The world's biggest statue, erected in honour of the Iron Man of India, seeks to change the country's narrative and underscore the prime minister's own vision
The Statue of Unity is a monument to Patel's achievements and Modi's ambition
In the centre of Old Delhi’s historic and chaotic Chandni Chowk neighbourhood is a square that many residents still call Ghantaghar, or “clocktower”. This is despite the fact that a clocktower has not stood there since 1952.
Public memory, especially when it comes to monuments and memorials, changes slowly. In Rome, the Colosseum still stands, even though the Colossus of Nero − the great statue it is named after − has long been ground to dust. Some would argue that this is precisely the point of building massive public structures: to crystallise public memories; to enable selective remembering. Or could it be to enable selective forgetting?
Originally named the Northbrook Tower, the Chandni Chowk clocktower was an intensely political project, erected in 1870, under imperial British auspices. It was no accident that two of the first such structures built in imperial India following the anti-British revolt of 1857 were located in Lucknow and Delhi. Both cities were fountainheads of rebellion and epicentres of Indian solidarity. But that uprising failed, and the looming monoliths were installed to remind the natives that the Raj was still around, regulating their lives, seeing everything. “Kindly avoid all revolts, until further notice,” was their message.
Late last month, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the latest addition to the country’s extensive and growing catalogue of commemorative structures. Costing nearly 30 billion rupees (Dh1.5bn) and standing at 182 metres, this vast effigy of Vallabhbhai Patel, occupying an island overlooking the Narmada river in Gujarat, is the world’s tallest statue.
Gujarat is Mr Modi and Patel’s home state, but these men share more than a birthplace. Compared to Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel is widely viewed as the most staunchly nationalist of modern India’s founding fathers. Mr Modi has made no secret of his desire to make his unabashedly pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party the new “default party of government” in India – one that will neutralise the liberal secularism of the opposition Congress Party and the place of Nehru, its first prime minister, in the Indian psyche. This is where Patel fits into his plans.
A key protagonist of India’s independence movement, Patel was instrumental in rapidly pulling together the union of India from a bewildering morass of princely states and Raj provinces that the British left behind in 1947. The scale of this task cannot be exaggerated. It was largely Patel’s responsibility to convince more than 500 kingdoms and principalities to become part of the Indian union. Most did so willingly, but many needed Patel’s blend of steely resolve and action. Hyderabad, for instance, was subjugated through an invasion named Operation Polo and at least one small state was subject to a spot of gunboat diplomacy.
If Nehru was the velvet-tongued statesman who excelled at compromise, Patel was a man who knew how to make offers you couldn’t refuse. It was a combination of leadership that a newly independent, deeply divided and perilously placed India was fortunate to have.
All of which is to say that Patel entirely warrants a monument, in so far as there is any point in building statues of great Indian leaders. It also makes complete sense to call it the Statue of Unity. But why make it the biggest statue in the world? If the idea is to give Patel his rightful place in the mind of the Indian public, then the Statue of Unity seems to miss several tricks.
First of all, it is made of bronze. Patel is known as the Iron Man of India. It is one of the nation’s great political sobriquets. In 2007, a national movement to collect iron for the statue was started, but it fell far short of what was required.
Secondly, an island on the banks of the Narmada is an odd place to locate it. The monument is a 45-minute drive from the nearest railway station, Rajpipla, and approximately 80 kilometres away from the nearest major city, Vadodara. The authorities hope it will draw around 10,000 visitors per day. For the sake of public finances, one can only hope that it does.
Thirdly, the statue is situated in what was once the princely state of Rajpipla, which joined the union of India with great enthusiasm. It was not a place Patel had to negotiate with. Indeed, it provided the very model of smooth accession.
So, what then is the point of this gargantuan statue? A careful look at the way Mr Modi has managed his public image since coming to power suggests an intriguing aim. In his annual International Day of Yoga initiative, launched in 2015, Mr Modi seeks to promote an Indian way of living to the wider world. In his global diplomacy and high-profile appearances in international cities, he presents himself as a new kind of Indian statesman − a national leader with international aspirations; one who is equally comfortable writing educational books for children, anchoring a weekly radio show, and brokering a new international alliance of nations to counterbalance China.
Taking all of this together, it is clear that Mr Modi wants to be the new Nehru. And the new Gandhi. And now the new Patel. Rolled into one. Looking up at Patel’s gigantic likeness, perhaps he saw a new model for Indian unity – one born not from the nation’s post-colonial experience and diverse realities, but its Hindu heritage and traditions, embodied in one man’s leadership and one party’s politics. The Statue of Unity is not so much a tribute to one politician’s historic achievements, but a reflection of another’s unbridled ambitions.
All physical monuments, however, are ultimately temporary. In 1952, the Northbrook Tower in Delhi collapsed and killed three people, at which point someone cleared the rubble and turned it into a traffic junction. The greatest tribute to India’s founding figures will hopefully prove more durable. In a world struggling to cope with diversity, the nation’s democracy, however fractious, presents a ray of hope and will always remain its most towering achievement.
Sidin Vadukut is an Indian author and historian who lives in London. He is currently researching the role of charity in the early Islamic economy