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Politics of statues: Rash of statue vandalism indicates our obsession with the past, at the expense of the present

A rash of statue vandalism has broken out across the country after Lenin statues were toppled in Tripura, following the Left Front’s defeat there. A statue of right-wing leader SP Mukherjee was defiled in Kolkata as Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee condemned the felling of Lenin statues. Attacks were also reported on statues of Ambedkar and Periyar in UP and Tamil Nadu. A BJP office in Coimbatore was petrol bombed after party national secretary H Raja expressed the view – which he retracted later – that Periyar statues should be razed.

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, very sensibly, condemned the vandalism of statues and home minister Rajnath Singh has directed states to stop it. Interestingly, prior to these interventions, some BJP leaders had endorsed the attacks and Tripura governor Tathagatha Roy had tweeted, apropos of the anti-Lenin iconoclasm, that a newly elected government can undo the work of a previous government. It’s noteworthy, however, that a new government has yet to be installed in Tripura. Moreover, if every new government takes it upon itself to pull down old statues and erect new ones, what’s to prevent another government of the opposing ideology from pulling down your icons to put up its own?

 

That is precisely the bizarre situation we are witnessing at present. An even more relevant question is why are we, as a nation, so obsessed with pulling down old statues and putting up new ones when there are far more pressing problems confronting us in the present: such as eliminating poverty, generating jobs for the millions of young people being added to the workforce every year, dealing with security challenges posed by the China-Pakistan axis. Do dead icons matter more than living people?

Viewed in that context, thousands of crores of rupees being poured into new statues is also an appalling waste if one totes up the opportunity cost of schools and hospitals for the poor that are foregone. The ‘Statue of Unity’ coming up in Ahmedabad has been budgeted at Rs 3,000 crore, while a giant Shivaji statue off Mumbai is expected to cost Rs 3,600 crore. Ironically, part of the responsibility for building the former has reportedly been outsourced to Chinese and Malaysian companies – which means that India cannot even wholly construct the giant statues its politicians dream up but has to bleed precious foreign exchange and export jobs to do so.

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