At twice the size of New York’s Statute of Liberty and almost five times the size of Rio’s eponymous Christ the Redeemer, Vallabhbhai Patel will cast a longer shadow than most former deputy prime ministers. So why is the world’s largest statue being built in rural India?
The Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is being built on Sandhu Bet, looking over the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River,90 kilometres south of the Gujarati city Vadodara. It is planned to be 182 meters tall, making it comfortably taller than the current tallest statue in the world, the Spring Temple Buddha in China. The hope is it will attract lakhs of tourists, but there is far more going on with this strange and expensive statue.
The project began during now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 13 year term as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The dam has been a long-running nation-building project. Its foundation stone was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961. Modi inaugurated the completed dam late in 2017, and the statue is now under construction.
Patel is doubtless an historic figure, and was crucial to the Indian independence movement and political organisation of postcolonial India. This on its own, though, does not obviously equate building the ‘world’s tallest statue’ in his honour. Rather, it is the contemporary politics of Modi’s nationalist project and its model of development that explains Patel’s extraordinary memorialisation.
Patel died in 1950, just three years after Indian independence. He was a close confidant of Gandhi, with whom he was imprisoned for many years. During his term as Jawaharlal Nehru’s deputy prime minister, he negotiated, through diplomatic tact underpinned by the threat of force, the incorporation of the 562 princely states of colonial India into the Union of India. This earned him a reputation as the ‘Iron man of India’ and as the unifier of India. Unsurprisingly, the statue itself will be partly made of some 5,000 tonnes of iron.
Modi’s ideational project seeks to emphasise independence leaders who can be appropriated to the idea of India as a specifically Hindu civilization. This draws attention away from secular leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. The erasure of Nehru, though, necessitates a new nationalist historiography. This has added emphasis on the historical figures of Gandhi and Patel.
The association of Patel with unity is crucial to the statue. Today, the assertion of Indian unity has political meaning beyond the incorporation of the princely states into modern India. Within the Hindutva view of India, unity must be centred around Hinduism and India as a distinctly Hindu civilization. This can be seen in the BJP’s long-standing desire to make Hindi the national language, or to introduce a uniform civil code without protections for minorities. Patel’s reputation as an ‘Iron man’ and his willingness to use force to unify India is a counter to Nehru’s secularism and nonviolent foreign policy. Nonviolence has long been seen by the BJP as weakness, even as having ‘emasculated’ India. Finally, a towering statue of Patel looming over the dam, itself a remarkable engineering achievement, ensures the dam is remembered as Patel’s project, rather than Nehru’s or anyone else’s.
If we dig a little deeper, however, the statue is also connected to Modi and the BJP’s promise for development and investment. Gujarat is sometimes known as the ‘laboratory of Hindu nationalism’. In Modi’s time it also known for authoritarian leadership, communal tensions, and, according to Christophe Jaffrelot, high, if largely jobless, GDP growth. Another key element of Modi’s time in office in Gujarat was the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ campaign.
‘Vibrant Gujarat’ can be thought of as a nation branding exercise, but also comprises of trade missions made by the chief minister and a biennial international trade fair. The summits aim to bring international investment into the state. How much investment this has actually brought to Gujarat is unclear, but it has been extremely successful in popularizing the ‘Gujarat model’ as the key to India’s development. The campaign is an important forerunner to the BJP’s national projects like ‘Make in India’, ‘Swatchh Bharat’, ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Skill India’. Unlike the socialist Nehru, Patel believed capitalism could be made to work for everyone. Indeed, the Statue of Unity project notes that Patel was “one of the earliest proponents of property rights and free enterprise in India.”
Vibrant Gujarat tells a story of Gujarat as uniquely situated within India, and as its own unit in the global economy. Gujarat is presented as the low-tax, low-regulation global entry point to India. The project also draws on a narrative of Gujarat having a unique historical/cultural national identity by emphasising a cultural stereotype of Gujaratis as inherently ‘entrepreneurial‘, adventurous, diasporic and global. Vibrant Gujarat includes a tourism strategy, which seeks investment for the USD$416 million (AUD$532 million) necessary to build the statue, and the infrastructure needed for mass tourism.
The roads are currently being widened to make the drive easier, and hotels and restaurants will surely follow. This is why so much is made of the statue being to be the tallest in the world – a world record might draw in visitors to learn about Patel, who, unlike Gandhi, is not well known outside of India. Most importantly though, domestic tourists will visit the dam, the statue, and see Patel as the great national hero responsible for Indian unity. Interestingly, the investor materials do not even mention Patel’s name, just that it will be the tallest statue in the world upon completion. The project, it seems, is primarily for domestic consumption.
The statue promotes the Hindu nationalist view of Indian history, and calls for unity, all while promoting free enterprise and seeking foreign investment. It is a physical representation of Modi’s entire nationalist project. Given the jobless growth of the Gujarat model, however, not to mention the price tag, it may become a monument to the inequalities of contemporary India as much as its unity.
Dr Alexander Davis is a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.