Symbols are important in public life. The choice and projection of symbols reflect ideologies, cultures, histories, a worldview and much else. At the historic midnight session of the Constituent Assembly 75 years ago, in a solemn ceremony, the national flag was handed over to the president of the Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, by Hansa Mehta, freedom fighter and one of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly.
She said, “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift from the women of India…”. This symbolised then and for all these years, the recognition of the role played by India’s women in the glorious struggle to free India from British rule. But looking at that historic event today, there is another apparent significance. It was not Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who received the flag, it was independent India’s first president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad. This was before the Constitution of India was adopted, establishing the post of the President of India. There would have been no reason for Nehru, the acknowledged leader of the Assembly, not to have received the flag, since there were no set rules. Propriety and norms of respect for the president of the Assembly would have determined who received the flag.
In 1947, even without the formal Constitution, the president of the Assembly was accepted as the head. Today despite the Constitution, this role and status of the president is sought to be usurped by the prime minister. The decision to inaugurate the new Parliament building himself, instead of the President, is symbolic of the utter disregard and, indeed, contempt for constitutional propriety. The Constitution of India in Article 79, states categorically, “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the Council of States and the House of the People.” Clearly, a symbolic occasion such as the inauguration of a new Parliament building should have the president at the centre. This is even more so because the president is a symbol of social inclusion, as a member of an Adivasi community and as a woman. This has been repeatedly utilised by the prime minister to claim a mantle of social sensibility, now so easily discarded. The president may be too gracious to make a fuss, but the Opposition is absolutely correct to do so and to follow up with a united declaration from 19 Opposition parties that they would boycott the function.
This decision should not be construed as the tu tu, main main kind of debate that has become a common feature of India’s current political scenario. It is a democratic protest against the insult it constitutes to the President of India, against the flagrant violation of constitutional propriety and also the usurping of a role for the head of state, the President of India, by the prime minister. The NDA which rarely meets has been rounded up to sign a statement which determinedly avoids answering the question: Why the PM and not the president? His colleagues have expectedly jumped in to counter the criticism with the usual chorus of abuse against the Opposition. One minister thought it fit to compare the inauguration of the Parliament annexe and the library by former prime ministers with the “if they could do it why are you objecting now” sort of illogic, the reduction of the “temple of democracy” to a library itself an indication of the contempt for Parliament, and further underlining their hapless state of having to defend the indefensible.
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It is no secret that the BJP in its different avatars has been a votary of the presidential form of government. Essentially, in such a system, the president is both the head of state and head of the executive while holding a crucial veto over decisions of the legislature, giving overriding powers to an individual. While there may be a debate on the pros and cons of such a style of governance and its different models practised in countries across the world, in the contemporary political situation in India, it fits in well with the regressive guru-shishya, raja-praja model of governance based on unquestioning obedience to the ordained higher authority, so close to the hearts and minds of the Sangh Parivar. When the Constitution of India establishing a sovereign, democratic republic was adopted with parliamentary democracy and a federal structure, it was the RSS which had been its strongest critic on grounds that it was not “Bharatiya” enough — “Bharatiya” as defined in the Manusmriti.
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The last decade of the Modi regime has seen an unprecedented centralisation of power in the hands of the central government, and within that government in the hands of the prime minister. The rights of state governments are flattened. Parliament has been reduced to a shameful arena of sycophancy, where the undignified raucous heckling by the Treasury Benches when anything critical of the prime minister is spoken, has become the norm. A budget representing Rs 45 lakh crore of the people’s money is passed within 10 minutes because ruling party MPs have been given the order to disrupt the proceedings. Every tried and tested mechanism to ensure scrutiny and consultation on every legislation, such as parliamentary committees, has been virtually dismantled. The role of the Rajya Sabha has been emasculated by fraudulently including a host of Bills as Money Bills so as to deny the right of vote in the Rajya Sabha where the government has had a tenuous majority, if at all. A parliamentary majority is being used as a bulldozer to fashion an autocracy, the new India version of a presidential form of governance.
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The replacement, at the forthcoming inauguration, of the real president of the Indian republic by the prime minister may symbolise more than the ego of an individual.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo