Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi has launched the construction of the world’s tallest statue.
He is using the $338 million (£210m) project in honour of one of the country’s founding fathers to undermine the ruling Nehru-Gandhi political family.
The statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s deputy and interior minister who was often at odds with him – is to be built on a river island in Gujarat, the home state of both Patel and Mr Modi.
It will be built in four years and at 597ft will be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.
“The world will be forced to look at India when this statue stands tall,” Mr Modi said yesterday. The opposition leader rules Gujarat as chief minister and is the leading opposition candidate for prime minister in general elections to be held by May. His main rival in the election is the ruling Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great-grandson.
Thursday marked the 138th anniversary of Patel’s birth, and Mr Modi said earlier this week: “Every Indian regrets Sardar Patel did not become the first prime minister. Had he been the first prime minister, the country’s fate and face would have been completely different.”
The comments, and the project, are seen as a not-so-subtle bid by Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to appropriate an independence-era hero associated with Congress, a party largely run by the Nehru- Gandhi family.
Members of the family have ruled India for more than half the 66 years since it became an independent nation.
Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi were all prime ministers. Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi is the current leader of the Congress and Rahul, her son, is leading the party’s campaign to take on Mr Modi at the elections. Opinion polls say Mr Modi is more popular than the Gandhi scion, and he is favoured by India’s business titans for pro-investment policies and fast economic growth in Gujarat.
However, the iron and bronze statue has been widely criticised as being unnecessary in a nation where one-third of the 1.2 billion people live in poverty.
It is to be financed by the Gujarat government and public donations.
“We’re turning the whole of India into a necropolis,” said Mohan Guruswamy, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Delhi-based think-tank.
A Gujarat government official involved in the project said it would be partially funded by small contributions, with the Gujarat government making up the difference. He denied it was a waste of funds, calling it “icon-based” development that would attract tourism.
The sub-text to the controversy is what legacy Patel left when he died in 1950, and which of India’s two main parties can legitimately lay claim to it.
Some historians have suggested Patel was more pro-Hindu than Nehru, who was fiercely secular and opposed to the 1947 partition of British-ruled India into the independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan.
Patel is said to have taken a more pragmatic view and is known as the builder of modern India for cajoling and coercing the country’s princely states into joining the new republic.
Many in Gujarat feel Patel’s legacy has been neglected by the Congress party, and Mr Modi has been quick to use that to his advantage.