[ Outlook, 9 Dec 2013 ]
October and November have been months of big-ticket items that we have been told to be proud of. While one of these, a mission to Mars, is simply out of this world, the other is not quite so. The proposed statue of Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel will be the tallest in this world. At 182 metres, this ‘Statue of Unity’ will be able to look down upon the ‘Statue of Liberty’, standing at a mere 93 metres. Calls for unity have always cast a long shadow on liberty. Nothing too exceptional there. This latter source of ‘national’ pride will however be built by a non-swadeshi consortium – muscular MNCs from the USA and Australia. It is estimated that the project with all its paraphernalia will cost about 2500 crores.
The primary legatee of Patel’s political stature was the Congress party. But ever since the Panditain split the party in 1967, the successor party has been very selective about its pantheon. Godliness runs in the bloodline and hence the political legacies of many erstwhile Congressite stalwarts with the wrong surnames have gone largely unclaimed, till Narendrabhai really upped the ante by trying to stand on the shoulders of Vallabhbhai. For that antic to pay off, one first needs to create a giant. 2500 crores seems to be enough to build one.
Not so long ago, statues of a different kind were the talk of the town. They too were very costly, but they were numerous and the project did not seem to be particularly timed to serve some greater purpose for Mayawati, the chief patron. When Mayawati got the statues built, including infamously, her own statue, the chattering classes who have long checked out of government hospitals and government schools suddenly became acutely interested in how the money that was being spent in this project would have otherwise done so much good for Uttar Pradesh. Many reams of newsprint and many hours of primetime television were devoted to the absence of proper sanitation facilities, the high maternal mortality rate and other such sad things in Uttar Pradesh. This sharp focus invariably came twinned with the statue project – how the money could have helped Uttar Pradesh in so many ways but for its megalomaniac leader. The shabby state of health and public infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh was not new. What was new was the acute sense of empathy and concern for these timeless problems. What was crucial was the time when the concern came forth. The silence of those sectors of society and media, when it comes to the ‘Statue of Unity’, is deafening, given that Gujarat is not exactly a champion in human development indicators. It was even more deafening in 2010, when the project had been first announced by Narendrabhai. Between then and now, the Indira Congress – NCP government in Maharashtra, has announced a grandiose Shivaji statue project. But the light of scrutiny about the ‘misuse’ of public funds fall disproportionately on mass leaders of certain predictable caste backgrounds. Casteism is unconstitutional but casteism under the cover of public interest is not.
The minimal middle class grumblings that have emerged to the Vallabhbhai statue project is a reflection of some opposition to Narendrabhai’s rising stature as a pretender to Vallabhbhai’s legacy and prime ministerial aspirations. This opposition by its very nature is narrowly partisan and essentially anti-Modi. This is in sharp contrast to the nearly across the board condemnation that Mayawati’s Ambedkar Memorial project received from these very classes. Selective silences that follow many words often tell us a lot about the speakers.
What is Mayawati’s Ambedkar Memorial project anyways? The recent focus on Vallabhbhai by way of Narendrabhai has provided an opportunity for many to get reinformed about the long-dead ‘Iron Man’s’ life in excruciating detail. The audience has had its fill of ‘its’ national greatness that it ought not to forget, not after the statue. But beyond Mayawati and Ambedkar, do they know even the names of the other people whose statues were put up at the Ambedkar Memorial? Who was Sant Narayan Guru? Why do they not know? Why do we know more about certain things vis-à-vis certain other things?
Vallabhbhai has been credited with the process of ‘reuniting’ ‘India’ by forcing the lands of 500 plus princely states into the newly formed Union of India. For many, the unity of the lives of people is the unity that matters. That is the unity that Bhimrao Ambedkar envisaged. It is yet to be achieved. It is that unmet dream that makes him stand out amongst the leaders whose stature, post-partition, has only grown and grown, largely without state patronage and in spite of statue desecrations.
When the powerful or pretenders to power want to thrust forward, they often need vivid inspirations, real or imagined, preferably larger than life. Without such inspirations, certain tempos cannot be sustained for too long. Figures from the past prop up the present and vice versa – in whatever way deemed fit for future purposes. In an environment of power politics that is obsessed with projecting and executing ‘manly’ solutions for a ‘chaotic’ and disobedient subcontinent (my extra-judicial killing is more patriotic than yours), the need for a grand something that brings together the republic, the phallic and the symbolic has been quite acute. It is even overdue, some may say. The invocation of ‘unity’ as a counterweight to insurgent liberty is not new.