Opponents of Modi boycott opening of new Indian parliament; Prime Minister says he is breaking with the colonial past

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s main opposition parties boycotted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of a new parliament building on Sunday in a rare show of unity against his ruling Hindu Nationalist Party, which has since ruled nine years and is seeking a third term in elections next year.

Modi opened the new parliament in the capital of New Delhi by offering prayers as Hindu priests sang religious hymns. Opposition parties criticized the event, saying Modi had ousted President Draupadi Murmu, who has only ceremonial powers but is the head of state and highest constitutional authority.

Shortly after the inauguration, a visibly beaming Modi entered parliament to enthusiastic applause from his party’s MPs who chanted “Modi, Modi”. He delivered a nearly 40-minute speech in which he hailed India’s parliamentary democracy and said the country had left its colonial past behind, referring to the old parliament building built by the British when they ruled. on India.

“India is the mother of democracy,” Modi said, as lawmakers knocked on their desks. “Several years of foreign domination have robbed us of our pride. Today, India has left behind this colonial mindset.”

Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Parliament is the voice of the people. The Prime Minister regards the inauguration of Parliament as a coronation.”

At least 19 opposition parties skipped the event, which coincided with the birthday of a Hindu nationalist ideologue.

Opposition parties said in a statement on Wednesday that Modi’s decision to inaugurate the building was “a grave insult” to Indian democracy, as the government had “disqualified, suspended and muted” lawmakers in India. opposition while passing “controversial legislation” with little debate.

“When the soul of democracy has been sucked out of parliament, we find no value in a new building,” the parties said.

Powerful Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said the opposition had politicized the event. Other leaders of Modi’s party said the boycott was an insult to the prime minister.

The new triangular-shaped building – built at an estimated cost of $120 million – is part of a $2.8 billion revamp of British-era offices and residences in central New Delhi that will also include blocks of buildings to house government ministries and departments, and Modi’s new private residence. The entire project, called “Central Vista”, spans 3.2 kilometers (1.9 miles).

The project was announced in 2019 and Modi laid the groundwork in December 2020.

The plan drew fierce criticism from opposition politicians, architects and heritage experts, many of whom called it irresponsible for the environment, a threat to cultural heritage and too expensive.

Outrage grew in 2021, when at least 12 opposition parties questioned the timeline for the project, saying it was built as the country faced a devastating rise in coronavirus cases. They called the redesign Modi’s “vanity project” and said its construction took priority over the loss of lives and livelihoods during the pandemic.

A year earlier, a group of 60 former civil servants wrote an open letter to Modi highlighting the architectural value of the old parliament and said the new plan would “irrevocably” destroy the region’s cultural heritage.

Modi’s government said the revamp was needed because the old building “showed signs of distress and overuse” and the new design “combines the country’s heritage and traditions”.

The new building sits directly opposite the old Indian Parliament, a circular structure designed by British architects in the early 20th century. The new four-storey building has a total of 1,272 seats divided into two chambers, almost 500 more than the previous one.

The old Parliament will be transformed into a museum.

During the televised ceremony on Sunday, Modi bowed before a golden royal scepter which his Bharatiya Janata party said symbolized the transfer of power when it was presented to the country’s first prime minister on the eve of the India’s independence from Britain in 1947. Dozens of Hindu priests followed Modi inside parliament, where he installed the scepter near the speaker’s chair.

Modi’s critics and opposition leaders questioned the historicity of the scepter and said the emblem was appropriate for a monarchy, not a democracy.

Last year, Modi inaugurated a renovated colonial-era avenue in the heart of New Delhi used for ceremonial military parades. The boulevard was previously called Rajpath, or Kingsway, but Modi’s party changed it to Kartavya Path, or Road to Duty, arguing that the old name was a ‘symbol of slavery’ which had been ‘erased for always”.

The controversy over the new legislative building comes just months after opposition leaders protested Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament in a libel case over remarks he made about Modi’s surname.

Barely a mile from the ceremony, a heavy police presence overpowered about 100 protesting Indian wrestlers and their supporters. They accuse their federation president of sexual misconduct and had planned to march to the new parliament building. Some of the protesters clashed with police and were taken to a bus.

Indian Wrestling Federation chairman Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has denied the charges, is a powerful lawmaker in Modi’s party.

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