Mumbai: The issue of whether public money should be spent on building memorials and statues of political and historical leaders came to the fore on Saturday, with All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMM) legislator and former journalist Imtiyaz Jaleel saying public money should be instead used for developing hospitals and schools. It also highlighted how parties seek to raise statues and memorials to make political gains.

Jaleel said his party was opposed to building memorials in the name of any leader, whether it be of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Gopinath Munde, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, or Chattrapati Shivaji proposed to be raised in the Arabian sea. But his silence on the proposed memorial of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at the Indu Mill site in Mumbai makes his intention clear. The leader is looking at consolidating the Muslim and Dalit vote in Maharashtra. While Munde, Thackeray and Shivaji are seen as Hindutva icons, rallying for Ambedkar will further strengthen his position among Dalits. In the recent Aurangabad Municipal Corporation elections, AIMM contested 54 seats (of the total 113 seats) and fielded Dalit candidates from 13 seats winning five of them.

In 2004, then ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) coalition, which was facing a difficult election owing to two consecutive years of drought, promised to build a grand memorial of Shivaji in the Arabian sea, even bigger than the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbour. They were clearly eying the Maratha votes. When journalist Kumar Ketkar, then editor of Marathi newspaper Loksatta, criticised the ruling coalition over the issue, his residence was attacked a mob led by then NCP legislator Vinayak Mete, who also heads an organization called Shivsangram Parishad. Incidentally, the BJP which attacked the Congress-NCP government for its failure to arrest and prosecute Mete joined hands with him before last year’s Lok Sabha and assembly polls, and nominated him to the upper house of the state legislature.

The Shiv Sena countered Jaleel’s demand by asking counter questions aimed at underlining Jaleel’s religious identity. The Shiv Sena spokesperson asked if Jaleel wanted to build a memorial for Afzal Khan (general of Bijapur sultanate who came to Maharashtra with the aim to capture or kill Shivaji Maharaj) instead, adding that memorials were built to inspire the future generation.

The spokesperson seems to have missed that several government and public buildings are named after Shivaji and Ambedkar, besides statues and memorials in their names, and some more of these may not really be necessary.

The biggest homage to Shivaji will be restoring the forts built by him along the Sahyandri Mountain range and in the Arabian Sea on the lines of restoration and development work in Rajasthan and other parts of the country. Unfortunately, no political party is ready to take up restoration work at these forts.

Ambedkar was one of the greatest Indian scholars of the 20th century with significant contribution to the field of economics, but no one has ever thought of building a world-class institute in his name. In his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics, titled ‘Problem of the Rupee’, he tried to find a solution to the problem of overvalued rupee and played a major role in establishment of the Reserve Bank of India in 1935. Before that, India’s monetary policy was decided by the India Office at White Hall in London.

But nothing is going to change until our politicians stop looking at these icons through the prism of votes.