India’s major opposition parties on Sunday boycotted the inauguration of a new Parliament building by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a rare show of unity against his Hindu nationalist ruling party, which has ruled for nine years and is seeking a third term in next year’s elections.
Modi inaugurated the new Parliament in the capital of New Delhi by offering prayers as Hindu priests chanted religious hymns. Opposition parties criticised the event saying Modi had sidelined President Droupadi 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 amid rousing applause by his party lawmakers who chanted “Modi, Modi.” He delivered an almost 40-minute speech in which he hailed India’s parliamentary democracy and said the country had left behind its colonial past, referring to the old Parliament building that was built by the British when they ruled India.
“India is the mother of democracy,” Modi said, as lawmakers thumped their desks. “Several years of foreign rule stole our pride from us. Today, India has left behind that colonial mindset.”
The opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Parliament is the voice of the people. The Prime Minister is considering the inauguration of the Parliament House as a coronation.”
At least 19 opposition parties skipped the event, which coincided with the birth anniversary of a Hindu nationalist ideologue.
Opposition parties said in a statement Wednesday that Modi’s decision to inaugurate the building was “a grave insult” to India’s democracy because the government had “disqualified, suspended and muted” opposition lawmakers while passing “controversial legislation” with little debate.
“When the soul of democracy has been sucked out from the parliament, we find no value in a new building,” the parties said.
India’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah said the opposition had politicised the event. Other leaders from Modi’s party said the boycott was an insult to the prime minister.
The new parliament building is spread over 3.2 kilometres and the plans were announced in 2019.
The project has drawn intense criticism from opposition politicians, architects and heritage experts, many of whom called it environmentally irresponsible, a threat to cultural heritage and too expensive.
Outrage grew in 2021, when at least 12 opposition parties questioned the project’s timing, saying it was built as the country faced a devastating surge in coronavirus cases. They branded the revamp as Modi’s “vanity project” and said its construction was prioritised 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 to highlight the architectural value of the old Parliament and said the new plan would “irrevocably” destroy the area’s cultural heritage.
Modi’s government has said the overhaul was necessary because the older building was “showing signs of distress and overutilisation” and that the new design “combines the country’s heritage and traditions.”
The controversy over the new legislative building comes just months after opposition leaders protested Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament in a defamation case over remarks he made about Modi’s surname.
Just over a kilometre away 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 scuffled with police and were taken away in a bus.
Wrestling Federation of India President Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who has denied the accusations, is a powerful lawmaker from Modi’s party.