Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Political slugfest over Shivaji memorial rocks Maharashtra assembly

Ex-CM Prithviraj Chavan moved an adjournment motion to discuss the matter of reduction in the height of the proposed Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial but it was rejected

Nagpur: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Tuesday suffered a major political embarrassment in the assembly when one of its legislators, Atul Bhatkhalkar, made a remark that sparked off a confrontation between the BJP, ally Shiv Sena, and opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in the House.

Bhatkhalkar later withdrew the remark and apologized, which also led to three adjournments during the monsoon session of the legislature that is underway here.

Senior Congress leader and former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan raised the matter of reduction in the height of the proposed Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial in the Arabian Sea, which was revealed in documents accessed by the newspaper The Indian Express through a Right to Information (RTI) query. Chavan moved an adjournment motion to discuss the issue but it was rejected.

However, after Speaker Haribhau Bagde allowed the senior Congress leader to speak, he was interrupted by Bhatkhalkar who ended up saying that in the last two days, “someone gets up raising some bhalta-salta mudda (trivial issues) which are not mentioned in the business of the day". His use of word the “trivial" piqued the Congress, and NCP, as well as Shiv Sena legislators who considered it as an insult to Shivaji Maharaj.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis gave an elaborate reply to Chavan’s claims amid slogan-shouting by the opposition members. However, Congress-NCP legislators, led by the leader of opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and NCP leader Ajit Pawar demanded that Bhatkhalkar’s membership be suspended for “insulting Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj".

The BJP legislator said thrice that his remark was aimed at Chavan and that he was withdrawing it. The opposition, however, insisted on an apology and suspension. Later, Shiv Sena legislators too demanded that Bhatkhalkar apologize to the people of Maharashtra. After three adjournments and ice-breaking meetings presided over the Speaker, Bhatkhalkar tendered an apology and the House resumed business.

The BJP-led state government had shortened the height of the equestrian statue of the iconic king by 7.5 metres to cut down the expenditure from the initially estimated 3,826 crore to 2,800 crore, Chavan said in a tweet.

The memorial was originally proposed to stand at the height of 192m, of which the sculpture of the king on his steed was 160m tall and the pedestal 32m tall, said the former chief minister. This proposed design received environmental clearance from the Union minister of environment and forests (MoEF) on 23 February 2015, Chavan said. He charged the state government with making little progress on the project for almost two years after the MoEF clearance.

The state government revised the design and resubmitted it to MoEF for a fresh environmental clearance on 23 December 2016, Chavan said. In the new design, the sculpture of the king was reduced to 126m while the height of the pedestal was increased from 32 to 84m.

The latest RTI querry revealed that the height of the sculpture has further been reduced by 7.5m though the height of the sword that the king carries has been increased by 7.5m, Chavan said. “The original bid submitted by L&T was for 3,826 crore but the government redesigned the project to reduce the cost to 2,800 crore," Chavan said.

Fadnavis countered Chavan’s claims and said the statue would be the tallest such memorial in the world and the state government would make all funds available for the project. Fadnavis also reminded Chavan that nothing was done on the project by the previous Congress-NCP government and that his government had obtained as many as 32 clearances for the memorial.

The proposed memorial to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj is politically and socially an emotive issue for the BJP, which has often attacked the Congress-NCP combine for sitting on it for 15 years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the ground-breaking ceremony of the project in December 2016, less than two months before elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

In the last three-and-a-half years, the Fadnavis government has taken several steps to claim the legacy of the king, including naming the farm loan waiver scheme after him.

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