Modi’s Monumental Message

JEFF CIRILLO: The west Indian state of Gujarat just got a massive new statue. Rising nearly 600 feet into the open air, the bronze-clad figure is the tallest human likeness in the world, standing twice as high as the Statue of Liberty.

India’s new man of bronze is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the revered 20th century statesman who pulled together more than 550 princely states, set free by the end of British colonial control, to form the independent and politically integrated modern Indian state.

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The statue is a pet project of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who has been less than subtle in using the statue as an opportunity to tie himself to Patel’s legacy. The publicity campaign for the statue has been plastered with Modi’s face, alongside boasts of its record-breaking height and grandiosity. The official website features a panoramic vista of Patel towering in all his glory over the nearby hills — with a steely-eyed Modi standing tall in the foreground.

The statue is not so much a tourist attraction, or even a monument to a national hero, as it is an instrument of Modi’s political agenda. Modi hopes the revived memory of Patel will be a rallying cry for Indian nationalism and his vision for a grander global stature.

An op-ed penned by Modi in the Hindustan Times paints Patel as a strong and skillful leader who carried out a “vision for India’s economic and industrial growth” swiftly and assertively. Modi emphasizes Patel’s “spirit of nationalism,” “firmness” and “administrative efficiency.”

Modi tells a version of Patel’s legacy that melds pre-colonial Hindu tradition, post-revolutionary leadership and the country’s current ambitions for global status. Patel “worked with astonishing speed to dismantle the history of imperialism and create the geography of unity with the spirit of nationalism,” Modi writes. “Today, we, the [1.3 billion] Indians are working shoulder to shoulder to build a New India that is strong, prosperous and inclusive.”

Patel, according to Modi, epitomized a political philosophy you might call “India First.” Modi writes that for Patel, “first and foremost came the interests of the people of India.”

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Modi is far from the first leader to deploy the history card in an effort to stir up nationalist passions. Nationalism as a political force is fueled by pride in a shared identity. History can be a potent force toward that end: It gives people an origin myth, introduces them to heroes and places them and their fellow citizens in the same privileged group which, we are told, is destined to rule the world. Americans have an origin myth of our own: We belong to a nation founded on democratic ideals, thanks to the heroism sparked by revolutionaries, and destined for superpower status by the victory of our ideals against the forces of evil in World War II. When they can, political leaders appeal to the past, in simplified and distorted form, to lead their country to conclusions about the future.

The mythologization of Patel is about more than Patel. It’s aimed at spreading the lesson that Modi himself takes from India’s history: that it took grand visions and a strong hand to build India into a nation, and it will take a strong hand again to build it into a superpower. “The ‘Statue of Unity’ is a symbol of both the unity of hearts and the geographical integrity of our motherland,” Modi writes. “It is a reminder that divided, we may not be even able to face ourselves. United, we can face the world and scale new heights of growth and glory.”

As with any mythologized figure, the image of Patel that Modi is promoting is not exactly false, but it’s not exactly true either. The facts are carefully selected and tailored to Modi’s purpose. While Patel was undoubtedly a tactful statesman, he used more than just smooth talk and cunning diplomacy to win the accession of local rulers: He bulldozed over anyone who dared to resist his centralizing mission, using threats of military force to twist ruler’s arms. In one case, Patel quashed the noncompliant governor’s designs on independence by ground invasion. When diplomatic means failed, Patel carried out his grand vision with an iron fist.

Modi’s leadership has embodied this ethos at times, not least during the construction of the Sculpture of Unity itself. Modi boasts that the Statue of Unity is the world’s tallest human sculpture and built “in record time,” leaving unmentioned, of course, that the local government trampled over homes and destroyed tribal lands to accomplish this feat. And then there is the project’s herculean cost: Bloomberg’s Anjani Trivedi calculated the cost of the statue alone could have been used to irrigate 40,000 hectares of land or nearly double the central government’s budget for roads and bridges. Modi’s government has insisted that the sculpture will pay for itself as a destination for tourism. But as far as the prime minister is concerned, the Sculpture of Unity may be worth the cost either way.

Max Magid