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The Emperor’s New Icon

The Emperor’s New Icon

What can a statue unite? It can unite cement, iron, brass and other construction materials. What did it take Sardar Vallabhai Patel to unite India? It took the resolve of majority Indians to stand together as one despite differences in religion, caste, region, and many other things which divided them over several centuries, after a great soul taught them that the right thing to do was to face hatred with love and aggression with non-violence. Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru were two great disciples of this great soul called Gandhi, who strode over a land of million mutinies like a colossus and united everyone into Indians to challenge British colonisers.

Ironically, the ideology of hate, which was defeated after it killed the Mahatma, was resurrected half a century after his assassination in the land of his birth. Those espousing it talked about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and how ‘they’ were children of ‘invaders’ who demolished temples and the only way ‘we’ could feel secure and proud was to build a grand temple for Lord Ram at Ayodhya at exactly the spot a mosque stood.

By the time GenNext of those who nurtured this ghastly propaganda had taken over, brother was killing brother on the slightest provocation. If the temple at Ayodhya did not evoke the same sentiment over time, rumours about cow smuggling was enough to mobilise a lynching mob. If someone still forgot about the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the leader who promised to usher ‘development for all’ would emphasise that even death is no great leveller because ‘we’ have crematoriums while ‘they’ have graveyards.

On October 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation a Statue of Unity as a tribute to Patel. The world’s tallest, at 182 metres, the statue was built at an estimated cost of Rs 3,000 crore. The money spent is five times the amount given to Kerala after the great deluge. With the same amount, the Government could have built 2 IITs, 5 IIMs and sponsored 6 Indian Space Research Organisation missions to Mars, according to another estimate. Sardar Patel was a farmer and at a time of farm distress, the money could have been used to irrigate several hundred thousand hectares and provide relief for farmers and increase farm output. Or, Rs 3,000 crore could have been used to buy modern harvester machines, which have facility to uproot the stubble, for all the farmers of North India and prevented them from burning the crop residue and polluting the whole region.

But belittling Nehru is the top-most priority of Narendra Modi because the BJP’s main rival, the Congress, still remains an electoral threat to Modi and at the helm of that party is Nehru’s great grandson. The statue is meant to build a perception that Patel did not get his due because of Nehru.

However, anyone who has a cursory glance of history knows that though the British handed over charge of princely states to its erstwhile rulers, they were all expected to join the Indian Union as the Freedom Movement had united almost every Indian residing even in the 600 odd princely states. Lured by power, a few royals resisted. However, the new Indian Government did not have much trouble to get all the princely states to join the Union.

The task of individually negotiating with the princely states was left to Patel who was India’s first Home Minister and Deputy PM. He had to subtly coerce a few rulers to achieve the Union. Patel was the best man available for the job, but it would be foolish to think that anyone else in his place would not have achieved the same. That would be an insult to every Freedom Fighter and every patriot.

Patel was Nehru’s deputy because the two great freedom fighters were Gandhi’s disciples and Gandhi chose Nehru as the one who should be the PM. Patel agreed whole heartedly because he was almost 70, not in good health and believed that a new-born nation required a visionary and dynamic personality like Nehru. A little over three years after Independence, Patel passed away. Nehru remained PM more than 13 years after Patel’s death.

Patel and Nehru were towering personalities who worked together for India. As two individuals, they had differences on several issues but were not a power-hungry quarrelling duo that right-wing disinformers are trying to make them out to be today. There were times when Nehru yielded to Patel on policy matters. One such issue was on banning the RSS after the assassination of Gandhi.

However, those who had no role in the Freedom Movement are trying to appropriate Patel’s legacy by falsely claiming India would have ‘achieved greatness’ under Patel and ‘achieved nothing’ as Nehru was PM. I don’t blame Modi even if he genuinely believes Nehru supressed Patel because that is what Modi has done to his party and Cabinet colleagues. But does he seriously expect an average Indian to believe that Nehru and Patel were something like Arun Jaitley and Subramanian Swamy? Or like CBI’s Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana? Creating conflict in institutions has been Modi’s mantra of remaining secure but not for the two men who can never be encapsulated in statues, irrespective of the height of such monuments.

Modi, however, will certainly be remembered for the Statue of Unity like Shah Jahan is remembered for the Taj Mahal. While the British unwittingly made amends for stealing the Peacock Throne — by calling the Taj the ‘monument of love’, thereby making it a global attraction for 8 million tourists a year today — historians see the Taj as a monument of ego and misery. While the emperor wanted to prove his greatness by building the Taj, the construction led to deaths of several humans. The marble mausoleum, which would have cost an estimated Rs 5,300 crore in today’s money, was a drain on the economy and led to the ultimate death of the Mughal Empire.

Symbolism can never help anyone to propagate pettiness against great men, even with Guinness Record breaking feats. Hopefully the Rs 3,000 crore expenditure for the 182 metre statue — which Patel, if alive, would surely have termed as an ugly and wasteful attempt to appropriate his legacy from the Congress — may be recovered in a few decades since more and more people fascinated by such spectacle have begun travelling more. However, it may create a dilemma among a certain section of Modi supporters: Can the Mandir in Ayodhya be built taller than 600 feet? If not, how can an icon for a human be higher than a grand temple for Lord Ram?

(abey.kay@gmail.com)

(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)