Sardar Patel doesn't need your help, Mr Modi-you need his

As a work of art, I quite like the National Icon Whitewashing & Appropriation Project, or, as some people are calling it, the ‘Statue of Unity’. I like the way the metal has been tricked into soft folds of cloth and crinkly skin, and how it towers all Game of Thrones-y over the landscape, like a visual shout. Well done.

On the other hand I’d also quite like a nice sports car, but you don’t see me forcing everyone in the country to pay for it on the grounds that it’s good for them, do you? 

The statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel is made entirely out of irony. The man was a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman who worked with M K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and who banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for spreading ‘poison’. The man who commissioned the statue is a dyed-in-the-wool RSS product who obediently reports to the RSS, and who wants a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. The man now made 182 metres tall will be remembered for stitching India together. The man with the 56-inch chest who commissioned the effigy will be remembered for loudly talking about unity to drown out the sounds of a social fabric being ripped apart. Sardar Patel was part of a team of great contemporary leaders. Mr Modi assiduously curates his own image as the country’s single outsize icon.

Some of the irony comes from the adulteration of a lofty idea—this nationalist statue was meant to be made of melted farming tools collected from all over India, but the iron was too low quality to use, so the statue was partly built by China. Some of the irony comes from the fact that Mr Modi, who leans heavily on his own humble origins to pose as a champion of the poor, pulled the land for the statue from under the feet of poor tribals, replacing them with a ‘tribal museum’ in the complex.

Still, what a relief. Mr Modi has not delivered many things that he said he would—he has not fixed the economy or the banking system, nor rooted out corruption; he has failed to build institutions and transparency. But there’s one thing he said he would do and, by golly, he’s done it—he has built a statue that nobody demanded, at an exorbitant cost, to honour a man whose place in history is already cemented. Slow clap.

Everyone knows what’s going on here. Hindutva has no national heroes of its own since the RSS declined to participate in the struggle for independence, and few elsewhere since it is trying shove Gandhi and Nehru into the shadows of history. Its efforts to manufacture a heroic aura around V D Savarkar have failed. It has decided to just do the efficient thing and adopt Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who comes pre-loaded with greatness and Shudra status, which as Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd points out, means that his legacy, relatively less written about, is more easily manipulable. 

Maybe, if Mr Modi can fire over Patel’s gigantic shoulder, people will start to think that he is very like Patel? It’s a long shot, but the Modi sheen has worn awfully thin, and after five years and a long, much-frayed rope, he faces real accountability from voters. He needs any help he can get.

Ever since the BJP came to power, it has spent its time telling us how small and oppressed and humiliated Indians have been, and how great and powerful and proud we are now that the BJP is in power. This is the only real vision that the BJP has: Our collective low self-esteem is someone else’s fault, and we pledge to smack that someone down to make us feel better about ourselves. Here’s an overcompensating statue. Give us your vote.

The party has spent mind-boggling amounts of money advertising the fiction that India was a scattered nothing before the advent of Prime Minister Modi, and that since his arrival, people fall about in wonder when they spot an Indian passport; that the economy has magically been healed; that corruption has vanished (as in a way it has, to London and Antigua); that Pakistan lies awake all night shivering with fear; that the world is anxiously waiting for us to lead it; that there is hope for the critically endangered Hindu population; and that we now have a strong and stable leader, which means that everything should be better.

But everything is not better—it is worse. 

What? Can’t hear you. Here, have a statue.

The most useful thing about the Statue of Unity is that it provides a striking visual comparison to the small-minded divisiveness of the current dispensation. After all, if building a statue could magically make something true, Mr Modi has only to build statues of a giant toilet, a giant happy farmer, a giant empowered woman, a giant growth graph, and a giant, giant mandate.

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