauguration Was an Affront to Constitution, People of India

The president embodies the sovereignty of the people of India and the State as a whole. According to convention, the president should lead all formal, ceremonial, and solemn occasions. But the inauguration of parliament was tailor-made to show the prime minister as the head of the state and the BJP as the sole representative of the people of India.

On November 26, 1949, the president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first president of independent India, administered this caution to the future political class in his speech:

“We have prepared a democratic constitution. But successful working of democratic institutions requires in those who have to work them 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. The way in which we have been able to draw this constitution without taking recourse to voting and to divisions in lobbies strengthens that hope.”

“Whatever the constitution may or may not provide, the welfare of the country will depend upon the way in which the country is administered. That will depend upon the men who administer it. It is a trite saying that a country can have only the only government it deserves.”

The inauguration of the new parliament building on May 28 sadly shows that it was not done in accordance with constitutional values and established conventions. It also establishes that those in governance are not willing to respect the view points of others and lack the capacity for compromise and accommodation.

The exclusion of the president of India from the inaugural ceremony is a clear affront to the Constitution of India, as also to the office of the President of India. Article 52 of the constitution clearly provides that “there shall be President of India” and Article 53(1) further provides, “The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution.”

The new parliament building. Photo: Twitter/@rsprasad

Even the supreme command of the defence forces of the Union shall be vested with the president as per Article 53(2). Amongst the officers advising the president are the council of ministers. As per Article 74, “There shall be a council of ministers with the prime minister at the head to aid and advise the president who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advise.”

Undisputedly, our constitution generally embodies the parliamentary or cabinet system of government of the British model, both for the Union and the states. Under this system, the president is the constitutional or formal head of the Union and he exercises his powers and functions conferred upon him by or under the constitution on the aid and advice of his council of ministers.

Under British constitutional law, the sovereign never acts on her own responsibility, because the sovereign is conditioned by the practical rule that the crown must find advisers to take responsibility for her actions. Those advisors must have the confidence of the House of the Commons. This rule has been incorporated in our constitution, and thus we have a parliamentary and responsible form of government – both at the Centre and states – and not the presidential form of government.

India has been defined in Article 1 of the constitution as “India i.e., Bharat, shall be a Union of states”, thereby implying the indestructible nature of its unity. The president finds reference in as many as 141 Articles in the constitution – while the prime minister only in six.

Thus, the president is undisputedly the head of the state, while the prime minister is the head of the government. The president is thus a representative of the people, collectively embodying the sovereignty of the whole people or the State as a whole. The president thus must necessarily lead the State as a whole or on all formal, ceremonial, and solemn occasions.

The inauguration of the new parliament was a solemn occasion. We must remember that no government in a democratic country can claim to be fully representative of the people as a whole. Even as per the last general elections results, Prime Minister Modi’s party secured 37.76% of votes out of the total persons who voted (67%).

Even though the Modi government represents the ambition and aspiration of the people, and the BJP is the most popular party in the country, it cannot be said to be representative of the total population of India. It is not the representative of the whole people, and cannot be the true spokesman of the whole people. Therefore, there must be some unit, some authority, some person in whom paramountcy or sovereignty should be vested, in whom the prerogatives should be vested. And that under the constitution is the President of India.

In making the new parliament building, the Government of India must have engaged hundreds of large and small contractors. Article 299 of the constitution says, “All contracts made in the exercise of the executive power of the Union shall be expressed to be made by the President”. It is a serious contradiction that while the new parliament building thus comes up on the basis of the contracts signed in the name of the President of India, but the President was excluded from its inauguration.

Article 79 constitutes parliament thus, “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consists of the President and two Houses to be Known respectively as the Council of States and the House of the People.”

Yet, the chairman of the Council of States, who happens to be the vice president of India, was equally excluded while the speaker of the House of the People was included. The prime minister and his advisers have clearly chosen to ignore the constitutional conventions if not the provisions in doing what they did. This is not the first time that Modi has ignored conventions either. Prime Minister Modi did not attend the swearing-in ceremony of Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, the Chief Justice of India. This was the first time that a prime minister abstained in 77 years.

The entire occasion of inaugurating the new parliament was tailor-made to show the prime minister as the head of the state and the BJP as the sole representative of the people of India. Both these assumption strike at constitutional ethos and morality. This affront to the Constitution of India is what really puts the country in poor light.

Also Read: Whose Parliament, Whose Pride?

Wasteful expenditure?

The existing parliament building is a beautiful piece of architecture designed by architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker and was based on the architectural design of the Chausath Yogini Temples spread across Northern India, built during the 9th and 12th centuries. It was finally commissioned in 1927 and the first session of post-independence parliament commenced on May 13, 1952 in this historic building. Was there a need to reconstruct the parliament building so soon? Let us consider the British Parliament, which was constructed as early as 1016. It was burnt down in 1834, but reconstructed and has been functioning since 1876 in the same building.

The old parliament building was based on Chausath Yogini temples like the one in Mitaoli. Photo: Dharmendra106/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

There was a complete absence of logic and rationale in constructing the new parliament building at a huge cost in a country like India, where hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line. Constitutional framers were worried about wasteful expenditures in post-independent India and so created the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to check such misuses. Unfortunately, appointments to this high post have been highly politicised, resulting in little or no checks whatsoever on wasteful expenditures. Clearly, the purpose to construct the new parliament building was political and to showcase the prime minister as the head of the State.

As if this was not enough, the invitation to the respected Adheenams from Tamil Nadu and handing over of the Sengol or sceptre by them to the prime minister was clearly a religious act, which in a secular nation was clearly uncalled for and avoidable. Our constitution is founded on secular principles, as the Constituent Assembly Debates show. The greatness of the Chola dynasty is undisputed, but the Sengol is a symbol of transfer of power from one king to another. Prime Minister Modi is not a king of India nor did the Adheenams possess any power to be transferred. We are a democracy where power is only transferred from one government to another by and through the President of India.

Whatever may have happened on August 14, 1947, the offering of Puja Prasadams and sceptre to Jawaharlal Nehru at his residence by his holiness Shri-la-Sri Ambalavana Panadarasannadhi of Tiruvaduthurai was a private ceremony and had nothing to do with the State. The Sengol was not transferred by Lord Mountbatten nor was it done in a public place such as the House of the Governor General or the Red Fort, where the transfer of power actually took place at midnight on August 15, 1947.

What is however saddening is the fact that it was the BJP which selected Droupadi Murmu as its presidential candidate, expressing confidence that she will be a “great president”. Modi had said, “Droupadi Murmu ji has devoted her life to serving society and empowering the poor, downtrodden as well as the marginalised.” Upon her being sworn as the president, Modi once again said that “it was a watershed moment for the poor, marginalised and the downtrodden”.

President Murmu has conducted herself impeccably since being appointed and has won the hearts of millions. She not only represents the people of India, but she also represents the women – and as Modi said, the poor, marginalised and downtrodden. In not inviting her to inaugurate the new parliament, Modi has clearly ignored the poor, marginalised, downtrodden, and women, besides the People of India, who are all symbolised by President Murmu.

Rajendra Prasad’s prophetic words have come to be so true.

Dushyant Dave is a senior advocate and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.