It could have used the cash to build rural roads or address irrigation requirements of lakhs of farmers battling drought and starvation. It could have used it to start new electricity projects or even give Mumbai a much-needed facelift. Instead, going against all notions of common sense, and ignoring the state’s pressing problems, the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra is planning to spend a whopping 3600 crores to reclaim land in the middle of the Arabian Sea and build a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji on it.
The government, splurging thousands of crores of taxpayers money on a statue at a time when the state is reeling under enormous debt (3.29 lakh crores to be exact), may seem preposterous to some. However, for the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the move is a well-thought out political decision – one that it hopes will decimate its multiple opponents in the state with one stroke.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial on December 24, he wasn’t just inaugurating a stone sculpture. He was making a larger statement – hijacking one of Maharashtra’s most popular icons for BJP using it to render a blow to Shiv Sena, that has often Shivaji’s name to garner votes. With the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections slated early next year, the timing of the move may also help BJP get an added edge over Shiv Sena, the party most likely to remain in power.
And while the two may be in an alliance in the state presently, both currently share a tepid relationship at best and are therefore keen on securing the Marathi vote bank to consolidate their power for the upcoming elections.
In Maharashtra, BJP has a traditionally Gujarati and Hindi speaking voter base, with Marathi voters usually voting for Shiv Sena. At 32%, Maratha voters form the biggest chunk of the state’s vote bank, and the party seems to be banking on a Shivaji statue as being a sure way to capture this vote share.
At the same time, the BJP government has dealt a terrible blow to the NCP-Congress alliance by laying the foundation stone. It was the NCP-Congress combine that had first come out with the idea of installing a Shivaji statue 11 years ago and used in consecutive state assembly polls in 2009 and 2014. By executing an idea that was not its own, the party hasn’t just taken credit for the statue, it has also made a statement about how compared to other parties that only engage in tokenism or rhetoric, BJP gets things done.
Finally, the decision also seems perfectly orchestrated to pacify the Maratha community, that has been continuously agitating for reservations in Maharashtra. Fadnavis, a Brahmin by caste, has been facing huge anti-government sentiment. Giving reservations to the community is a treacherous option, but installing a statue to boost Maratha pride a far easier and viable one.
Just how serious BJP is to hijack the Maratha vote is apparent from the scale and level of preparations undertaken by the party during the Dec 24 ceremony. From mobilising people from across the state to carry soil from Shivaji’s many forts, to calling a descendant of Shivaji, Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati, to the site of the ceremony, the attempt to appeal to the nationalism of Marathis is apparent.
What is not apparent is if the move will reap necessary results. And if young and educated Marathas, agitating for jobs and a better quality of life, can be satisfied with just statue politics.
Update: In the previous version of the piece, the usage of the word ‘Marathi’ was incorrect and has been changed to ‘Maratha’ in the following line – “At 32%, Maratha voters form the biggest chunk of the state’s vote bank, and the party seems to be banking on a Shivaji statue as being a sure way to capture this vote share.” We thank our reader Jay, for pointing this out to us.