ON A FEBRUARY morning in Parliament, for a hallowed half-hour, the usually warring political pantheon worked in rare unison towards a shared goal. They were unveiling a statue of Maratha king Shahuji Maharaj, grandson of Chhatrapati Shivaji, and this presented an easy political opportunity. But behind the overt bonhomie among everyone present, was a determined tussle for electoral rewards. With the General election just a month away, Maharashtrians needed to be told which party to thank (with votes) for this recognition of Shahuji as a national leader. So, although it was the Congress-led Maharashtra Government that happened to donate the statue, everyone, in the end, grabbed a piece of the pie.
In the last five years, Shahuji has gradually become a new political tool for the appeasement of backward classes. He was the first in India to introduce job reservations for backward castes and ‘untouchables’. He was also a social reformer, making primary education compulsory for all and providing free and subsidised boarding education for non-Brahmin Marathi children, including dalits. “Shahuji is surely one of the makers of contemporary Maharashtra, equally wellknown for his criticism of Brahmins and his empowerment of backward castes,” acknowledges Pune-based political scientist Ram Bapat, adding, “But it’s a shame that his name is being exploited. Politicians simply deploy such historically acknowledged leaders for political gains.”
The first non-Maharashtrian politician to pick political fights in the name of the Maratha prince was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. During her first stint as CM in 2002, Mayawati changed the names of both Amethi and the Hindu pilgrim centre of Chitrakoot to Shahuji Maharaj Nagar. She used Shahuji to score another point, this time over the Congress when she held a massive rally in Mumbai in July 2005 — Shahuji’s 131st birth anniversary.
Now, on the day the leader’s statue was unveiled, however, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate LK Advani provided a rare treat for press photographers as they shared the stage with a bronze Shahuji. It seemed as if a comfortable, if surreal, amnesia had set in.
Parliament has always been a fiercely contested site for the statues and portraits of politicians. Over 50 statues and 45 portraits of national leaders now fill the premises. Unfortunately, several are mere symbols of electoral opportunities reaped and scores settled.
By procedure, any MP, party or organisation can propose a name for a statue or portrait. A Joint Committee on the Installation of Portraits and Statues headed by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha considers the recommendations and decides on the site and size. It is here that there is much clamour for bigger, better statues and even more jostling for prime locations. K Yerranaidu, a Telugu Desam Party MP and member of the committee admits that most statues are installed to appease regions and political outfits.
Parliament is now choc-a-bloc with these artefacts of Indian politics. Though Speaker and head of the statues committee Somnath Chatterjee announced a freeze on the number of portraits in the central hall of Parliament in November 2004, a new portrait gallery was started in the Parliament library building. “We’re forced to create new spaces to pacify upset state governments and win over allies,” concedes Yerranaidu.
Throughout 2006, UPA ally DMK had lobbied for a statue of the late union cabinet minister Murasoli Maran. The Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK, formed an equally fierce counter-lobby, demanding a statue of party founder and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, or MGR. Several quarters questioned Maran’s eligibility to be honoured thus, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi decided it was more important to keep their fickle regional ally happy. They even went as far as boycotting the inauguration of the rival AIADMK’s MGR statue.
During the NDA regime in 2003, the Shiv Sena too lobbied for a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Sena leader and then Speaker Manohar Joshi played a major role in realising this goal. An 18- foot statue of Shivaji on horseback was unveiled in the presence of Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray and what looked like a Who’s Who of the BJP, with wide grins and saffron turbans in place.
According to an official from the current speaker’s office, the proposal to erect Shahuji’s statue was passed not by the current Committee, but by Joshi during the Vajpayee government. Joshi once famously proclaimed that he “would welcome as many inclusions as could be had” in statues. His predecessor PA Sangma held a diametrical ly opposite view, often sternly denouncing the practice. “It only serves to give a visual stamp to political and ideologies battles,” says Sangma. His counterpart today holds a similar, less austere viewpoint, but Chatterjee too has been accused by the Opposition of getting the Lok Sabha to sponsor a statue of Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore’s is one of the only three statues paid for by the Lower House, others being Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. Approved statues are usually sponsored by the person or organisation that mooted the proposal. In some cases, the competition over this is intense. A prolonged tug of war between the Punjab government and the CPI(M) over who would be allowed to donate Bhagat Singh’s statue only stopped when Chatterjee decided that the Lok Sabha would donate the statue. He did concede the Punjab Government’s request that Singh’s statue wear a Sikh turban and not the hat he’s often pictured in.
When the statue was unveiled on Independence Day in 2008, Bhagat Singh’s family was appalled. Singh’s nephew Jagmohan says, “By showing him in a turban, politicians are trying to classify him on regional and communal lines. This is just divisive politics.”
The most controversial and divisive symbol though, has been revolutionary freedom fighter VD Savarkar. When the BJP proposed a portrait for Savarkar in 2003, secular outfits, especially the CPI(M), disrupted at least three Lok Sabha sessions. Half the house erupted over what they called the honouring of an ideologue of aggressive Hindutva. Despite massive opposition, then President APJ Abdul Kalam did unveil Savarkar’s portrait but soon thereafter made a “conscious decision” not to attend any more unveiling ceremonies.
Though bitter and long drawn, these controversies display some scope for parliamentary dissent and debate. Political parties now are far more risk-averse, and few politicians even question the eligibility of a leader for a place in the hallowed parliamentary complex. Today, as selfstyled dalit leader Mayawati courts Brahmins, as the Sangh Parivar casts its Hindutva net wider, and as the Thackeray brand of regional politics rubs off on mainstream parties, selective appeasement is the order of the day. That every politically influential grouping must be pandered to is a fact that is now literally carved in stone.