Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on Thursday asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi what message he intended to send out by robbing President Droupadi Murmu of her right to inaugurate the new Parliament building.
Modi is scheduled to do the honours himself on May 28, with the Congress and 18 other Opposition parties resolving to boycott the event over the "insult" to the President and the government’s undermining of democratic values and practices.
"Modi ji, Parliament is the temple of democracy established by the people of India. The post of President is the most important and integral part of Parliament. The arrogance of your government has destroyed parliamentary democracy," Kharge tweeted.
"The 140 crore Indians want to know what message you intend to send out by robbing the President of her right to inaugurate the new Parliament building."
Implicit in this question is the suggestion that the Prime Minister's desperation to inaugurate the new Parliament building cannot be seen in isolation and marks another example of his perceived autocratic attitude.
Senior Congress leaders said the decision to boycott Sunday’s event owed not just to Murmu’s exclusion from the inauguration but to the Opposition’s longstanding frustration at the Modi government’s undemocratic functioning over the last nine years.
Many Congress leaders privately said that a Prime Minister who elbows out other ministers to hog the limelight even over matters such as distributing appointment letters and inaugurating trains can hardly be expected to allow a new Parliament building to be inaugurated by someone else. Modi had allowed his photograph to be used even on the Covid vaccination certificates.
“It is one man’s ego and desire for self-promotion that has denied the first (tribal) woman President her Constitutional privilege to inaugurate the new Parliament building in New Delhi on May 28. Ashoka the Great, Akbar the Great, Modi the Inaugurate,” Congress communications chief Jairam Ramesh tweeted.
A former Union minister from the Congress told The Telegraph: “From the very beginning, Modi has undermined the sanctity of the Union cabinet. The serious decision of the demonetisation was taken without taking the cabinet into confidence."
The minister added: “Every democratic institution has lost its autonomy: the Election Commission has almost declared that Modi is above the law. Critical issues are not debated in Parliament and critical references are expunged. Insulting the President is not the first issue.”
Shivaji Rao Moghe, who heads the All India Adivasi Congress, threatened countrywide protests on Friday against the "insult to tribals and women".
"Narendra Modi has a habit of violating the Constitution of India and has no regard for Adivasis and Dalits. Not letting Droupadi Murmu access her constitutional right to inaugurate the new Parliament building is undemocratic and unconstitutional," he said in a statement.
"The tribal communities of the country want to know from the Prime Minister why he is silent on this insult to tribals and women of the country. On behalf of the Adivasi communities across India, the All India Adivasi Congress will organise state, district and block-level protests on May 26 to hold the Modi government accountable for its unconstitutional actions."
The Modi government has so far not come up with any convincing justification for not inviting the President or the Vice-President to an event of national importance where all MPs, chief ministers and central government secretaries have been invited along with well-known personalities such as sports icons and film stars.
The Opposition argues that the two dignitaries have not been invited because their physical presence would have raised questions of protocol, making it difficult for the Prime Minister to inaugurate the building.
It’s not as though the President and the Vice-President are apathetic towards the event — both are expected to send recorded messages.
Union minister Hardeep Puri had earlier this week recalled how Indira Gandhi had inaugurated the Parliament annexe and Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Parliament library — a comparison the Congress has dismissed as fallacious.
On Thursday, Puri said that then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had inaugurated some Assembly buildings, with the governors not being invited to the events.
However, the feeling in the Congress is that the President, who is an elected authority, cannot be compared with the governor; nor can an Assembly building be compared with Parliament.
Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, who has said she will not attend the event because of political engagements, has supported the government’s stance.
“It is unfair to boycott the function because the President is not inaugurating the new Parliament building,” she has tweeted.
“The government has constructed the building and has the right to inaugurate it. It is wrong to link it to the honour of a tribal woman President. The Opposition parties should have thought about her honour while fielding a candidate against her.”
Some Opposition leaders have alleged that Mayawati’s comment betrays an ignorance of constitutional nuances and political propriety.
“Contesting is a democratic right but once the President is elected, she is the President of India, not of the BJP. It is our duty to remind the government it is not observing raj dharma (duties of a ruler),” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said.
Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, which is considered close to the BJP, has in a statement defended its decision to attend the event.
“The President of India is the head of the Indian State. Parliament represents the 1.4 billion people of India. Both institutions are symbols of Indian democracy and draw their authority from the Constitution of India. Their authority and stature should always be safeguarded,” the BJD said.
“The BJD believes that these constitutional institutions should be above any issue which may affect their sanctity and honour. Such issues can always be debated later in the august House. Hence the BJD shall be part of this momentous occasion.”
Many in the Opposition have found the BJD’s position strange — the party appears to vindicate the Opposition’s logic but says the matter should be discussed later. That’s the Opposition’s core concern — that key issues aren’t debated.