From the Viewsroom

A tall order

Jinoy Jose P. | Updated on November 29, 2018 Published on November 29, 2018

Understanding the political economy of statues

Perhaps the most philosophically interesting question that pops up while discussing the ₹3,000-crore Statue of Unity —of Sardar Vallabhai Patel — is this: What exactly does a statue represent? A individual? An idea? Or both? If you say both and more, then the next question could be, is this the best way to represent the idea or the person? If you answer in the affirmative then history has some lessons in store for you. First of which is that the meanings and symbolism that statues represent are not sustainable; they change over time, more often for the worse. The Statue of Liberty is a classic example. A gift from the French to American people, as an icon of freedom and one that welcomes immigrants, it now represents a country that has a regime paranoid about liberty of individuals and one that considers immigrants the most unwelcome characters in its land. In such historical context the statue becomes a monumental farce.

That was one of the reasons behind the criticism levelled against Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade’s African Renaissance copper stature that cost the poor African country a whopping $27 million. Historians say giant statues represent a very medieval idea of appraisal and recognition. It is doubtful if they have any relevance in the modern era where ideas of participatory democracy and equitable growth champion the grand narratives of nationalism in most parts of the world, including in India where the likes of Mahatma Gandhi believed in collective humility as a mark of pride and social appraisal. Which is why critics are justified when they say the Statue of Unity represents an India that looks backward — into a past that revelled in the false pride of the Maharajas and even the colonisers who splurged money on things that mattered to none — rather than forward, to an India that is inclusive, modern and takes pride in its austere roots.

On that cue, the Statue of Unity — whose cost could easily have been used to build a minimum of 50,000 houses for the poor of Gujarat — is a reversal of India’s Gandhian past and champions a form of what thinker Prabhat Patnaik would term an aggrandising nationalism.

Published on November 29, 2018
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