When the Congress-NCP government led by Ashok Chavan had first announced the plans to erect a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Arabian Sea, senior journalist Kumar Ketkar had objected to spending Rs 3,600 crore which, he said, should instead be spent on writing off loans of farmers in Vidarbha. He was gheraoed and roughed up by Shiv Sangram chief Vinayak Mete and workers of the NCP. Mete then owed allegiance to the NCP. Today, as head of the Chhatrapati Smarak Samiti set up to ovrsee the construction of the memorial, he is an ally of the BJP. But he continues to be annoyed, this time about the manner in which the jalpoojan for the memorial has been handled by the BJP government--like a party event rather than one by the government and non-inclusive of other political parties.
In fact, it is strange that all political parties, opposed to each other bitterly, have been unanimous in condemning the government of Devendra Fadnavis for appropriating the event for electoral gains in the upcoming civic elections in February. Even Raju Shetti, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, an ally of the BJP, has raised objections to the isolation of other political parties. Gurudas Kamat of the Congress has expressed his displeasure at the non-inclusion of his party, which conceptualised the statue 12 years ago, in the event. And Jayant Patil of the NCP has mocked the government for doing just that--event marketing, going so far as to say, far from acknowledging that this was a Congress-NCP dream coming true, the BJP with its mega-advertising campaign before the event was “pretending that it was their poll promise that they were now fulfilling”.
Their sustained campaign unnerved Fadnavis enough to acknowledge that the idea was the Congress-NCP’s but he charged them with “doing nothing in their 15 years” to secure appropriate permissions and get the project off the ground. The fact on the ground, however, is that all permissions for the statue, including those from the Bombay Port Trust, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard as well as the Fisheries department, were secured by the Congress-NCP government by 2014. But by the time the last permission--from the environment ministry--came through in February 2015, the Congress-NCP were out of power. The delay in the bhoomipoojan by nearly two years now lends credence to the accusations by all parties that the BJP is using the event to further its poll prospects in February 2017.
The BJP is looking at diminishing returns after the first round of local self government elections last month to various municipal councils and gram panchayats. While it did remarkably well in the first round, the Congress caught up in the second and faces stiff competition from the Shiv Sena in several municipal corporations, including Mumbai and Nashik, elections to which are due in February. Both farmers in the villages and traders in big and small cities whose livelihoods have been hit hard by demonetisation, and the advantage of this is expected to go to both the Congress and the Shiv Sena in various different areas. In addition, the Fadnavis government is also under tremendous pressure from the Maratha community following the series of silent morchas for reservation in the past months--it is an issue that the state government is constitutionally helpless to resolve and the BJP, which is said to be deeply worried about the fallout of their discontent on the party’s future prospects, is hoping their appropriation of the Shivaji memorial in the sea will help them regain some traction with the community.
But the lack of graciousness in inviting even Uddhav Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, their ally, to the event, has not gone down well with the Marathi manoos. The Congress, upset at the hijacking of something that first appeared in their party manifesto in 2004 and then the joint manifesto with the NCP in 2009, is also not very pleased. Kamat has underscored the fact that the memorial “was planned by the Congress-led government and it would have been nice of the government to include some Congress leaders during the bhoomipoojan ceremonies”.
However, although Fadnavis has taken a swipe at the Congress for not securing permissions for the memorial during their term, the fact remains that, then or now, Rs 3,600 crores of tax payers money seems like an awfully huge amount to spend on yet another statue of Shviaji (with two magnficent statues already at the gateway of India and Shivaji Park), whether by the Congress or the BJP, particularly since farmers are still dying in the districts and Shivaji’s forts across the state continue to lie in a sad state of neglect and ruin.
Indeed, fishermen who cast to the sea from Colaba and other shores of South Bombay are alarmed by the prospect that the statue will get in their way and had even displayed black flags on their fishing boats and shut the fish markets on the day of the bhoomipoojan on December 24.
But there is no one to address their concerns. Both Congress and BJP leaders are busy blaming each other or taking credit for the memorial. While Fadnavis’s predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan, has countered the chief minister by saying all permission but the one from the environment ministry had been secured during his tenure, he has, uncharacteristically, minced few words in charging the BJP with seeking political mileage out of something that came out of the heads of Congress Party leaders.
Now even Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has jumped on to the band wagon by asking where the government proposes to generate the funds for the memorial. Alleging that the state government coffers are empty he has dismissed the brouhaha over the event as just hype and said rather than a new memorial to Shivaji, both parties would have been better advised to preserve existing memories of the warrior king in his neglected forts. “But the BJP is just like the Congress, “ he said in Nashik on Monday.