Both the new Parliament building to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the May 28 and its new-discovered accoutrement, the sengol, are subjects of heated debate. The third cognate debate springing from the new Parliament building, whether it should be inaugurated by the Prime Minister or by the President of India, is more academic in nature with the clincher perhaps being the Bharatiya Janata Party's stand that inauguration of the new Parliament building is an executive matter inasmuch as the entire central vista project of which the new Parliament is an integral part was the NDA government’s brainchild. The President’s role is largely ceremonial and she hasn’t been shown any disrespect, which would have been the case had the joint session of the Lok Sabha been hijacked by the Prime Minister.
A section of the opposition led by the Congress initially opposed the new building on the ground that it was wasteful, started as it was when Covid was ravaging the nation. However, a budget of Rs1,200 crore doesn’t sound terribly extravagant given the importance of the House of the people. Undoubtedly, the new building is modern, capacious and futuristic. While members rubbing shoulders with each other is alright, squeezing each other for want of space isn’t a nice spectacle. That many of the European Parliaments are ancient, ergo we too should have stuck to the old structure is fallacious and specious. Antiquity should not be clung on to just for the heck of it. Certainly, it should not be made a fetish of. In our case, the new building furthermore amounts to burial for the colonial edifice. Parenthetically, the old building may have to be pulled down now as it now will not be used for the purpose for which it was designed and also to pre-empt any incipient and mischievous attempts at reverting back atavistically to the old building by a possible future ruling dispensation out to settle scores with the BJP in general and to spite Modi in particular. It is certainly not a vanity project but one that posterity would thank the present government for.
The same, however, cannot be said for the sceptre, sengol, a Chola reign symbol in Tamil Nadu, assuming centerstage in the new Lok Sabha by being firmly installed on the Speaker’s desk. First, it was handed down by the head priest of Chola king to his successor under the law of primogeniture under which his eldest son ousted his siblings in their claim to the throne and its accoutrements. Such a symbol is anathema to a democratic regime, which India has adopted since Independence forswearing monarchy. Second, it was a last-minute brainwave reportedly supplied to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 by C Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji more to dramatize the transfer of power from the British represented by its last Viceroy Mountbatten to the first Indian Prime Minister Pandit Nehru. That Mountbatten was handed the sceptre, which he almost post-haste handed over to Nehru, shows that the entire exercise had more style than substance. It was an afterthought almost at the fag end of the British rule. That it was more a photo-op and grandstanding was evident from Nehru consigning it to a museum in Allahabad, now Prayagraj, though such alleged callousness is being questioned by the new breed of adherents to the Chola symbol as insult to our ancient tradition especially in the light of the belittling appellation “walking stick” given to the sengol by the museum’s curator.
The sceptre is carved with Nandi the bull among other things, which in the perception of secularists smacks of a Hindu symbol that is at odds with a secular state. Of course, this seems to be a weak argument in the face of our Constitution being adorned by vignettes and images from the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
In any case, it begs the question why a symbol of transfer of power and a solemn reminder for just and fair rule by the King should adorn the Speaker’s desk in the Lok Sabha when if anything it ought to adorn the entrance to the prime minister’s office or his desk. After all, it is the prime minister of the day who is the ruler of the country for all practical purposes. The Speaker conducts the proceedings of the Lok Sabha and he, too, must be even-handed and fair in conducting debates and question hour. However, the sengol was tailor-made for a king whose counterpart in a democratic set up is the prime minister and not the speaker of the Lok Sabha. Parenthetically, it may be mentioned that the Speaker, in order to be neutral and non-partisan, should have no party affiliations and instead his office must be a tenured one a la CAG’s. Be that as it may.
It is possible to contend that sengol by its putative solemn, conspicuous, surreal and majestic presence in the Lok Sabha would restrain members from going astray and hold up its proceedings which is almost a regular occurrence these days when the Lok Sabha is in session but that seems to be a leap of faith, nay a wishful thinking.
For all one knows, the cynical calculation could be that Tamil Nadu electorate might warm up to the idea of its unique, hoary and surreal symbol making it to the hallowed Lok Sabha Speaker’s desk. But then it would be apt to wonder if this can fetch political dividends for the BJP and its allies in Tamil Nadu at the hustings.
(S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues)
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