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In a perfectly orchestrated and publicized event, symptomatic of the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the national emblem cast atop the new Parliament building on July 11. Under normal circumstances, the event should have been a cause of national celebration but has instead transpired into a national controversy. The new parliament building, due to be operational next year, is part of the government's USD 2.7 billion Central Vista which aims to modernize old colonial government buildings in Delhi. The project in its entirety has been shrouded in controversy over its extravagance and flagrant violation of environmental norms. The debate over the national emblem has only added to its infamy.
The national emblem, a 21 feet-tall cast shows four Asiatic lions mounted back-to-back on a circular disc. The centerpiece of the public angst against the emblem lies in its perceived posturing - from a symbol of majesty and royalty to that of an aggressive and menacing attacker. Beyond the overt posturing are some covert actions that have become the hallmark of the ruling dispensation.
Let’s look at each of the arguments that have plagued this event from the perspective of civil society and the government.
Posturing of the National Emblem
India’s national emblem is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath, a three-dimensional statue showing four lions. While the old Parliament building, constructed by the British did not have the national emblem, its installation on the new Parliament building has been called an “important milestone in the decolonization of the capital city” by a senior government official.
While no one has disputed the relevance of having our national emblem adorning the Parliament, there are significant concerns raised about the alteration of the national emblem. The main concern of the critics revolves around the expression of the lions in the national emblem, the original ones looking peace-loving and sober, while the ones installed have a more aggressive look. It is not merely about the “look” that the lions depict but what they symbolize through design and character. The majestic regality has been replaced with a menacing snarl, they claim. They question if this is a deliberate attempt by the government to portray India as more dominant in the world through this gesture.
The government officials have justified the cast and denied the critics’ claims saying it is a perfect adaptation of the “Lion Capital of the Ashoka Pillar” at Sarnath. Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, in charge of the Central Vista redevelopment, said that one needs to appreciate the impact of angle, height, and scale of the 21 feet structure when comparing it with the 7-feet structure in Sarnath. He further said that if one looked at the Sarnath emblem from below it would look as calm or angry as the one atop the Parliament building. The critics have refuted this argument as it seems to imply that the lions will look as majestic as they should be only when looked at from above when almost all will forever view it standing below the building appearing fierce.
In India’s political structure, the Prime Minister is the head of the executive while the Parliament represents the Legislature. By unveiling the national emblem atop the new Parliament building himself, PM Narendra Modi has bypassed constitutional propriety and violated the established norms. The constitutional responsibility to unveil the emblem should have been that of the President, who is the head of the Indian Parliament. To make matters even more uncomfortable, the President was conspicuous by his absence and so was the Vice President of India, who is the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha – the Upper House of the Parliament.
The Opposition has accused the BJP of subverting the separation of power between the executive and the legislature. They allege that this is symptomatic of the BJP citing a similar unconstitutional act done by having PM Narendra Modi cast the foundation stone for the Parliament instead of the President. The government has instead accused the Opposition of repeatedly targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s selfless actions for political vendetta.
A bipartisan event such as this is expected to be attended by not just members of all political parties but also by prominent members of civil society. The event was allegedly carried out without notice to any political party, without consultation with parliament, or the states. There was no invite to members of the civil society or war veterans as would be expected for events of such national significance. The entire event was instead solely attended by members of the BJP and its allies.
Members of the Opposition have accused the BJP of small-mindedness and hijacking what should have otherwise been a bipartisan gathering. They have accused the ruling government of using the occasion in projecting PM Narendra Modi as the sole representative of the executive and legislature and securing primetime media footage at national expense. The government, on its part, has accused the Opposition of needlessly politicizing every action of the government.
Given India’s secular construct, a religious ceremony carried out as per Hindu rituals prior to the unveiling of the cast has not been received well by civil society, especially members of the minority community. The action, undertaken by none other than the Prime Minister himself goes against the secular grain of India that belongs to people of different religions and also to those who may not have a religious belief. The oft-used charge of BJP’s Hindu-majoritarian mindset has again been levied by the Opposition with the government maintaining its stand of calling them baseless.
“Majestic” or “Menacing” can forever be debated through semantics and sidelined as a matter of individual perception. Our national emblem is not a toy that can be molded into a new shape. It stands for the meaning of India, and for the message of the Indian state. It is unfortunate that the Indian state has reached a level where its national symbols have to be justified and argued upon. What is even more concerning is the optics of this unilaterally conducted event that portrays India’s political bipartisanship and pluralism in a negative light. It only lends further credence to the growing narrative of the BJP’s authoritative and Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva stance at the cost of alienating not just the minority but all its political opponents. Irrespective of who wins the argument, democracy has lost once again.
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