Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the world’s tallest statue. It's a 597-foot effigy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first deputy prime minister, and it's looming over the state of Gujarat — and the country's upcoming elections.
At first glance, it might seem strange that Modi commissioned a $400 million statue, nearly twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, in honor of a political opposition figure. But it's pretty good optics for his political party, too.
Alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel led India’s freedom struggle as part of the Congress Party, which opposes the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi.
“The BJP needs to appropriate national icons from the freedom struggle because it does not have icons of its own,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of "Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times," told VICE News. ”Sardar Patel is being appropriated by the BJP because it also has an electoral benefit.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party can’t claim ties to the independence movement, because it didn’t exist back then. Furthermore, its political predecessors, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, actively opposed the “Quit India” liberation struggle. In fact, Sardar Patel eventually banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after a former member assassinated Gandhi.
“This is sheer irony that their political ancestors completely disregarded the freedom struggle,” Mukhopadhyay told VICE News. “But today they feel that if they want to legitimize the space in the Indian political horizon, they have to some way or another connect with the freedom struggle.”
However, Modi and his party feel differently about their relationship to Patel, and they say building the Statue of Unity in his honor is their way of claiming his legacy.
The Bharatiya Janata Party believes Patel was a Hindu nationalist, citing his support in reconstructing a temple once pillaged by Muslim invaders as evidence. They also appreciate Patel’s willingness to use force to unify parts of the country — a trait that earned him the reputation of “Iron Man.”
“Now, Mr. Modi wants to be known as the ultimate Iron Man,” Mukhopadhyay told VICE News. ”Fifty years later he would want the prime minister of that time to build a statue of Mr. Modi next to Sardar Patel, double the size.”
But Modi’s monument to Patel won’t be the tallest for long. He’s already laid the foundations for an even bigger statue of a Hindu warrior king — the icon of another political party whose vote the Bharatiya Janata Party is courting.
This segment originally aired October, 30, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.