Not as camera-toting tourists but as bewildered enquirers into why India’s ruling political party deemed it fit to spend a mind-boggling sum to build the world’s tallest statue of an Indian historical figure, a trip to Kevadiya in the state of Gujarat is now perhaps every Indian’s sworn duty. Because there stands a testimony to political self-aggrandisement of such incredulous proportions, that it is hard to see the mettle of national interest in any inch of this gigantic Statue of Unity.
Just why has Rs30 billion ($400 million, Dh1.47 billion) been spent on casting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in bronze as a fancy addition to India’s topography? This is a hydra-headed question and the answers weave a web of political artfulness. The pervasive gripe of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the contributions of Patel to India’s history are understated and thus necessitate this superstructure has dubious merit. Patel’s eminence as one of India’s biggest nationalistic leaders has never been in doubt, and his contributions to India’s freedom struggle, and its post-Independence identity, can never be any less lionised. But Modi, who comes from Gujarat, as did Patel, thinks otherwise and in doing so, displays the predictable political short-sightedness that leaders bring to history. This affliction not only distorts the truth, it also reduces it to becoming a handmaiden to the vagaries of political gamesmanship. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) antecedents were never remotely a legatee of Patel’s ideological largesse. This fact is taller in its veracity than any statue built on India’s land. The BJP’s attempt therefore to forcefully conjoin Patel’s identity with its concept of nationalistic course correction is a supreme conceit, a denouncement of history’s credibility with little precedence.
The money, the expansive use of government apparatus and time spent on pursuing this project is a colossal example of misplaced priorities. Right now, India’s to-do list is about galvanising its economy and industry, boosting direct foreign investment, mending its fraying secular fabric and reinforcing the autonomy of public institutions that are the guardians of democracy. These are the absolute requirements from the BJP government that was sworn into power in 2014 on its promises of delivering change. That this change would be epitomised in erecting a statue, at the cusp of national polls in May 2019, that will take 120 years of Rs350-a-ticket collections at the rate of 15,000 visitors a day to recover the cost, is a stunning heist by the BJP. In doing so, it has lent the legend of the Iron Man, as Patel was known, an enduring irony that will long haunt modern India.
And no one will be more haunted by this irony than the thousands of displaced local people whose land now bears the weight of the Statue of Unity.