We love the Taj Mahal but hate Mayawati’s monument. The Taj sent Bengali Tagore into rapture (“a teardrop on the cheek of time”). Gujarati Gandhi, less sentimental, saw it immediately for what it was: a monument to cruelty. He thought of the peasants taxed to pay for its marble, the villagers who lost their land to its gardens.
Footnotes: Mayawati’s monumental tribute to herself and other leaders. Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times
What was Mumtaz Mahal’s achievement? She bred. She produced 14 children, including Aurangzeb, in 19 years of marriage. What were Shah Jahan’s other achievements? Difficult to say. But he’s famous for his building.
Mayawati is wise in making a monument to her greatness. The demonstration of her greatness will be the monument itself: In India no other evidence is needed.
This is because there is no intellectual engagement with leaders here; there is only worship. Indians don’t need to actually read Gandhi or Savarkar or Nehru or Ambedkar to know what they stood for or against. We revere them because we have been assured they are great. We are put off by Jinnah because we are certain he was bad. Then one book published on him will be sensational—endless debates on television—because it lists a few things that have been on the public record for 62 years (“Nehru and Patel passed a resolution accepting Partition.” What! Expel Jaswant! Ban the book!). The banning of books in Gujarat is quite unnecessary. Gujaratis have little appetite for that sort of knowledge (the editor-in-chief of an Ahmedabad daily once informed me that the language Arabs spoke was Urdu).
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This is the culture on which Mayawati must mark her legacy. We can hardly blame her for concluding that a monument will be better legacy than policy and governance.
Our opinion of leaders isn’t formed by information, but by a received image. It is idolatry, and Mayawati understands this—that is why she is determined to have her temple.
And we must not forget that the Jaswant-Jinnah debate was in English, the language of our intellectual elite. What horrors of ignorance lie where Mayawati is perched?
But newspapers and news channels and political parties persist in attacking her construction. The Supreme Court has ordered her to stop further work. Everyone seems to be against the monument. The question is: Why is Mayawati intent on annoying us if her real objective is for us to see her as great? The answer is that she understands that our emotion will soon fade. And she knows that in India only the symbol will remain: The person and his ideas will vanish.
The signs of this are easily visible all around us if we care to observe. The spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would not be a national figure without his sainted name and his long hair and flowing robe. This is because the Indian is unconvinced merely by words; he needs visual confirmation, like a tribal. The magic of costume is what gets us really excited. That is why Indian bearers of serious messages—think of Vivekanand, Gandhi—have to wear fancy dress and communicate through their costume. They are forced to because otherwise they would be ignored as being ordinary, no matter how profound their message. Greatness in India comes from appearing great, from externals.
Since the equation is “Costume equal to or greater than message” we have a large share of phonies who are revered because they look the part accurately. Like Chandraswami and the half-dozen spiritual gurus of Gujarat who are actually the most powerful and most connected material leaders of that state. We think Mayawati is a phoney but that’s because her externals are poor. She needs to correct that, which she is doing through the monument.
It is important for Mayawati, no matter what she does in her political life, that she make herself great by building her legacy. Actually, constructing it.
The monument appears from photographs to be almost complete now. It’s difficult to understand why it should not be allowed to be finished.
On 10 July, the Supreme Court said: “If a democratically elected government decides to do something without misappropriating public money, there is little courts can do.” This seemed like a sensible thing to say. But then, in September, it ordered the work stopped.
Perhaps the Supreme Court, like the media, thinks all this construction is a waste of public money. But building monuments is economic activity, unlike corruption. The money will go to quarries, sculptors, labourers, cement plants, dealers and transporters.
Perhaps the argument is that a monument isn’t particularly functional. But then neither is Mumbai’s Rs1,600 crore Rajiv Gandhi Setu, whose design forces rush hour drivers to detour 1.2km in the opposite direction.
One argument is that monuments should only be raised to dead people. But there’s no logic to that.
We could argue of course that Taj Mahal looks better than Dalit Dome. But that is a matter of taste. And to be honest, if foreigners such as Mark Twain weren’t so excited about the Taj Mahal, Indians wouldn’t have been this proud of it. Humayun’s tomb is just as beautiful but needs to be salvaged from ruin by the Aga Khan.
Mayawati will go down as a revered figure in history for Indians. We will have no idea what her struggle was like, what she stood for or what her rise to power meant to Dalits. Few Indians have read her autobiography and few ever will. Her corruption, her ugliness, her bad dresses, her appalling administration will be a footnote.
She is guaranteed to become great because Indians will be awed by her grand monument.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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