Recently, the world’s tallest statue was inaugurated in Gujarat. The government considers it a fitting tribute to the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The detractors claim it is a colossal waste of money in a country that is struggling to provide basic infrastructure. Sentimental posts about how many poor could be fed with the `3,000 crores flooded the media. On the other hand, admirers of the project claimed this was going to be the greatest tourist attraction in the world and would generate countless employment opportunities. The arguments were ridiculously boisterous from the admirers while that of detractors were pathetically whiny.
Let us consider the arguments of the detractors first. The few thousand crores spent on the statue is not going to solve any of the problems of India. It is not for lack of funds that India is unable to provide proper infrastructure. Mumbai is the richest municipal corporation in the world. Last year’s civic budget was `25,000 crore, significantly lesser than the that of the year before, which stood at `37,000 crores. Still, there is hardly a road that is free of potholes or non-functional street lights. The Union Budget of `29,20,484 crore this year and all state budgets put together would be many times this.
We know how effectively such huge amount of money is spent. So, arguments such as how many poor would have benefitted has only propaganda value. India can afford to feed all the poor many times over. That, it is not able to do, is due to the development model followed rather than lack of funds. India is no longer a poor country, but a rich one with a huge number of poor people.
Now let us consider the arguments of the admirers of the giant statue. Sardar Patel is one of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic and his contribution to Indian unity is unparalleled. Without him, India would have been a cluster of independent states and princely kingdoms. However, whether he would have been happy with the monstrosity in Gujarat is doubtful. The argument that it is going to bring millions of tourists is an exaggeration. India attracts far lesser number of tourists than city-states such as Singapore or the UAE.
For a country that boasts snow-clad mountains, deserts, river valleys, tropical islands and beaches and a civilisation teeming with monuments from 7000 BC, an iron statue of uninspiring aesthetics is not going to add anything significantly new. If we are unable to market our countless temples that are thousands of years old and boast the finest architecture, if we are unable to market medieval mosques and forts, churches of antiquity, palaces, hill stations, lakes, rivers and a wide tapestry of culture, cuisine, art forms, music and dance as tourist attraction, it would be a quixotic dream to think that tourists would flock to see an iron statue in a remote corner of Gujarat. The argument that it is going to generate countless employment opportunities is also not tenable. There are easier ways to generate employment opportunities than importing statues made in China.
Why is the government keen to build such statues and why is Opposition seeing red? Neither has anything to do with the love for the motherland, admiration for the departed great soul, or compassion towards the imaginary poor that might have been fed with the `3,000 crores. The building of such monuments has to do with leaving a legacy.
All through history, the rulers who built mega monuments are the ones who are remembered, and this remembrance is irrespective of the administrative skills of the ruler. For instance, we know Akbar was a better ruler than any other Mughal, but the ruler who is remembered most is the builder of Taj Mahal. It is an irony of history and peculiarity of the human mind that the more non-utilitarian the monument, the more early the builder is remembered.
In early 20th century, Rama Varma, the Maharajah of Kochi, had pawned his personal jewellery and sold of the gold caparisons of the temple elephants to build the railway line from Shornur in British Malabar to Kochi, thus paving the growth of Kochi city and the port. Hardly anyone remembers what he did. People remember his distant ancestor Shaktan Thampuran who built the Thrissur temple. Similarly, in early 2nd century AD, Karikala Chola had built one of the largest dams in the world across the Kaveri called Kallanai, irrigating thousands of acres. However, the Chola who built the Brihadeswara temple is remembered more, irrespective of the fact that the Kallanai dam is still in use after 2,000 years.
Which ruler doesn’t love to leave a legacy, like the Pharaohs of Egypt who built mausoleums and stuffed the pyramids with precious things while their contemporaries in Indus Valley were busy standardising measures, building proper drainage and planning great cities? We do not even know who the rulers of Indus Valley were. This is what the rulers who are building such huge statues in the current era are aiming for. They know, after a thousand years, Gandhi or Nehru or Vajpayee or even Sardar Patel might have been forgotten, but the legacy of the ruler who built the statue would live on.
It is the nearest a human can reach to being immortal. This is what those who oppose are afraid of. The clamour for this immortality is going to catch like wildfire. India is going to enter a period of frenzied statue-building. Each chief minister, irrespective of the political party, is going to assuage his failure as an administrator by building bigger and bigger statues. After all, that is easier than providing health, infrastructure, education and such mundane things. Welcome to the century of giant statues.