Seventy-five years and nine months after the British transferred power to Indians in the Council House, which became independent India’s Parliament, history is being written all over again. Unruffled by the controversy over the inauguration of the new Parliament building with opposition parties taking the Narendra Modi government to task for keeping President Droupadi Murmu out of the ceremony scheduled for Sunday, Prime Minister Modi appears all set to do the honours. With the over-enthusiastic Modi chorus, which includes a bevy of senior ministers in the government, demanding to know what is objectionable about sidelining the President and advising the opposition to “rethink” their stance, the stage is set for the event that has all the makings of a coronation.
A predominant marker will be the scheduled handing over of the sengol, or the five-feet golden sceptre with royal insignia that was handed over to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on August 14-15, 1947, to symbolize the transfer of power. Three senior seers from Shaivite mutts in Tamil Nādu had done the honours then. The sengol had been commissioned by the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, one of the oldest Shaivite mutts in the country, after freedom movement leader C Rajagopalachari suggested the ceremonial gesture to mark the occasion in a throwback to the Chola period. The handover of the sengol was meant to symbolize the transfer of power, it was a symbol of righteousness and justice.
After the festivities in 1947, it lay in Anand Bhavan in Allahabad, now Prayagraj, which used to be Nehru’s personal residence and was subsequently moved to a local museum. Officials, on a prompt by a Tamil Nadu artist, found it after a hunt, had it validated by the Chennai-based jewellers who had crafted it, and restored it to its glory for Sunday’s event. The mutts, or adheenams, in Tamil Nadu with their loyal devotee base have enthusiastically welcomed the programme, taking pride in the sengol handover to Modi as his nod to their culture and a reiteration that theirs has been a pious land despite the social reforms of the last century. The connection to the state and its voters is particularly significant in the larger political outreach that the Bharatiya Janata Party plans for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
There is no saying what other elements form the programme on Sunday. However, knowing Modi’s soft corner for lavish exhibition or event-making of any occasion, however solemn it is supposed to be, it would be in the fitness of things to assume that this too will be mounted as a spectacle that Indians are supposed to behold with awe and deference. The handover of the sengol completes the spectacle, invoking the glory of the past from a land that was ‘unsullied’ by foreign (Muslim) invasions, and bringing in the Hindu religious significance into an occasion that should have been the most secular of all — the new Parliament building that belongs to all Indians. In this sense, Modi’s ‘coronation’ is complete with the new Parliament as his ‘durbar’, ministers as courtiers, and a pliant media as his personal record-keeper.
The ‘coronation’ might have been a memorable occasion, as it was in the United Kingdom earlier this month when King Charles was crowned monarch, except that India is a democratic republic. By definition, it makes the people of India more powerful than any man or woman occupying the high office, and makes Parliament a representation of people’s will. India’s Prime Minister was always meant to be the head of the government drawn from a political party given a majority by the people in a free and fair election. Power rested, and continues to rest, with the people. The Prime Minister and his government work for the people.
What place does the ceremonial handing over of the sengol by Hindu (Tamil) priests have in this set up? Perhaps Modi and his event managers took the adage of the Parliament being the temple of democracy too literally. The sengol, when handed over by priests to the newly-crowned king, was meant as an order to be just to his subjects who did not have the right to question him or criticize him without inviting punishment. Our Parliament, and the Constituent Assembly before that, has historically seen some of the most acerbic criticism of a ruling government and fiercest debates between the treasury and opposition benches in both the Houses. Prime Ministers were not only asked hard questions but had to respond to them too, as it should be in a democracy.
Given the symbolism, Nehru could have — should have — refused the ceremony back then but at least there was, in the real sense, a transfer of power. Now, the transfer is from a democratic republic to a crownless monarchy, the ‘coronation’ scheduled on the birth anniversary of VD Savarkar whose controversial legacy includes Hindutva.
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)