The Sengol Issue: Instead of Placing Symbols, PM Modi Needs to Restore Parliament’s Legitimacy

To restore a sense of dignity and seriousness to parliament, the prime minister must take the lead to remake the political compact between the executive and the legislature. If he does not do that, history will not be kind to him.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra famously lauded the Indian parliament as a “temple of our democracy”. Since then, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government has left no stone unturned to desecrate this temple. The most recent example of this attack on India’s supreme legislative “temple” is the manner in which the new parliament is being inaugurated.

On one hand, the BJP government has consciously chosen to exclude India’s president, vice president (who is also the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha) and the former president. This deliberate exclusion to accommodate Prime Minister Modi’s lust for a nameplate is an insult to these high constitutional offices.

On the other hand, it is unacceptable that the executive is treating the parliament as its personal jagir. Given that the parliament is primarily a legislative body, primacy should have been accorded to the legislature (which includes all opposition parties).

Modi is India’s prime minister (not just the BJP’s), and it is incumbent on him to accommodate each and every member of parliament (MP) at the inauguration of the new parliament. Even a single one left out is a disservice to their constituents.

Since Prime Minister Modi is deeply interested in his imprint on history, he should know that it would have been infinitely more meaningful if the president, the prime minister and the entire opposition were present at the inauguration.

New parliament building. Photo: Twitter@airnews_ddn

The Sengol issue

The BJP clearly realises it has erred on both these counts. But after nine years of gladiatorial posturing, it simply will not deign to apologise or course-correct. And so, it resorts to a tested toolkit – obfuscation through deflection. That’s why the BJP’s propaganda machinery is making concerted efforts to highlight the Sengol issue.

But in doing so, it is unwittingly shifting attention away from the parliament’s inauguration (especially in the light of multiple reports highlighting democratic regression) to a little-known symbol from the past (whose significance is primarily limited to the Chola dynasty). But leaving that tactical inconsistency aside, the Sengol issue is bound to misfire because of the following reasons.

Firstly, the Sengol marked the transfer of power from one king to another and was sanctified by high priests. In that spirit, the Tamil inscription on the Sengol is roughly translated as “it is our order that the follower of the Lord, the King, shall rule as in the Heavens”. Such a symbol has relevance in a monarchy, and not in a parliamentary democracy.

India’s leaders and their successors are neither anointed nor appointed. They are elected and are constitutionally accountable to MPs, the people’s representatives. In deploying the symbols of kingship for the inauguration of the new parliament, Prime Minister Modi is officially announcing he won’t be our pratham sevak any longer. This ceremony is his rajya-abhishek, following which he shall become India’s new Shahenshah. Will he then also follow this up with a crown and kingly robes?

Second, and this is important to highlight given this is bound to be caricatured, the Sengol is undoubtedly an important part of our history and culture. It should be prominently exhibited and studied. But in a palace or a museum, and not in the parliament. This is partly because the parliament is largely inaccessible to the lay public.

In fact, unlike the current parliament, the new parliament has reportedly been designed to relegate the media and the citizenry to a distant corner. If the BJP was genuinely interested in highlighting the Sengol’s historical and cultural significance, it should ideally have placed it somewhere where millions of Indians could view it regularly.

Third, and equally important is the fact that once the government starts placing symbols in parliament for their historic importance, the same logic can be applied to other symbols too.

Should the pens that the constituent assembly members used to sign the constitution be also placed in parliament? Should B.R. Ambedkar’s or Rajendra Prasad’s spectacles be displayed on the floor of the House? Should the text of the speech delivered by Prime Minister Nehru on August 15, 1947 also be displayed there?

All such artefacts are important, but they all belong in the parliament museum, not the parliament hall itself. In forcing such a reductive dialectic upon India, the BJP has made a mockery of the parliament, which is a sacred and solemn institution.

Fourth, the BJP is spinning the Sengol as a symbol of the transfer of power from the colonial government to independent India.

Ignoring the historical inaccuracy of this symbolism, what is the political import of leveraging this symbol today? Obviously, the BJP is trying to not-so-subtly reiterate that nothing happened before 2014. In repeatedly making this assertion, the BJP repeatedly undermines its own governments (the NDA-1 governments under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Janata Dal and the V.P. Singh governments in which the BJP was a coalition partner). Even more problematically, it denigrates the efforts of countless Indians who tirelessly contributed to nation-building since 1947.

Fifth, in insidiously twisting the Sengol issue, the BJP is also trying to caricature progressive forces as anti-Hindu. It would behove the BJP to stop misusing Hinduism as well as faith for ideological and partisan ends. For the vast majority of Indians, their faith unites and doesn’t divide. It teaches them to be prabuddha (enlightened), not bigots.

Numerous verses in the Rigveda (9/13/8; 6/47/13; 4/1/4; 2/6/4 etc.), and the Samveda (134) urge us to “destroy all malicious inclinations of hatred and enmity towards anyone”. The Atharveda (17/1/7) goes even further to urge us to “cultivate love, affection, empathy and goodwill for all creatures” (“yanscha paschyami yanscha na teshu ma sumati krudhi”). Given these, and contrary to what the BJP has proselytised, good Hindus will not be determined by how intolerant they are to differences, or by observances of regressive caste and religious norms, or by blind adherence to rituals or support for the BJP.

A true Hindu, like a true Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, etc. recognises the oneness of all creation and hence strives for the good of all (in thought, word and action).

But to engage with the reductive for just a moment, Chola kings were known to be either Sengol or Kodungol atchi (based on how scrupulously they adhered to justice and truth). Since the BJP is keen on leveraging this symbolism to ‘crown’ Prime Minister Modi, let us objectively consider which atchi will he be.

In the last nine years, the BJP government has gone to great lengths to avoid any dialogue, leveraging every trick in the book (and some out of the book) to avoid accountability. Since 2014, an unprecedented 155 MPs have been suspended at various points in time. Similarly, 76% of the bills passed in the last nine years were passed without any legislative scrutiny (either on the floor of the House or in the committees).

Likewise, the prime minister does not answer questions in parliament and the Modi government has bypassed parliament by promulgating 11 ordinances per year (on average).

And finally, undermining Article 93 of India’s constitution and structurally crippling parliament, the Lok Sabha has not elected a deputy speaker after four years. To any discerning observer, it’s painfully obvious that Prime Minister Modi is Kodungol atchi.

Also read: Why the President of India Should Inaugurate the New Parliament Building

The need to restore Parliament’s legitimacy

In prioritising symbolic issues, the BJP is consciously deflecting from substantive issues related to the development of the nation and its people.

The BJP reduced the new parliament to a mere symbol even before it has been inaugurated. If India is to keep reaching new heights, we need a parliament that is functional, inclusive and constructive. Even though the parliament has been failing as an instrument of control over the executive over the past nine years, the inauguration of the new parliament was an opportunity for the BJP government to redress fault lines.

Prime Minister Modi should have ideally made an effort to bring together all parliamentary parties and restore parliament’s legitimacy. In this spirit, it is worth recalling former Prime Minister Vajpayee, who famously extolled the “quality of being able to befriend the opponent and the enemy, that gentlemanliness, that greatness” while speaking of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s track record as a democrat.

He said this because Nehru insisted upon a “large measure of cooperation, of self-discipline, of restraint” in parliament, from himself and his party. That is why even though the Congress party had an absolute majority in the House, Nehru never used his strength either to steam-roll the opposition or to beat down any divergence of opinion in the party.

Nehru, and his entire cabinet, were vehemently intolerant of any kind of jingoism or mudslinging from legislators from the ruling dispensation, something today’s parliament has been severely afflicted by. Once he burst out in parliament against one of his own party members saying he was parading obscurantism and medievalism as nationalism. That kind of chivalry and statesmanship is unimaginable today, when personal attacks and mud-slinging are the norm.

To restore a sense of dignity and seriousness to parliament, the prime minister must take the lead to remake the political compact between the executive and the legislature. If he does not do that, history will not be kind to him.

Pushparaj Deshpande is the director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation and the series editor of the Rethinking India series (Penguin).