ith the recent announcement by the Maharashtra government to build a memorial for the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai, BJP has once again returned to its statue politics. Chief Minister Fadnavis distributed urns containing ashes of the former prime minister to the BJP leaders for immersion in 14 rivers in the state, including the Godavari, Panchganga, and Chandrabhaga. Leave statues and monuments, Atal Ji’s ashes were taken to the booth level for political gains. BJP is hell-bent on making every possible stunt in the name of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Well, this statue was just an announcement as even earlier, many such statements were made by BJP but with time, they forgot their old promises and jumped with some new ideas and pronouncements. In the Vajpayee-Advani era, the BJP prided itself as ‘the party with a difference’. The party still boasts of self-restraint. However, with the Modi rule, BJP has become ‘the party with differences’. They don’t have a particular voice to follow; each leader speaks in different voices. Almost all BJP-ruled states are in some or the other discontent.
It should be noted that Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat announced the Statue of Unity project (the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue) in 2013 on October 31, the birth anniversary of Patel. The same story continued till 2014 and it became one of the prominent issues of the election campaign. They told that the Statue of Unity will be 182 meters tall while the Shivaji Memorial will be about 190 meters high. However, with the base, the height of the Sardar Patel memorial will be 230 metres and that of the Shivaji statue will be 210 metres. Both Maharashtra and Gujarat were involved in a competition with each other to build the world’s tallest statues.
In October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for Shiv Smarak, a grand memorial under construction to honour the 17th century Indian warrior king and the founder of the Maratha Empire, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Mumbai on December 24, 2016, at a reclaimed land site in the Arabian Sea. However, so far, there is no news or update about the same. Both the projects in the two BJP-ruled states idolise the figures long viewed as the icons with contemporary political relevance by the proponents of the Hindutva ideology. The two announced that projects are yet to get in shape while the new ones are in the queue. The Maharashtra government plans to build the memorial over 16 hectares of reclaimed land in two phases, of which, the first is proposed to be completed by the end of 2019. The two statues are expected to be about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty in the US and four times than that of the Christ – the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Patel’s statue, projected to be the tallest in the world on completion, will take that position from the Laykyun Sekkya Buddha statue in Myanmar, which is about 116 meters high.
I don’t know how much the memorial business is going to fetch votes for BJP, but the leaders like Vajpayee don’t need memorials. They will be revered and recalled irrespective of the condition of the polity. You cannot contain and hold his stature in puny memorials and statutes. Stand up for what is just and right — that would be enough. We, the citizens should not have so much fascination for the memorials. We, the citizens can certainly demand that the taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on the statues. Instead, we can demand building memorials in the form of setting up institutions for learning. The politics of pandering to the regional and other identities is not good for progressive India — the politics of turning real heroes into the lifeless steel and stone kind — for any pigeons to freely relieve themselves on, or the heinous politics of clever, but criminal distraction from the life and death issues of poverty, corruption, injustice and inequality in India. The Shivaji statue has been called ‘colossal and absurdly expensive’, one that shows that ‘India has no room for its tired, huddled masses’. The debate over the statue comes at a particularly difficult time for many Indians, who are struggling with the fallout of Modi’s sudden currency swap two years ago. The decision has led to severe cash shortages, bank limits on withdrawals, an industrial slump, and layoffs. The Nation and particularly the state where I live, Maharashtra, has many concerns to be addressed — reservations, religious terrorism, poverty, farmers suicide, water scarcity and women’s safety. Therefore, there must be a special reason for the government to build monuments. It is not hard to understand one. Just as it is building a huge statue for Vallabhbhai Patel, the Congressman who was independent India’s first home minister and the politics around it becomes very obvious. This, however, is not a good reason to continue the practice. One can understand the statue for Patel; he was, after all, the unifier of India and the statue in his memory comes almost 64 years after he died, a period of time in which historic memory has replaced more partisan political thoughts if there were any. But that is where all this should end for now. In the future, if citizens want to honour a leader, then it should be up to them and not any government.
No doubt that Atal Ji was indeed a great prime minister of India. But Atal Ji does not need artificial memorials for being remembered, history books are sufficient for that task. Atal Ji is not the only former Prime Minister that the BJP is obsessed with. They also had planned to create a memorial for the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, the prime minister under whose watch economic reforms were affected in 1991. BJP’s love for Sardar Patel and Rao can be understood, as in the form of monuments, they would be able to project both these leaders as ignored by Congress but respected by BJP. However, the national memorial space, so to speak, is a patch on the Yamuna waterfront in New Delhi where there is a little room for ordinary Indians, however great their achievements may be. It requires special political will — often from the highest quarters in the Union government — to reserve a place for anyone in this already cramped space.
It’s been four years of the BJP rule in the state and the Centre — Lord Rama is still in the transit camp, Sardar taking shape in China, no update on Shivaji Maharaj so far, Narasimha Rao is forgotten with time, and now Atal Ji is in the queue. I don’t see any pliability of installation of their monuments before 2019; maybe this can be another political gimmick to garner votes in the name of completing these projects in another five years. Hope people give them mandate and BJP finally fulfils its promises.
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