Statues of religious figures are ready to take the pedestal in Uttar Pradesh’s politics.
Chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced in October his government’s plan to build a 100-metre-tall statue of lord Ram on the Saryu riverbank in Ayodhya.
The priest-politician also declared his government’s eagerness to revive the Maitreya Buddha project, which has been pending for 15 years. The project involves building a 500 metre Buddha statue, the world’s tallest.
Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who built a statue of Hanuman in Saifai, his native village in Etawah district, plans to install a statue of Krishna and principal characters in the Mahabharata.
The Samajwadi Party chief has hired experts to prepare the plan for his epic project.
Using statues as a symbol of political power is not new in India’s most politically sensitive state although the colours and themes keep changing.
The Ram statue was among the BJP government’s priorities, said party parliamentarian Vinay Katiyar, an accused in the case involving the 1992 demolition of Ayodhya’s Babri mosque.
Many Hindus believe the mosque was built on top of the birthplace of Ram and a temple dedicated to the god on that site has long been a central plank of the BJP’s politics.
When a majority government is in power it has to support the aspirations of the voters, Katiyar said.
Political parties term the practice of installing statues a waste of public money — but only when they are in opposition. When Mulayam Singh Yadav installed a statue of Ram Manohar Lohia, leaders of BSP and BJP came down heavily on SP. When BSP captured power in 2007, it became the target for its Dalit memorials and statues. Now, it’s BJP’s turn — and of its rivals.
The Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board has added spice to the politics over statues. Its chairman, Waseem Rizvi, announced the board would gift ten silver arrows for Ram’s quiver as a mark of respect to the god. The BJP leadership has welcomed the Islamic board’s decision.
The BJP-led government’s Buddha statue plan is viewed as a ploy to counter Bahujan Samaj Party chief and Dalit leader Mayawati’s Buddhism card. She had threatened to convert to Buddhism with her supporters if the state government failed to check “atrocities” against Dalits.
As a large number of Dalits are Buddhists, the statue is likely to lead to another political joust between the BJP and the BSP for backward-class votes, said RK Gautam, a political observer.
Statues gained prominence when Mayawati was in power. During her four terms as chief minister, party leaders installed statues of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar made of sandstone, concrete and marble in Dalit-dominated villages and localities.
Statues of Dalit icons were installed and grand memorials built, attracting national attention.
An internal survey conducted by the BSP in 2006 estimated that 10,000 statues of Ambedkar were installed in villages, towns and cities in the state, said PK Shukla, a Purvanchal University teacher.
Before the BSP’s statue spree, the Congress installed statues and busts of former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in several cities. The party hasn’t made much progress since because it has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh for 28 years.
The politics over statues has its roots in the Indian psyche. Indian politics has always revolved around charismatic personalities with icons embedded in the perceptions and beliefs of communities, according to Rajesh Kumar Mishra, former head of Lucknow University’s sociology department.
“Political parties, be they the BJP, the BSP, the Congress or the SP, are trying to woo the communities with their icons,” he said.
Such is the sensitivity of communities to their icons that tension gripped the Dalit-dominated Abad Ghar village in Shamli district of western UP in July after miscreants vandalised a statue of Ambedkar.
Dalits and BSP leaders protested and threatened to launch a statewide stir if the administration failed to take strict action against the culprits.
In view of the sensitivity of the issue, the district administration swung into action. A new statue was installed to send the message that the government cares. Police teams were constituted to apprehend the offenders.
Statues were also at the centrestage of a fight between the Election Commission and the BSP ahead of the 2012 assembly elections in the state, when the former issued orders to veil the statues of Mayawati and Dalit icons ahead of the polls. The BSP objected and tried to make it a political issue during the election campaign but the ploy did not work. The party lost power to the Samajwadi Party.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections, the BJP was able to make inroads in the BSP-SP vote bank by mobilising the support of Dalit communities, particularly Pasis and other backward communities, including the Mauryas, Kushwahas, Rajbhars and Nishads.
In February 2016, BJP national president Amit Shah unveiled a statue of Raja Suheldev, who is revered by Pasis and Rajbhars, in Bahraich.
For his part, chief minister Adityanath announced earlier this year that Suheldev’s life would be included in school textbooks so that students could draw inspiration from him.
He also announced that a sun temple would be constructed at Balaar in Bahraich. The original one was razed by Ghazi Saiyyad Salar Masud, nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni.
This is not the BJP’s first tryst with statues. The BJP government in UP from 1997 to 2002 installed statues of Uda Devi, Jhalkari Bai and Raja Bijli Pasi as well as party icons Deendayal Upadhyaya and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Religious icons are in vogue now.
Statues Installed by BJP
1) Deenadayal Upadhyaya
2) Shyama Prasad Mukherjee
3) Jhalkari Bai
4) Raja Suheldev
5) Plan to install Lord Rama statue
Statues installed by Samajwadi Party
1) Ram Manohar Lohia
2) Janeshwar Mishra
3) Jai Prakash Narain
5) Plan to install Lord Krishna and character of Mahabharta statue
Statues installed by BSP
1) Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar
2) Kanshi Ram
4) Ramabai Ambedkar
5) Jyotiba Phule
6) Chatrapati Shahuji Maharaj
7) Gautam Buddha
Statues Installed by Congress
1) Jawaharlal Nehru
2) Indira Gandhi
3) Rajiv Gandhi
Political parties have been targeting each other over installations of statues, terming it waste of public money. When Mulayam Singh Yadav installed a statue of Ram Monohar Lohia, BSP and BJP leaders attacked him. When the BSP captured power in 2007 it was the target of rival parties for spending money on Dalit memorials and statues. Now the BJP government is being criticized for its plan to install a statue of Ram.