Until October 31st 2018, the Spring Temple Buddha in China was the largest statue in the world. This changed on October 31st, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the 182-metres tall Statue of Unity in Gujarat at a ceremony.
The Statue of Unity depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a former deputy prime minister of India and is an expression of the respect felt towards Patel’s efforts at unifying India.
Speaking at the unveiling ceremony, Prime Minister Modi said that the statue was a response to those questioning the existence of India and that it showed India was an will be eternal. Modi also said that Patel had transformed the diversity of India into a source of strength for the country and that on its path to becoming the greatest economic and strategic power in the world, India was following the path shown by Patel.
Those who follow India politics closely say that before 1947, in which India gained its independence, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had convinced some principalities into joining the union and threatened others and that Patel has therefore become a symbol for right-wing Indian citizens. 1 In this sense, there is no surprise for right-wing Modi to have commissioned a statue of Patel, the symbol of right-wing politics. However, it is also claimed that Modi has an ulterior motive in honouring Patel through the statue, which is to limit the importance attributed to the historical role of former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.2 At this point the question that needs to be asked is: why would Modi try to limit the historical significance of former prime minister Nehru? The answer to the question lies in Nehru being a symbol of the Congress Party, which is at present the main opposition. A general election is to be held in India this year, with main opposition Congress Party having made significant gains in state-level elections. Therefore Modi using Patel symbolism against Nehru symbolism through the Statue of Unity might be seen as an electoral ploy.
It cannot be said that the Statue of Unity has been welcomed by citizens. Foremen of twenty villages around the Sardar Sarovar Dam published an open letter to Modi, in which they stated that they did not welcome Modi, who travelled to the region for the opening ceremony and that Modi was an “unwanted guest”. The reason why locals have reacted to Modi is that the statue has cost USD 40 million.3 Local people complain that the statue was built by destroying natural resources, without taking into account the real needs of the people and resulted in the loss of land for locals. Indian web publication The Wire has split those opposing the Statue of Unity into three. The first group are farmers in grave financial difficulties due to a lack of attention from the government. The second are tribes who are angry that so much has been spent on the statue when their region lacks in drinking water, hospitals and schools. The third group are opposition politicians who think the statue is a “marketing tool” for the governing BJP.
I think the negative reaction to the statue may be categorised as economic and political reactions. Economic reactions converge on the point that the expenditure on the statue is unacceptable in India, where hundreds of million people live below the poverty line, despite the growth of the economy. Modi’s argument that the Statue of Unity will benefit tribes, farmers and villagers in the region, jumpstart employment and promote tourism to the region has not allayed criticism.5 Furthermore, economic reactions to the statue do not come from within India alone. The issue was even debated in the United Kingdom. Conservative MP Peter Bone said that the UK was giving financial aid to India and that it was ridiculous for a state receiving foreign aid to be spending millions of pounds on a statue. Bone added that the United Kingdom did not have the obligation to aid a state that could spend so much on a statue.6 The views that emphasise economic growth in India and call on the UK cancelling aid to India have gained strength through the construction of the Statue of Unity.
Political reactions are directed not only towards Modi using the Statue of Unity as political capital, but also at Modi himself as a leader who does the opposite to the thought and actions of Patel, whose statue the former has had erected. Congress Party Chairperson Rahul Gandhi accused the government of the systematic destruction of those institutions Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had helped build and deemed it an irony to put up a statue of Patel under the circumstances.7
Modi deciding to erect the world’s largest statue at such great cost, while millions people in India have to go without food and other basic needs, shows that he was acting with political, rather than economic motivation. He must have foreseen the negative reaction to the statue given the prevailing economic conditions in the country. However, we cannot tell whether Modi foresaw reactions from the United Kingdom to the statue. Now that the Status of Unity has been completed, India may be risking aid from the United Kingdom, at least at desired levels.
On the other hand, the fact that Modi’s motivation for the Statue of Unity was political makes political criticism of the statue far more important for Modi than economic criticism. For Modi, what matters is how the criticism will affect the general election.
Asc. Prof. Dr. Dilek YİĞİT
This article previously published in The Diplomatic Observer January 2019
1 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/31/india-unveils-worlds-biggest-statue-sardar-patel-amid-protests, 31 October 2018
2 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/31/india-unveils-worlds-biggest-statue-sardar-patel-amid-protests, 31 October 2018
3 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-45978120, 28 October 2018
4 https://thewire.in/rights/narendra-modi-statue-of-unity-protests, 30 October 2018
5 https://indianexpress.com/article/india/statue-of-unity-narendra-modi-worlds-tallest-statue-sardar-vallabhbhai-patel-run-for-unity-5427064/, 21 January 2019
6 https://www.businesstoday.in/current/world/uk-mp-calls-statue-of-unity-nonsense-britain-should-not-give-aid-to-india/story/288615.html, 6 November 2018
7 https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/as-pm-narendra-modi-unveils-statue-of-unity-rahul-gandhi-seeks-to-claim-the-true-congressman/story-8dBlA34eCUAE577LASiG2N.html, 31 October 2018