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Statue Politics: India’s Quest to Outbuild China, and Itself

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Asia Life

Statue Politics: India’s Quest to Outbuild China, and Itself

India is planning to have not only the tallest statue in the world, but two of them.

Statue Politics: India’s Quest to Outbuild China, and Itself

A much smaller statue of Shivaji in south Mumbai.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Amit20081980

It seems unavoidable and logical that the Statue of Liberty was eventually knocked off its pedestal as the tallest statue in the world. Its place was taken by the Spring Temple Buddha, a 128-meter statue (excluding the pedestal) located in Henan, China, which was completed in 2008. I consider it “logical” since the United States and China are now locked in a race for global supremacy and the construction of the Spring Temple Buddha marked yet another symbolic aspect in which Americans were overtaken by the Chinese. Yes, I do remember that the Statue of Liberty was actually built by the French, but didn’t I use the words “symbolic aspect”? Yet, the issue of who is the actual constructor is of importance also for this text and I will come back to this later.

As geopolitics and economics stand now, the Chinese statue should long remain unparalleled in its height for symbolic reasons, as China is now in many ways a power comparable to the United States. Yet, another country is willing to take part in this peculiar, non-Olympic sport of “tallest statue construction”: India. One could argue that India already has made its spiritual contribution to the world’s current tallest statue. The one standing in China is, after all, a statue of Buddha and Buddhism may be considered India’s gift to China, having traveled from one civilization to the other in ancient times (by India, I mean here the Indian civilization as a whole, including parts of modern Nepal, etc.). But even if the spiritual should be considered to be taller than the material, the “Buddhist” argument – if anybody ever used it – would apparently not convince some Indian leaders who want their country to have the world’s tallest statue outright.

In 2010, the government of the state of Gujarat in western India announced its plan to erect a statue that would measure 182 meters, pedestal included. To make it a unity drive, according to the original plan pieces of iron for the statue were to be collected from every Indian village and a photo of every village headman in India is to be placed inside it (this is not to say that those pieces of iron will form most of the construction material). The work is now in progress and the monument will face the Narmada Dam water reservoir when completed. The statue will represent Vallabhbhai Patel, a famous politician from Gujarat who died in 1950. The vision of the statue is rather austere; the politician will be depicted as calm and standing, apparently without any attributes. Still, the magnificent undertaking was projected to cost $320 million back in 2010 and – once completed – it will overtake the Spring Temple Buddha, not to mention the Statue of Liberty. The company which will oversee the project is the same that took part in the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

But if that was not enough, at the end of 2016 the government of Maharashtra – another state in western India – announced its plan to construct an even taller statue. The monument is envisaged to be located on an island in the Arabian Sea, west of the city of Mumbai, the financial capital of India and the administrative capital of Maharashtra. At the moment of announcement, the project was said to cost $530 million and the statue is planned to reach 192 meters (some 210 meters with the pedestal), making it twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (93 meters), just a bit taller than its 182-meter tall neighbor statue in Gujarat and making Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer (38 meters) look like a baby. The projected statue will represent the 17th century King Shivaji. Much more warlike in its symbolism, the vision of the monument shows the king riding a horse and holding a sword high above his crown.

These are to be the tallest memorials of the tallest leaders and the political ramifications are easy to spot. Vallabhbhai Patel was a disciple and supporter of Gandhi, took part in his initiatives, and played an important part in the independence movement. For India, Patel’s biggest contribution might have been the fact that he negotiated with many Indian monarchs to convince them to join the new Republic of India. Secondly, as home minister he faced some of the toughest strikes and other challenges to the country’s stability and unity. Patel was regarded as a person of iron will and a tough negotiator and this turned out to be important for India’s unification process. Thus, unsurprisingly, his statue will be called the Statue of Unity. From this nation-building perspective Patel was a man of stature that deserves a statue. Yet, in that case another monument of that size should commemorate Mahatma Gandhi (but he would have been against it).

But this political symbolism is actually more nuanced. Like Gandhi, Patel belonged to the Indian National Congress. Yet, the party in Gujarat that is constructing his statue is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Hindu nationalists, which is the biggest rival of the Congress. At the end of his life Patel grew apart from Gandhian ideology and evoked certain strong views. He was wary of communist ideology, called upon India to be bolder in its dealings with Pakistan and China, and to become closer to the United States instead of the Soviet Union; he also reportedly became suspicious of Muslims (being a Hindu). Thus, Patel, while belonging to an increasingly socialist party, stood on its right wing. The political course that he called for was rejected and Patel himself died just three years after Indian independence, thus not having much chance to influence the future of his motherland.

It therefore makes perfect sense for the BJP to commemorate Patel. Although he came from a rival party, at the end of his life he actually claimed a worldview not so far away from the one evoked by the Hindu nationalists. Secondly, if the Hindu nationalists — who now have more power in India than ever before in their history — want to lay claim to the legacy of the Indian independence movement and the early years of nation-building, Patel is the perfect choice. It would be riskier for the BJP to build a statue of that size in the memory of other Congress leaders who were the founding fathers of the Indian republic: Jawaharlal Nehru (who was a socialist and detested Hindu nationalism), Mahatma Gandhi (who was criticized by Hindu nationalists for being too tolerant of Muslims, for accepting the Pakistan demand, and who was murdered by a Hindu nationalist) or Bhimrao Ambedkar (whose social reforms were only gradually accepted by the Hindu nationalists). Immortalizing Patel can, in a way, help BJP in snatching Patel’s legacy away from the Congress.

The idea of the statue of King Shivaji sends an even stronger political message, though a much more predictable one. In the 17th century Shivaji, through his warrior skills, had built a kingdom located in the areas partially now in the state of Maharashtra. He spent a lot of time fighting the neighbors, particularly the Mughal empire. Shivaji also emphasized his attachment to Hindu traditions and thus his conflict with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is often simplified into a war between a Hindu and a Muslim monarch.

The state of Maharashtra is currently under rule of the same BJP in an uneasy coalition with a party called Shiv Sena. Shivaji hailed from the Maratha community that is numerically dominant in the present Maharashtra state and the radical Shiv Sena claims to represent the interests of that community. The party had thus built its image using Shivaji and had already done a lot to bring commemorating the ancient king to the cult level. Even the party’s name – “Shiv’s Army” –is a reference to Shivaji. But the party is also visibly anti-Muslim and here Shivaji’s exploits against Muslim rulers are also an important material for politics of history. The situation of the BJP in Maharashtra is somewhat reverse to that of Shiv Sena. BJP is now an all-India party that uses Hindu nationalism at the national level but to keep roots at the local level it needs to make reference to regional identities. Shiv Sena is a local party that built its popularity on the regional identity of Marathas and had – so far abortively – tried to expand to other regions using the Hindu nationalism plank. Thus, Shivaji is important for these parties for two reasons: on a regional level as a Maratha king and on the national level as a Hindu monarch.

Although at the beginning of this text I wrote of global rivalry and of India as a whole, it is noteworthy that the two statue projects are actually regional. Both are the work of state governments, not the central government and will be financed by the states (true, the same party now rules at the center and that is always helpful; but when the party announced the Statue of Unity project it did not yet rule the central government). Both projects are important for the pan-Indian (and/or pan-Hindu) ideology but refer strongly to regional identity as well. Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, is from Gujarat, just like Patel did (and Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when the government of that state unveiled the project). King Shivaji, as mentioned above, is especially dear to many Marathas, the dominant ethnic group in the state of Maharashtra, who hail him as the establisher of a strong Maratha kingdom.

Critiques of the projects are noteworthy, but easy to predict. In a country grappling with considerable poverty and social problems, spending millions of dollars on statues must be controversial and having the two tallest statues in the world instead of one can double the critique. Maharashtra and Gujarat are among the richer Indian states in relative terms and usually top the charts when it comes to attracting investment but they obviously have a sizable poor population to care for.

And coming back to China, the Statue of Unity represents an interesting twist in the story. As I mentioned before, Patel wanted India to take a stronger position regarding China (and history has, perhaps, proved him right). The party that is erecting his statue is ever ready to speak about confronting Beijing (though its actions do not match its words). As I am writing these words, India and China are locked in a military standoff in Doklam, at the China-Bhutan-India border area. And yet the bronze cladding for the statue of Patel will actually be delivered by TQ Art Foundry, a Chinese company.

Thus, ironically – but maybe luckily – the world is never simple, just as the monuments symbolize more than one thing. The Spring Temple Buddha is a religious structure despite the country’s past anti-religious stance. It is located in China and while Beijing now has tense relations with New Delhi the statue represents the Buddhist religion that had come to China from India. At the same time, the next tallest statue will immortalize an Indian politician who was a China skeptic; the statue is supported by the Hindu nationalists and yet it will be partially built by the Chinese. Like it or not, national symbols can be strengthened through international cooperation.