Mayawati’s case in the Supreme Court over the installation of her statues in public places has revived the question of whether these are a waste of public funds. The Bahujan Samaj Party chief reportedly spent upwards of ₹2,000 crore of taxpayer money on having likenesses of herself put up in parks at Noida and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, during her stint as chief minister from 2007 to 2012. The country’s top court observed that she ought to return the money to the state exchequer. In her defence, she asked why building statues of her should be deemed wrong if such memorials built in honour of others, including Lord Ram, have attracted no objection.
Enshrining the memory of individuals in various ways is a national passion. Numerous stadiums, universities, roads and bridges have been named after political leaders, rulers and deities. In recent years, the country has been in the grip of a statue-erecting frenzy of sorts, an exercise in political one-upmanship more than a reminder of values the person stood for. Take the Statue of Unity, a bronze figure of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel built near the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. At 182m, it is about twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty and cost ₹3,000 crore. The funds could have been put to other uses, but at the political level, the war of words between India’s two big rivals was over who had a greater claim to Patel’s legacy as a leader. In Maharashtra, plans are afoot to construct a statue of Maratha king Shivaji on an artificial island off the coast of Mumbai. At 212m, it is expected to reach even higher in the sky—and cost more. No political leader can afford to oppose the project, it would appear, given Shivaji’s prominence as a hero in this state. Not to lose out in the stature stakes, the Uttar Pradesh government led by Yogi Adityanath has declared its intent to build a statue of Ram in Ayodhya that will tower above every other at 221m.
Is there any end to it? Perhaps it’s not too late to restrain this vertical race with rules before it gives us vertigo. There is already a regulatory precedent of sorts in Chandigarh. Surprising as it may sound, this post-Independence city does not have any statues of people or streets named after them. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the city’s planner, laid out a masterplan with an Edict of Chandigarh for its residents to follow. Under its terms, “no personal statues shall be erected in the city or parks" and the “commemoration of persons shall be confined to suitably placed bronze plaques". Although not backed by legislation, the edict has not been violated for the most part. To the rest of India, this may sound like an overly strict restriction. After all, in an “antique land" that has long boasted of the poetic and the prosaic in harmonious coexistence, aesthetic expressions cannot be clamped. So a complete ban on statues would likely find only a few takers, if any. Yet, given the thousands of crores that are being allocated elsewhere for the construction of gigantic monuments to individuals, a cap on such profligacy could serve a good public purpose. In a country as starved of capital as India, there are surely better ways to use the money. As for honouring our greats, there are less expensive ways to remind ourselves of them and why they deserve to be held in such high esteem.