India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) performs a ritual during a ceremony to lay the foundation stone of the new parliament building in New Delhi on Dec. 10. (Photo: Press Information Bureau/AFP)
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, famously said that when deciding on a program, governments should consider if it helps the "last man," the poorest of the poor. Perhaps just the opposite is happening in Gandhi's India today.
The ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party would deny the charges by saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi's regime has given millions of poor Indians toilets in a cleanliness drive and started bank accounts for millions.
But the Modi government is again under fire for ignoring the country's poor and hungry in the world's largest democracy as it becomes busy reshaping the administrative center of capital New Delhi at an estimated cost of US$2.7 billion.
The controversy heated up after Modi laid the foundation stone for a new building for the Indian parliament on Dec. 10 as part of a multi-billion-dollar project.
"In a democracy, power is not a means to fulfill your whims but a medium for public service and public welfare," said Congress chief spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala, accusing Modi of pushing his personal agenda.
Congress and other opposition parties have been accusing the government of trying to help big companies while trampling on poor people's rights and particularly ignoring the ongoing farmers' strike.
A year after Modi came to power, Congress rejected the government as pro-corporate, calling it "Suit-Boot ki Sarkar" (a government for the well attired).
In 2016, Modi's move to ban high-value currency notes left the poor helpless, fuming and in disarray.
Four years later, in 2020, Modi came under immense attack for being oblivious to the millions of poor when he locked down the country with only four hours' notice on March 25 to combat Covid-19. Left jobless and hungry, thousands of migrant workers had to walk hundreds of kilometers to their village homes.
During the national lockdown that was strictly enforced for almost two months, an estimated 120 million Indians lost their jobs or regular incomes.
As restrictions continued, communist leaders claimed that more than half of India's 1.39 billion people had reached "starvation levels" or had a drastic nosedive in their normal lifestyles.
The Modi-led dispensation remained unmoved. The PM's focus on grandeur and pomp irks opposition leaders and parties. They say there are issues related to the poverty scenario in India that the government deliberately ignores.
Political observer Vidyarthi Kumar notes that Modi came to power promising Achhey din (good days) to the Indian poor, but six years later the promise remains unfulfilled.
"Perhaps there is no realization that India not only has 220 million poor but the country may be adding more poor to the existing list. But who bothers?" he wondered.
The new parliament building comes at a cost of $138 million.
Senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram, a former finance minister, said: "The foundation for a new parliament building was laid on the ruins of a liberal democracy."
This statement has its own significance as the Modi-led dispensation has time and again come under attack for bringing Indian liberal democracy under stress.
The BJP leadership and government, which supports making India a Hindu-only nation, are repeatedly accused of trying to subvert the secular principles of the constitution, a key foundation that allowed ethnic plurality and religious tolerance.
Economically poor Muslims and Christians are often at the receiving end of the Hindu fundamentalists. While Muslims face attacks from cow vigilante groups, Christians face hostility from Hindu groups and even officials over religious conversion allegations.
"Modi's politics is all about personal agenda and fulfilling personal ambitions, promoting Hindu ideology or helping the corporate lobbies," alleges Congress leader Ilyas Qureshi. He noted that even for the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the new parliament building, Hindu rituals and pujas were performed.
The new building's interior will have three symbols — a lotus, peacock and banyan tree — as its main themes. All are linked to Hinduism.
Qureshi argues that there is hardly any justification in initiating moves for a new parliament building when the economy is badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Modi government does not address India's chronic poverty. UN data shows India has some 88 million people, or 6.7 percent of the population, living in extreme poverty. They are deprived of basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, drinking water, sanitization, health care and education.
What does India need? A new parliament house or drinking water and food for millions? Communist leader D. Raja says that states such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar continue to remain poor. Some 100 of the poorest districts are from this region.
Senior Marxist leader Prakash Karat recently said that it is the working class and working people who will bear the brunt of the economic failures of the Modi government and the social consequences of the pandemic.
However, BJP leaders deny the charges. They say it has become a fashion among some to find fault with the prime minister. The present parliament building has outlived its utility, and hence there is a need for a new one.
The British opened the building in 1927, six years after its construction started in 1921.
Modi supporters say helping the poor does not mean ignoring other necessities. Good things do not happen on their own.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.