It is unusual for a powerful Indian Prime Minister, or even a Chief Minister, to play second fiddle. Narendra Modi is no exception.
In the order of importance laid down by the Ministry of Home Affairs, a Prime Minister stands third, below the President and the Vice-President. So if the Prime Minister has to inaugurate the hexagon-shaped new Parliament building, invitation cards should not be sent to the offices of the President and the Vice-President.
The Prime Minister making himself the star of the show is unprecedented only in that it is for the first time in Independent India that a new Parliament building is being inaugurated. The old building, the circular one designed by Edwin Lutyens, was 20 years old when Jawaharlal Nehru stepped in as Independent India's first Prime Minister.
Otherwise, starting from Nehru, prime ministers and also chief ministers had laid the foundation stone of or inaugurated the highest seats of democracy in states and also certain major additions to the Parliament building in New Delhi.
"The symbolism is powerful. These leaders get identified with democracy itself and it would be foolish of them to let go of the opportunity," said Jacob Martin, a professor of political science who had written extensively on image creation in politics.
The Karnataka Legislature website says Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for the Karnataka Vidhan Soudha on July 13, 1951. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had inaugurated the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha at Nariman Point on April 19, 1981. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Parliament Library Building in 1987, which is housed in the Parliament House Annexe, Sansadiya Soudha, that was inaugurated by his mother and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 24, 1975.
It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who inaugurated the new Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly-Secretariat Complex, billed as the world's first green legislature building, on March 13, 2010. The DMK, which was in power in Tamil Nadu then, was a key ally of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Singh also inaugurated Manipur's new Assembly complex on December 3, 2011.
The new Andhra Pradesh Assembly and Legislative Council after bifurcation was inaugurated by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu on March 2, 2017. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar inaugurated the Central Hall of the Bihar Legislature on February 6, 2019. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurated the Platinum Jubilee Memorial Building of the West Bengal State Assembly on November 25, 2022.
It was Chhattisgarh's Congress Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel who laid the foundation stone for the new Chhattisgarh Vidhan Sabha on August 29, 2020.
Nonetheless, there were instances when the President was roped in to do the honours. Take Kerala for instance. Its new Legislative Complex was inaugurated on May 22, 1998, by the then President K R Narayanan.
"For us there was no other choice," said CPM veteran M Vijayakumar, the then Kerala Speaker. "When I mooted the President's name to Nayanar (then Chief Minister E K Nayanar), his only query was will it be possible," Vijayakumar told Onmanorama.
The then Speaker, along with the Chief Minister, met the President and sought his date a year in advance. Few days later the then Opposition Leader A K Antony, too, met the President and sought his time for the inauguration.
"Once we got the President's tentative date, we made a countdown schedule," Vijayakumar said. At that point, the Speaker was told by the Kerala State Construction Corporation (KSCC) that the complex would take another four years to complete. By then it was already late. President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy had laid the foundation stone for the new complex way back in 1979. 18 years had passed by.
"I told the KSCC to pack their bags and leave. I told them I will find somebody else to do the job," Vijayakumar said. His resolute manner worked. The KSCC completed the building within a year and that too at Rs 25 crore, half the estimated cost of Rs 50 crore.
On April 23, 1998, the President's office confirmed May 22 as the date of inauguration.
Interesting thing is, whenever the President was invited by a state government to inaugurate its new legislative complex, its politics was at odds with the party in power at the Centre. Therefore, it is not exactly clear whether constitutional propriety alone had prompted these invites.
When Nayanar and Vijayakumar wanted president Narayanan to fly down and inaugurate the new Legislative Complex, India was ruled by the BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. "The Congress, too, worked hard to get the President to inaugurate the new complex," a top Congress leader told Onmanorama.
Barely three years later, in March 2001, President K R Narayanan inaugurated the new Rajasthan Assembly Complex at Jyothi Nagar in Jaipur. The current incumbent Ashok Gehlot was the then Chief Minister. But at the Centre, Vajpayee was still in power.
The Centre and the state were politically incompatible when President Shankar Dayal Sharma inaugurated Madhya Pradesh's new Vidhan Sabha on August 3, 1996. A Congress government led by Digvijay Singh was in power in Madhya Pradesh. At the Centre, after inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Congress led by Narasimha Rao in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, a United Front government under Deve Gowda had assumed power.
Even if it can be argued that political compulsions had forced Nayanar, Gehlot and Singh to opt for the President, it has to be said to their credit that they did not succumb to the vanity of wanting to do the inaugural honours themselves.