The Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is being built on Sandhu Bet, looking over the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, ninety kilometres south of the Gujarati city Vadodara. Once completed, it will be 182 meters tall, making it comfortably taller than the Spring Temple Buddha in China, which currently stands as the world’s tallest statue. The hope is that this monument to Patel 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. The dam itself has long been controversial. Still, Modi inaugurated the completed dam late in 2017, and the statue is now under construction.
Patel is a historic Indian figure – crucial to the Indian independence movement and political organisation of postcolonial India. This on its own, though, does not exactly warrant 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 memorialization.
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.
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. Modi’s project seeks to emphasise independence leaders who can be appropriated to the idea of India as a specifically Hindu civilization and moves the emphasis away from secular leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. Furthermore, Patel’s reputation as an ‘Iron man’ and his willingness to use force to unify India is a counter to Nehru’s nonviolent foreign policy. Nonviolence has long been seen by the BJP as weakness, even as having ‘emasculated’ India.
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 was also known for authoritarian leadership, communal tensions, and, according to Christophe Jaffrelot, high, if largely jobless, GDP growth.
During his time as Chief Minister of Gujurat, Modi launched the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ campaign which is part nation branding exercise, part international trade fair. The summits aims 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.’
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 and global. Gujarat is presented as the low-tax, low-regulation global entry point to India. Vibrant Gujarat also includes a tourism strategy, which seeks investment for the 416 million US dollars necessary to build the statue, and the infrastructure needed for mass tourism.
Currently, the roads leading to the statue are 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 does not mention Patel’s name, just that it will be the tallest statue in the world upon completion.
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. However, given the jobless growth of the Gujarat model, the hefty the price tag, and the fact that its being built with Chinese labour and materials, it may become a monument to the inequalities and contradictions of contemporary India as much as its unity.