Modi Opens India’s New Parliament Building as Opposition Stays Away

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday inaugurated a sleek new Parliament complex, part of a more than $2 billion project to revamp India’s decrepit colonial-era center of government in New Delhi.

But the inauguration ceremony, which reflected Mr. Modi’s usual penchant for Hindu religious and nationalist symbolism, was boycotted by his political opposition. And outside in the streets, the police were brutally breaking up a demonstration.

The majority of opposition lawmakers from both chambers, about 250 people, stayed away to protest what they called the latest example of the prime minister’s overreach, which they say is undermining India’s constitutional democracy.

In a rare statement of unity, about 20 opposition parties rebuked Mr. Modi for taking on a role they said was reserved for India’s president, Droupadi Murmu, who holds the symbolic but important role as the custodian of the Constitution.

“The president is not only the head of state in India, but also an integral part of the Parliament. She summons, prorogues and addresses the Parliament,” the parties said in the statement. “When the soul of democracy has been sucked out from the Parliament, we find no value in a new building.”

Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has pushed back against such claims, pointing out that previous prime ministers had inaugurated additions and annexes in the old Parliament building.

But the opposition parties said Mr. Modi’s choice to preside over the inauguration was consistent with a more general breach of parliamentary process by his party, including pushing through, with scant debate, contentious bills that have altered the fundamentals of India’s union.

The inauguration (which the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, compared with a “coronation”) was held under tight security, as female wrestlers who have been camped out in protest for more than a month in central Delhi had vowed to hold a march the same day. The protesters, who include Olympic medalists, have accused the wrestling federation’s chief, who is also a lawmaker in Mr. Modi’s party, of sexual harassment and complained that the government was trying to brush aside their concerns.

When the wrestlers’ march breached the security barricades, the police broke it up in a chaotic and violent scene, detaining the wrestlers and dismantling their camp.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the accused lawmaker, was in attendance at the inauguration, posting pictures of himself posing inside the new Parliament.

The old Parliament building was the site of big moments in the nation’s history, like the 1947 declaration of independence from Britain and the adoption of the Constitution creating India as a democratic republic. But it no longer met the needs of what is soon to be the world’s most populous country. It was short on space for the lower house’s 543 legislators, a number likely to increase in coming years. Pieces of its ceiling sometimes fell on members, and a few years ago, the air-conditioning smelled so bad that a session had to be adjourned.

The new complex, built for about $120 million and designed by Bimal Patel, an Indian architect, incorporates the latest technology and expands seating to 888 in the main chamber of the lower house.

Ronojoy Sen, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore and the author of a book about the history of India’s Parliament, said the symbolism and the timing also mattered.

“The new Parliament is being built in time for the 2024 general elections,” Mr. Sen said. “More importantly, it will remain as part of Modi’s legacy, and as a link to India’s ‘timeless’ and ‘ancient’ democracy — something that Modi has often talked about.”

Campaigning for next year’s general elections is in full swing, with opposition parties struggling to find a formula for challenging Mr. Modi’s grip as he prepares to seek a third term in office.

India’s governing party is presenting Mr. Modi as the leader needed at the moment of India’s rise on the global stage. At an event in New Delhi on Friday marking nine years of Mr. Modi’s rule, party leaders listed the progress on his watch — expansive infrastructure investment, improved social welfare programs, a rise in global standing — as reasons for a third term of his “decisive leadership.”

While the opposition parties have often fought each other, many have faced a common threat in Mr. Modi’s unleashing the arms of the state against them. In recent months, they seem to be uniting around a common narrative: Mr. Modi is turning the country’s democracy into a one-party rule that is failing to bring the economic growth, particularly employment, that India needs.

“The muzzling of democratic dissent and expression has compelled opposition parties to sink their differences and come together to oppose Mr. Modi,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator based in New Delhi. “The opposition hopes to make the protection of democracy and federalism their main planks in next year’s general election. However, much more work will have to go into shaping a popular and appealing narrative around these issues.”

Analysts and rights activists say Mr. Modi has centralized power around himself in ways unseen since the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency brought India’s democracy the closest ever to outright dictatorship.

What makes Mr. Modi’s approach different from Ms. Gandhi’s authoritarian turn, they say, is its religious undertone: He is a lifelong member of a right-wing Hindu movement that aims to turn India’s secular system into a Hindu-first nation.

At a Hindu prayer ceremony during the inauguration (which also included an interfaith ceremony later), Mr. Modi prostrated himself in front of a scepter, an object that has come to encapsulate the meaning of the new Parliament — a new beginning from an ambitious builder, one determined to shed not just the remnants of India’s colonial past, but also increasingly to replace the secular governance that followed it.

The governing party said the scepter, given by Hindu priests to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a symbol of transfer of power from the British in 1947, had been relegated to a corner of a small museum.

In social media posts showing Mr. Modi’s embrace of the scepter now, party leaders made clear what its return meant: a reclaiming of the Hindu glory that they feel has been wrongfully undermined by India’s secular constitutional structure.

Mr. Modi, surrounded by a dozen Hindu priests, carried the scepter down the aisle of the new Parliament, installing it to the right of the speaker’s seat.

“This new Parliament is not just a building; it is a reflection of the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians,” Mr. Modi said. “This is the temple of our democracy.”

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