The boycott by 19 Opposition parties of the inauguration of the new parliament building on Sunday has grabbed media attention. The Opposition’s contention is that the Indian president, as the constitutional head of the country, should inaugurate the new building – not the prime minister. The government has countered this by pointing to instances where additions to the parliament building such as the annexe were inaugurated by Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister.

However, this debate is somewhat pointless. It would be foolhardy to expect Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose pet project is the new parliament, to let go the opportunity to bask in the limelight and extract maximum mileage from the event.

At a time when the institution of parliament is seriously imperiled, there are perhaps two things that are more important than the politicking over who gets to inaugurate the new building. The first is the new building itself – how and why it was conceived and what it symbolises. Second, the choice of Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar’s birth anniversary as the date of the inauguration.

First, the new building itself. Most people have almost forgotten how hastily and tardily the plan was approved for the building that is the physical representation of Indian democracy.

The Central Vista Redevelopment Project, of which the new parliament building is a part, was announced in 2019. The Central Public Works Department opened bids for the project – which aims to reshape the heart of New Delhi – in September 2019. Of the six firms that were qualified to submit bids, four were shortlisted. The designs they submitted were reviewed in the space of a week and the winner – an Ahmedabad-based architecture firm that was widely tipped as the favourite – announced in early December.

As the architect Gautam Bhatia wrote at the time, the process was approved in a “veil of secrecy and mired in opaque processes”, This is in contrast to the way things work in other democracies, where such momentous architectural changes are “carefully considered, opened for discussion, and formulated after a consensus”.

Building new parliaments in democracies is not entirely uncommon but such a rush to approve designs and the complete lack of public engagement is unheard of. It is instructive to consider the example of the Parliament House in Australia’s capital Canberra, which took over a decade to plan and complete. In 1975, Australian parliament established a joint standing committee for planning, design and construction of the building. On its recommendations, a two-stage design competition was announced in 1979.

A total of 379 entries from 32 countries were submitted, of which five were allowed to the second stage. The winner was announced in 1980 and subsequently the design and construction approved by the House of Representatives. The new parliament was officially opened in 1988. The process was in complete contrast with the undemocratic manner in which the new parliament building in India was approved and is being built.

Practical reasons have been trotted out for the unseemly haste to build India’s new parliament– the old building was nearly a century old and had several structural problems, narrow seating space for MPs and most importantly would not be not large enough to fit in the expanded number of members after the next delimitation exercise.

But mainly, the new parliament is intended to symbolise both Modi’s legacy and also the ancient origins of India’s democracy. This is why it was imperative for the new building to come up in time for the 2024 general elections, despite the deaths and disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. During the foundation ceremony in 2020, Modi hinted at the symbolism of the new building and its purported links to older forms of democracy in India. He spoke about how democracy is a “way of life” in India that has evolved over centuries. The erasure of the British-built, Westminster-inspired old parliament building buttresses this assertion.

A sengol or sceptre that has been pulled out of obscurity and given pride of place in the inauguration ceremonies is intended to serve reminder of that link to a timeless democracy that the current dispensation is so assiduously trying to establish. The Bharatiya Janata Party claims that the sengol was given to Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of Independence to mark the transfer of power from the British, but it was never part of the official ceremonies in 1947. The sceptre, which speaks to a monarchical custom rather than a democratic one, is part of the invented tradition and rituals that the BJP has been so adept at conjuring up.

The second issue is the choice of Savarkar’s birth anniversary for the inauguration of the new parliament. On one level, it reaffirms the link of the current government with the exclusivist idea of Hindutva for which Savarkar is best known. This open affirmation of Hindutva is a deviation of the government’s public rhetoric of emphasising inclusivity, encapsulated in slogans such as “sabka saath, sabka vikas”.

On another level, the choice of Savarkar’s birth anniversary, leaving aside his contested role in India’s freedom movement, is deeply inappropriate considering that Savarkar had nothing to with parliament or elections. Unlike former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had a long and distinguished record as a parliamentarian, or Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh who shone during his brief tenure in parliament, Savarkar had absolutely no connection with the institution.

A national occasion, such as Independence Day, or the birth anniversary of Vajpayee, would have been far more appropriate for the inauguration.

The Opposition would have done well to highlight these issues, along with the diminished state of parliament, when they decided to boycott the inauguration ceremony.

Ronojoy Sen is with the National University of Singapore. He is the author of House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy.