Size matters. In at least one respect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s acolytes and allies have surpassed him in matters of towering ambition. In the statue-building spree that currently grips the nation, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath this week was talking up five construction firms for a statue of Lord Rama to come up in Ayodhya. Rama’s effigy will soar to 221 metres, that is, 39 metres higher than 182-metre Statue of Unity, Mr Modi’s dream project — closely monitored and fast-tracked by the prime minister’s office — that he unveiled on the banks of the Narmada this month.
Sardar Patel’s bronze monolith cost nearly Rs 30 billion with thousands of tonnes of cement and steel and bronze sheets; Rama’s statue topped by a glittering canopy will come at a heavier price. "It has been decided that the flow of river Saryu will be diverted in such a way that the water touches the feet of Lord Rama statue once it is ready. The irrigation department is already working on it," announced UP minister Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary. In election year the government of the “monk with the mostest” has trumped Maharashtra, which is erecting a 212-metre tall statue of Shivaji off Mumbai’s coast in the Arabian Sea. The BJP and Shiv Sena in the state have been squabbling over who should be credited with mooting the Rs 36 billion Shivaji project. In recent days, Shiv Sena leader Udhav Thackeray, alongside the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), has upped the agitation for a Rama temple in Ayodhya to be constructed forthwith, by special ordinance if necessary, to supersede the Supreme Court’s hearings next year over the disputed site.
Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati could take the credit for the current frenzy in memorialising political and religious icons with huge statue-strewn parks in Lucknow and Noida built in a rumble-tumble of architectural styles. But creating, or in fact, desecrating these monoliths, is a time-dishonoured issue. As godlike heroes or heroic gods they may coalesce nationalist or regional aspiration with spiritual sanction but their real purpose is to confer lineage and legitimacy on the builder. In history Indian kings are often portrayed in the image of Rama but Mr Modi was making history, as the “Iron Man” of his age, by posing against the Statue of Unity
of amidst tricolour balloons and aerial fly pasts.
Getting rid of statues can be as cumbersome as creating them. It took decades to consign statues of British monarchs and pro-consuls that dotted Indian cities to the dustbin of history, with Nehru, in 1957, declaring to Parliament that they should be removed without “too much fuss”. Still, it wasn’t till 1968 that King George V’s statue in the Lutyens-designed canopy at India Gate was removed, to join others in a dusty compound in north Delhi called Coronation Park. Controversy raged whether the vacated space should be replaced by a statue of Gandhi but it was finally decided to leave it alone.
Conversely, in 2016 there was a campaign in Ghana to remove a statue of Gandhi, perceived as a racist figure, that the Modi government had presented to the university. And in another twist of history a statue of a 19th century governor general, Lord Auckland, was shipped from Kolkata to New Zealand because the Auckland city council badly desired it.
It is not only taxpayers who pay for these expensive totems. In her excellent book Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi (Speaking Tiger; 2018) historian Swapna Liddle records that there was stiff competition among Indian maharajas to pay for the two seven-and-half feet tall marble statues of King George and Queen Mary that once adorned Rashtrapati Bhavan. By the Viceroy’s diktat, the privilege went to the maharajas of Gwalior and Bikaner.
In many American cities there is rising clamour (and also resistance) to abolish statues of Confederate generals. Last year, riots broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the conflict.
Revolutionaries can come to a sticky end like colonialists. When Russia was the Soviet Union — and Moscow a city of rumour and long queues — it was the done thing to either acquire or be presented with busts of Lenin. After the USSR’s breakup in 1991, thousands of gigantic Lenin memorials in stone and bronze were torn down throughout the country. When I went back after Boris Yeltsin’s coup, the little images were being sold by street vendors to tourists. The ongoing pillage in Ukraine is so extreme that “Lenin debris litters the country…unable to be fully destroyed.”
The dice of history rolls unexpectedly. Russia has come full circle, with Vladimir Putin as the unchallenged new tsar. But in St. Petersburg it is statues of Catherine the Great (a despotic tsarina without one drop of Russian blood) that are worshipped in her garb as goddess Minerva.
All statue-building is an exercise in hubris but Mr Adityanath’s enterprise begs a question: Can a state with rampant child malnutrition and 325 children dying in a Gorakhpur hospital afford Rama’s benediction?