Narendra Modi likes to think big, to cut a dash and stage mega events. At the same time, he and his Hindu nationalist stalwarts want to end India’s secular traditions, embracing all religions that were set by the Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru in the early years after the country’s independence seven decades ago.
This all came together earlier this week when Modi unveiled a mammoth and highly controversial 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a prominent Congress independence leader, in his (and Modi’s) home state of Gujarat.
Twice the height of America’s Statue of Liberty and 20 percent taller than the 153-meter Spring Temple Buddha in China, it has been mocked by some for the audacity of its size. Critics point to a cost equivalent to US$407 million – and the way that tribal land has been seized.
“These forests, rivers, waterfalls, land and agriculture supported us for generations,” said a letter sent to Modi by the tribals. “If Sardar Patel could see the mass destruction of natural resources and injustice done to us, he would cry. When we are raising our issues, we are persecuted by police. Why you are not ready to listen to our plight?”
Many political dictators erect massive statues in their own image. Displaying a not-dissimilar ego, Modi hopes that the giant Patel will stir emotions in India’s democracy and help to rewrite India’s post-independence history, eclipsing the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – not only for short term political gain in the coming general election, but also to replace Nehru’s secularism with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.
Patel, whose birth anniversary was Oct. 31, was responsible for uniting disparate provinces and princely states, some by force, after independence in 1947. He was Nehru’s rival for the prime minister’s post, but became deputy prime minister and home minister, even though he opposed Nehru’s left-leaning centralist economic policies.
Modi now wants to build up the memory of Patel as the politician who should have got the top post, even though Patel banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s umbrella organization, after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Modi argues that India would not have lost a large part of Kashmir to Pakistan if Patel had become prime minister.
Modi said the Statue of Unity, as it is called,was “an answer to all those who question the existence of India.” Its height was intended “to remind the youth that the future of the country will be as huge as this.” Strangely, since the theme was unity, there were no Congress or other non-BJP politicians at the unveiling ceremony, and guests on the platform were predominantly from Gujarat.
It was also symbolic of India’s “engineering and technical prowess”, said Modi. Executed by Larsen and Toubro, the country’s leading structural engineering company, the project used tens of thousands of tonnes of Indian steel and hundreds of tonnes of zinc. Bronze cladding had to be imported from China, which did not fit with Modi’s Made in India campaign.
Conceived in 2013 and begun when Modi became prime minister in 2014, the project reflects his early self-confidence when he seemed to think that, with him as the supreme leader, anything and everything was possible.
In 2015 he went to Paris along with Anil Ambani, one of India‘s less-successful top businessmen, and defied India’s defense procurement procedures by ordering 36 Rafale fighter jets that are now haunting him with allegations of cronyism and corruption.
Later, with similar gusto, he announced the debilitating demonetization scheme that failed to curb corruption but decimated small businesses. His ego also led to him addressing tens of thousands of adoring overseas Indians in mega rallies as he toured foreign capitals.
Today the Modi magic has faded, at least in the more urbanized parts of the country, and he and his ministers are having to explain away their failure to fulfil promises of curbing corruption, creating jobs, and reforming the way the government is run.
The question now is whether the statue will be seen by the mass of people in rural India, and by the BJP’s cadres, as a symbol of a Modi-led prosperous future, eclipsing Nehru and defeating Congress in elections, or as an unwarranted mega folly.
“It is hard to argue that this is the most important priority for a cash-strapped government (when) the money spent on the statue could instead have funded several modern institutes of higher education; or, for that matter, irrigated several tens of thousands of under-productive agricultural land,” the Business Standard newspaper said. “There is little doubt that Patel himself would have preferred one of the latter uses.”
The sculptor, Ram V. Sutar, age 93, was also responsible for extravagant statues built by Kumari Mayawati when she was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, as celebrations of the Dalits who formed her political base at the bottom of India’s caste ladder. The statues were however also seen as examples of her egotistical extravagance, and she was voted out of power. Modi must be hoping that the giant Patel does not foretell a similar fate for him.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.