‘Edifice complex’ fit to be torn down

It is well-known that our political leaders suffer from a kind of edifice complex. They like grand plans to build things that are more symbolic than utilitarian. If they don’t have the money, which is usually the case, then an existing structure, such as an airport, highway or bridge is fine, but the moment they see an opportunity, they want to name it after some hero that they feel will get them popular appeal.

Mahatma Gandhi is of course the most commonly used name, but so are Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, a tendency that has been rightly criticised. But now, under Narendra Modi, leaders from the BJP pantheon are getting an opportunity. So far only two names have been chosen — Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya. So the BJP has looked elsewhere for inspiration—Vallabhbhai Patel, Veer Savarkar and even Dr B R Ambedkar are on their list. In Mumbai, two major landmarks, the airport and the former Victoria Terminus have been given the name of Shivaji.

But what is the fun in christening old buildings? What excites the politician more than anything else is a statue—there are thousands of statues of local and national heroes all over the country and most of them are in a state of benign neglect, used only to give directions, rather than for any practical purposes. That has not stopped ultra-ambitious politicians from going ahead with even more grandiose plans for more, public opinion be damned.

Mayawati, with her humongous project to erect statues, of not just the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr Ambedkar,  but also her mentor Kanshi Ram and herself (complete with her handbag), invited ridicule because of the sheer scale and expenditure involved. That should have put paid to the designs of other politicians, but no. When did public opprobrium really matter to a politician who is determined?

Narendra Modi, during his election campaign, declared that he would build a 182-metre tall statue of Vallabhbhai Patel, across from the Narmada Dam. This Statue of Unity would be taller than the Statue of Liberty in the US and would be made from metal donated by common people and farmers. The response was underwhelming and in its first budget, the government allocated Rs 200 crore towards the project, which will cost approximately Rs 2,500 crore.

Couldn’t that money be better spent on hospitals, schools and such like to commemorate Sardar Patel’s legacy? It is a valid question that has been asked by people at large, but will the government listen? Politicians kept mum, because they know that one day they would be doing something like this. But now, one politician has broken ranks. Raj Thackeray has raised this very point, saying that the Patel statue would be a waste of money.

Not just that, Thackeray has also said the same about the 94-foot statue of Shivaji, which the Maharashtra Government wants to build in the Arabian Sea. This proposal was first mooted before the elections in 2004, then again in 2009, but when in power, the Congress-NCP government forgot all about it. Now, elections are in the offing again (and the BJP having declared a gigantic Patel statue), the Congress does not want to be left behind. Besides, the Shiv Sena too is in favour of this.

Raj Thackeray may well be saying this because he does not want others to walk away with political mileage, but it could also be due to a sharper understanding of what voters now want. No longer does symbolism satisfy voters who have seen through the games of politicians. They want jobs, security, economic growth and of course good schools, hospitals and universities. The Rs 350 crore that will be spent on the Shivaji statue could well be used for those things. It could even go towards upkeep the many marvellous forts all over the state, as Thackeray has pointed out.

For all their love for Shivaji, successive state governments have done very little to restore his forts, which barely attract tourists. This is not surprising, because refurbishing forts do not impress vote-banks—or so politicians think. But they are wrong—it shows that the government cares about legacy and history and in any case it is a far more valuable exercise than building one more statue.

Besides, there are environmental issues to be concerned. Coastal regulation laws prohibit any structure upto 500 metres of the high tide line—a structure on a small piece of rock in the middle of the sea will fall into that category. The government has asked for an exception in this case. Will the centre oblige?

There are legitimate fears that once these two statues start coming up, a veritable competition will break out in the country. North, south, east, we shall see large structures of local icons, as politicians rush to show off to their constituents what they are capable of. As it is, India is dotted with statues of illustrious people, most of which lie in a state of neglect. Now more will spring up.

Raj Thackeray deserves praise for his comments, which are unusual coming from a politician, but more so when one considers his political pedigree. Let us see if the Shiv Sena follows suit—that will really be a radical new turn for it.

Given that the Congress-NCP government has been floating this idea for a good 10 years (before every election) and considering the many hurdles in the way, it will be a while before any real work begins on this ambitious proposal. At this stage, it does not look like the incumbent Democratic Front coalition will come back to power, in which case it will be left to the next administration to take it forward.

 Will the Shiv Sena-BJP persist or will it quietly give this project a quiet burial?  In other words, will they see sense in not spending hundreds of crores of public money at a time when the state’s finances are in trouble and so many developmental projects are waiting for funds? We shall know soon.

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