It’s a big day (October 31st) at the Statue of Unity, on the banks of the Narmada. On Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s 144th birth anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to view a special parade of police and paramilitary personnel, then address the nation.
The previous night, I arrive at the swanky, new Vadodara airport. It has 18,120 sq metres of space, with 18 check-in counters. And spotless loos. What a change from its earlier scrappy state. Very impressive.
The new terminal was inaugurated in October 2016 by Modi. Not surprisingly, like much else in today’s Gujarat, it bears his signature. I can’t help recalling that, in addition to Varanasi, it was from Vadodara that he won by a record margin in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
October is a very important month in Modi’s calendar. On October 31st last year, he dedicated to the nation one of his most ambitious projects, the Statue of Unity. Standing 182 metres tall, this gigantic replica of India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, is not only the tallest statue in the world, but almost a good 30 metres, or nearly 100 feet, taller than its nearest competitor, the Spring Temple Buddha in China. The monument has already attracted some 2.6 million visitors since then, earning over Rs 55 crore from ticket sales alone.
It was raining heavily. As we drove on the curvaceous, immaculately macadamised highway to ‘Sadhu Bet,’ the river island atop which stands the gigantic Statue of Unity, I knew that I was approaching something immense.
It was not just a statue, but a dream, big, ambitious, visionary. A revelation the size and scale of which most fellow-Indians had not yet fully grasped.
A whole city, complete with parks, hotels, eateries, real estate projects, travel, transport, tourism opportunities, and exponential economic prospects, was coming up before our eyes. Marked by a prevailing sense of efficiency, novelty and positive energy. Illumined signage along the way, in multi-lingual green and white letters, showed the way.
In the hushed, rain-soaked darkness, these signs were like gleaming cyphers summoning the visitor, the promise of the future beckoning a smudged and soiled past.
Nothing short of the vision of a new India.
All these years, I had never imagined that I would become the silent witness of my era, let alone the chronicler of history. But on the morning of October 31st, I knew that the time had come.
Because of Narendra Modi. Who wanted to make India future-ready. That was the theme of his new foundation course, ‘Aarambh,’ for officer trainees of our civil services.
I had to wake up before dawn along with a whole host of them to be bussed to the parade grounds.
As soon as I saw the Prime Minister at the Statue of Unity, I knew that a strange set of circumstances was unfolding to make me an unwitting scribe of a new India.
Remarkably, Modi, though surrounded by thousands, was utterly alone at this massive statue. Perhaps, few in the mammoth multitude around me saw what was so evident in that instant. Not just the aloneness of a great leader with the world’s tallest statue as the backdrop.
But something else. Something of greater import and significance.
Shah Jahan, regardless of his other acts, is remembered for the Taj Mahal. Narendra Damodardas Modi would be immortalised by the tallest icon in the world, the Statue of Unity. Though the statue is in the shape of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, it actually commemorates Modi.
But not Modi alone. Something more.
The unity of India, which is the theme of the statue. Unity, as Modi soon emphasises in his speech, is a function of our diversity. Whenever we celebrate diversity, it is our unity that shines forth. By the same token, whenever India is threatened, a unifier comes along to bring us together.
One such unifier was Sardar Patel.
Another stands before us today. Narendra Modi.
As the close circuit camera shows him ascend the escalators to the enormous platform, a helicopter overhead releases a shower of red flowers. There are no fellow politicians or followers accompanying Modi as he reaches the massive feet of Patel. He bows three times, offering his floral tributes.
All by himself. Singular, it would seem, even in close-ups on the huge TV screens. Soon, he is seated on the vast stage, alone. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Ramniklal Rupani is conspicuous by his absence. There are no secretaries or officials. No security personnel or commandos either. The PM is by himself. He will literally not share this stage with anyone else.
The huge stage faces the parade grounds. All around is a select crowd of people. The highest officials of the region, plus representatives of the police. More people, commoners this time, are strategically seated on
the hilltops overlooking this impressive scene.
Perhaps, the most important component of the audience is the group of combined officer trainees of the Indian civil services. These services, much hated by freedom fighters as instruments of empire, Patel himself is credited as saving after the British decided to terminate them.
Some 500 officer trainees from the all-India and Central services, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Forest Service (IFS), the Indian Post &Telegraphs Accounts and Finance Service (IP&TAFS), the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IA&AS), the Indian Civil Accounts Service (ICAS), and the Indian Postal Service (IPoS), are present.
Last year, over a million took the highly competitive exams. After a gruelling selection process, less than 2,000 were recruited. Later, at the Narmada Tent City, Modi will have an intimate session with the probationers, even sitting at their table to have lunch. What better way to inspire those who are to administer India, enthused by his own vision to transform this country?
Behind him, the Statue is slowly coming to life with the rising sun. Though so gargantuan, its grace and beauty are wonderous. Patel’s likeness is neither domineering nor forbidding. The rolling hills around and the raised parade ground offset its size and height.
At the feet of the statue flows the sacred Narmada. Ahead is the massive Sardar Sarovar, one of the largest dams in the world, also named after Patel. Though the project was inaugurated way back in 1961 by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, it was Modi who commissioned it in June 2006 during his tenure as Gujarat’s Chief Minister.
Earlier this year, on September 17th, on his 69th birthday, Modi performed aarti to greet the Narmada waters flowing into the reservoir. Modi consecrated the dam, lit up in national colours, to the nation. The waters had reached their maximum height of about 138 metres. In addition, the PM also supervised the progress of his many schemes at the site including the jungle safari, ekta nursery, eco tourism, cactus garden, river rafting point, nutrition park, mirror maze and butterfly park.
The Gujarat government pitched in by celebrating Namami Devi Narmade Mahotsav. The dam, despite the stiff opposition to it, was not only completed, but brought its saving touch to the parched plains of Saurashtra. Some even argued that it was for this feat that Modi, the modern-day water-bearer, was repeatedly elected to power in his native state.
I remember all this as I gaze at the aesthetically pleasing statue crafted by master sculptor Ram Sutar. Patel used to be called Loh Purush or the ‘Iron Man of India’ but here he is clad in massive plates of bronze. The metal changes colour with the progress of the sun. The stern visage seems to soften even into a slight smile. The severe simplicity of the man shines through in all its splendour. Dhoti clad, chappal-shod, draped with an unassuming shawl around his shoulders, the east-facing Sardar stands tall, basking in the now bright sunshine.
Patel amalgamated 550 princely states into the Union of India. These ranged from the huge Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), over 200,000 sq km big, to Lava, a Tikhana near Tonk, just under 50 sq km with less than 3,000 subjects. Together, these motley states made up nearly 50 per cent of the area of India and a quarter of its population at Independence. What an astonishing feat of diplomacy combined with force. Unprecedented in human history.
Today, one year later after inaugurating the Statue of Unity, Modi announces the coming into effect of formal integration of the newly created Union territories J&K and Ladakh into the Union of India. The Sardar’s atma would be satisfied. “We the people,” Modi thunders echoing the opening lines of our hallowed and beloved Constitution penned by Babasaheb Ambedkar, “we the people—constitute this nation. It is our strength and commitment to Sardar’s ideals that are sure to make us great once again.” Modi soon stands up to administer the Pledge of Unity to all of us who have gathered at Sardar’s feet.
Modi’s speech, inspiring and uplifting as always, comes with his own style of brand-building and crowd-sourcing. ‘Ekta Parade’ by the 48 police and paramilitary platoons. Complete with bands, march-past and displays. Prior to that, patriotic songs, live music, dance and cultural programmes. A complete package to stir and shore up national sentiments.
Some of the floats, such as by the Central Industrial Security Force, which guards our airports, and by the National Disaster Response Force, are indeed spectacular. They show, respectively, our security forces saving us from an airport terrorist strike and from an industrial disaster. The motorcycle-borne policewomen of Gujarat are impressive in their feats too. They also demonstrate gender inclusion.
It strikes me suddenly that this is a new ritual of state. An alternative Republic Day. But here, with the Sardar’s immense, brooding presence at his back, only one man stands to take the salute. Modi.
One titanic, towering statue. One larger-than-life leader.
Later, in the plenary hall at the Narmada Tent city with the Prime Minister, I am struck once again by Modi’s capacity to connect. Flanked by PK Mishra, his Principal Secretary, and C Chandramouli, Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), he throws the floor open to questions from the officer trainees. In response to the issue of parity between services, he says we all work for India. Let not our bureaucracy turn into a new caste system (jativaad). He invites the trainees to end both the vertical isolation of officers hierarchised in ranks or cadres as well horizontal segregation in the silos of specialised expertise or posts. He wants a holistic and farsighted administration for new India.
It is this innovative vision which has resulted in ‘Aarambh,’ a combined foundation course for the Indian civil services. Sanjeev Chopra, Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie, along with his dedicated team of officers, has risen to this remarkable organisational challenge. Henceforward, the entire batch of probationers will begin here, then move to LBSNAA. They will not be split up or distributed, as they used to, in different training centres.
Moreover, the Prime Minister has insisted that his young officers be “future ready” with global inputs from the World Bank, Singularity University, Institute of the Future, as well as a host of other experts and speakers. Their group presentations before Modi reflect both the quality of inputs received as well as their own confidence in building the future of India.
Just so that no one escapes his far-reaching, futuristic orientation, a robot comes on stage to present him the coffee-table book to mark the launching of ‘Aarambh.’ Never to miss the opportunity for symbolic gestures, also tossed up at the event, is a special sweet made with ingredients from all the states of India.
What is it that makes Modi special? Apart from his ability to win elections. Or work tirelessly. Or deliver on his promises. Or roll out new schemes and measures to improve the lives of the common people. Or dispense decent
government and good governance after decades of mismanagement and corruption.
If I had to sum up in one word, it would be hope. Modi awakens in his listeners a glimpse of their own greatness. Cutting across caste, community, religion, region and language, it is Modi who is not just the great unifier of India. He is also our greatest uplifter.
After Mahatma Gandhi, no one has given common Indians a huge sense of purpose, direction, or possibility. Indeed, ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ is a well-founded slogan. Everyone who listens to him wants to believe.
This faith may be mitigated, if not belied, later. But in his presence the sheer magic of Modi is overwhelming. The Statue of Unity may be in likeness of Patel, but it is animated and inhabited by the spirit of Modi.
This is its dual identity as well as the secret of its appeal.
Herein also lies the mystery of leadership that Modi has come to embody.
From Loh Purush (iron man) to Yuga Purush (epochal man).