The man who hopes to be India’s next prime minister is talking about national pride. It will be built on the foundation of the world’s tallest statue, a statue of a man neglected by the Congress and now appropriated by its principal rival, the BJP.
When completed, the 182-metre high statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, built by melting iron pieces of used agricultural implements collected from farmers across seven lakh villages, will be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty and four times that of Christ the Redeemer in Rio.
It will, says Narendra Modi, force the world to look at India in admiration.
The world has indeed been looking at India but perhaps not in ways that Modi would like it to. The world looked at India when citizens were massacred under Modi’s watch in 2002. It looked at India when the Commonwealth Games crumbled under the weight of corruption and inefficiency.
It watches as politicians under the UPA regime have allowed it to slip in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index to 94 of 176 countries surveyed.
It has watched as India emerges as the worst place in the world for women among G20 nations. It has watched as our sex ratio remains abysmal and crimes against women continue with impunity. It has watched as malnutrition in India becomes worse than that of many sub-Saharan African countries and where now one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India.
Do any of these inconvenient truths vanish with the construction of a Rs 2,000 crore statue, funding for which will come from the state treasury that will finance the land and the cost of transportation of agricultural implements? But what is cost when it comes to the issue of national pride?
National pride is the reason put forward by pint-sized politicians to rationalise their giant-sized political ambitions tarted up as statue-building sprees. Chief amongst these is Mayawati who made it her personal mission to install statues of BR Ambedkar, Kanshiram and, of course, herself in practically every mohalla of Uttar Pradesh.
Ironically, the Dalit Prerna Sthals she established in Noida, Lucknow and elsewhere have been described by the BJP as a ‘misuse’ of public money.
In Maharashtra, BR Ambedkar’s grandson, Anandrao had occupied land in the now defunct Indu Mills, not far from Chaitya Bhoomi where the ashes of the architect of India’s Constitution are interred. Plans for an Ambedkar memorial include a 109-metre high statue. Yes, it will be taller than the 93-metre high Statue of Liberty.
We have been hearing promises for a — wait for it — ‘taller-than-the-Statue of Liberty’ 95-metre-high statue of Chattrapati Shivaji ever since the NCP-Congress combine put it on its 2004 election manifesto.
Building a statue at tax-payers’ expense is easy – and no party seems exempt from the potential of its heady populism. Building an institution, say a world-class cancer hospital takes initiative and administrative acumen.
Narendra Modi likes to project himself as a no-nonsense, decisive leader. If he truly believes in shauchalyas before devalayas (toilets before temples) why not build the world’s largest sanitation scheme and name it after the man who unified modern India?
In a country where nearly half our citizens have no access to a toilet, where 1,600 children below the age of 5 die every day because of sanitation-linked disease like diarrhoea and where 24% girls between the ages of 11 and 18 drop out of school because they lack a toilet, what would be a more fitting memorial to India’s first home minister?
National pride comes not from building statues but lasting memorials that benefit citizens. National pride lies not in iron structures but in honest, human endeavour like the Mars mission launched by our Isro scientists. At a cost of Rs 450 crore, the mission’s ambition is far, far larger than any concrete statue our politicians can sanction.
National pride lies in not wanting the world to look at India in admiration. It lies in making your country a better place for its citizens.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)