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Who let the Sardar out?

Who let the Sardar out?
Only in India would a proposal to erect a statue in memory of Sardar Patel, who oversaw the integration of princely states into India as we know it today, create so much controversy. After all, the poor Sardar only added to the land mass of India, like Mrs Gandhi, who added Sikkim. He did not give any land away.
It would be understandable for citizens to object if the Sardar was still alive and yet got his statue erected, in his own lifetime. It would be understandable, to object, if the Sardar’s family had maneuvered to grab a piece of prime public land to dedicate to themselves. It would even be understandable if the Sardar was a just passing side show, in the political drama of the independence struggle.

None of this being the case, it is puzzling why there is this fuss about the proposed statue in the Sardar Sarovar? All the poor Sardar got, for his efforts during the independence struggle, was a chowk named after him in Delhi, from where he balefully contemplates the goings on in Parliament, visible down the road, through the noxious fumes of traffic. Most comical are the efforts of those who claim that the Sardar belongs to ‘all of India’ and not just Gujarat, where he was born. They are horrified that the Gujarat government should choose to honour him thus, even though the Sardar was not from the political party which is currently in power in Gujarat. Who remembers which party Abe Lincoln or Churchill were from? National figures are bigger (or should be) that just their party. Of course, they belong to the nation, which also includes Gujarat.

Some question whether Rs 2,500 crore of public money should be spent on the Sardar’s statue? After all this could feed 2.5 million poor people for a year @ Rs 27 per day! To these critics I can only say, if a proper statue to this illustrious ‘son of India’ had been made in 1952, just after he had died, the cost would have been just Rs 60 crore. The remaining Rs 2,440 crores is the cost of public neglect, over the last 60 years, of the political legacy of those (and there are many more besides the Sardar), whose families did not press to perpetuate their public image.

Others object that the BJP is rewriting history, by ‘appropriating’ the Sardar, who they remind us, banned the Hindu Maha Sabha, of which, the current version is the RSS, the ideological font for BJP cadres. To these history buffs I say, emulation is the highest form of praise. The Congress should be happy that the BJP is commemorating one of their tallest leaders.

Still others assert that a better (and cheaper) way of remembering the Sardar would have been to name a public welfare scheme, or two, after him as there are for the Mahatma, Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi. What they forget is that a rose by any name smells as sweet. No one else remembers the name of a welfare scheme. What citizens care about is the tangible benefits accruing to them.

The most comical are the efforts of the BJP’s ‘permanent representatives to TV channels’ who are at pains to explain that Rs 2,500 crores is not just for the statue but includes museums, viewing platforms, food plazas, movie halls, water sports and other such essentials of a global tourist hot spot. A truly Gujarati response; refuting allegations of public profligacy, by spelling out the ‘value for money’ proposition and the ‘bankable revenue model’, behind the project.

In India, even a political legacy must ‘pay back’. After all, this is the land of the Maruti car with its apt advertisement: ‘kitna dete hai’ (how far does the car run on a liter of petrol), illustrating the essence of India. This is still the land of those (like me) who darn their socks and repair their worn underwear. But it is also the land of the new rich Indians, who swivel their ‘single malt whisky, with just a splash of water please’, ride in their newly acquired Rs 2 crore Bentleys to their Rs 200 crore bungalows, but crib about the increase in the price of diesel and the horrendous waste on ‘the Patel statue’.

It is not the poor who are petty. They see jobs and opportunities for micro business behind the Sardar’s statue, in hospitality, tourism, transportation, retail and civil maintenance. They know that it is better for a few thousand poor to get sustainable livelihoods, rather than stand in line with folded hands, along with 2.5 million of their brethren, to get Rs 27 per day for just one year.

On arrangement with Governance Now
Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

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