The Sardar Patel statue, also called “The Statue of Unity” which is to be unveiled tomorrow Oct 31st, is the biggest statue in the world at 182 meters tall. Built at the cost of Rs 3000 crores, it must be impressive to behold because of its sheer size. It is supposed to represent unity of the nation and to be a tribute to a great man who united India.
Maybe that’s so. But to me, it represents the power that those in government use to force people to do their bidding. Certainly, it’s not the worst form of naked tyranny like marching people off to the gulags to be worked until they die but it is something that reasonable leaders of a free people should never do. It is a shameful display of a gigantic ego and the misuse of power.
To be clear, my argument is not about alternative uses that Rs 3000 crores could have been put to. That amount could have helped, for instance, 300,000 families climb out of extreme poverty. But that’s not the substance of my objection. You can always find alternatives uses for any expenditure. It is then just a matter of differing opinions and preferences.
My objection is not about what the money was spent on. My objection is about how the money for the project was obtained. Regarding the financing of the project, the wiki says
The Government of Gujarat had allotted ₹1 billion for the project in the budget for 2012-13 and ₹5 billion in 2014-15. In the 2014-15 Union Budget, ₹2 billion were allocated for the construction of the statue.
The fact is that the government of Gujarat and and the central government of India partly financed the project. That means taxes collected from citizens were used. In other words, a significant portion of the funding was obtained through coercion and force. To put it bluntly, it was taken at the point of a gun and threat of violence.
Just to be clear, taxes always involve the use or the threat of the use of force. The government dictates how much you owe in taxes; if you don’t pay, you are threatened with jail and/or the confiscation of your property; if you resist, you are restrained or killed. The process may initially appear all very civilized and lawful but ultimately it is you (usually unarmed) against the (heavily armed) government. You cannot win that contest.
The end, of building a humongous statue of a great man who was supposedly for freedom and justice, does not come close to justifying the means, the threat and use of force.
As is the norm in matters such as the building of pyramids, or the Taj Mahal and other impressive monuments to human vanity and the lust for power, Modi will be celebrated as the person who built the Statue of Unity. Truth is that he did not.
Ordinary Indians toiled to earn a living; part of that income was taken away by force (at the point of a gun, if necessary), and was spent on the Sardar’s statue. Millions of extremely poor people paid unknowingly or unwillingly out of their very meager earnings the money to build the statue. It is shameful. Modi should be ashamed.
I don’t think Sardar Patel would have approved of the misuse of power.
Power or Persuasion
There are two distinct ways of getting people to do something. One is to persuade them somehow. If you succeed, people act willingly. Persuasion leads to consensual behavior. It is the mark of a civilized society that people persuade each other and cooperate to attain mutually beneficial goals. This is most evident in free markets, where people persuade and cooperate, buy and sell. It’s an enterprise which involves no force because all transactions are voluntarily entered into.
The other way to get people to do your bidding is to use power. Thugs and bullies use power, not persuasion. Governments use power, not persuasion. Power is their only instrument. That’s why governments of civilized nations are constrained by the constitution to a limited set of activities. (See my post on “What Should Governments do” for more on that.)
What Modi Should Have Done
Narendra Modi, as an individual and a citizen, could have used persuasion to build the Sardar Patel statue. He could have said,
“Mitron, we have to honor a great son of India, Sardar Patel. Let’s build the world’s largest statue in his image. Let’s contribute whatever we can, according to our means, to this great project. Let’s show the world that we Indians are free people that don’t need to be forced to do the right thing. Let’s show the world that we are free people in a free country, a country that Sardar helped create. He built India. Let’s build a statue to honor him.”
Not just Indian citizens, I am sure that people around the world who care about India would have willingly contributed to that project. Instead Modi as the prime minister decided that Indians will not willingly fund the statue. So he used the power of the state to extract the money from people. I don’t know what’s more shameful: the low opinion that Modi appears to have of Indians, or the idea that he’s morally justified in using force to make people do his bidding.
That the government uses force to extract money to boost its image is par for the course. What’s really distressing is that the people of India find it acceptable and even praiseworthy. It shows that the people have lost their independence, their pride, their ability to reason, to make their own choices, to be their own masters.
Big statues are certain to impress but ultimately they don’t matter in the big picture. The big picture is about the prosperity of the people, which depends to a great degree on good governance. We have the big statues but poor governance. In the end, we must remember that gigantism is a pathology. It is not normal. It appears that the only thing more gigantic than the statue is Modi’s ego.
Postscript: Over four years ago, in 2014, I wrote this in the context of the statue. Here’s an excerpt from the piece “Whose Money Is It Anyway?”
Statues of Dead Politicians
Let’s concoct an unrealistic example of discretionary spending. Suppose the politicians decide to build a gigantic statue of a well-known dead politician at a cost of 1.2 billion. Consequently the citizens lose $1.2 billion worth of “financial freedom” — instead of spending the money as they wish, they are forced to pay for a statue whether they approve of it or not. True, given a population of 1.2 billion, per capita the loss comes out to be only $1. But for a poor person, every dollar counts. And whether a person is poor or not, it is the violation of a principle — that a person should not be coerced to pay for non-essentials — that is unethical and wrong.
Now it is conceivable that people may say that a country needs to recognize the greatness of great dead politicians by erecting massively impressive tall statues. Well in that case, let the people decide. Let it be a democratic decision, especially if it happens to be a so-called democracy. Let the people vote with their wallets and do so directly, and not indirectly through their elected representatives.
I am not against the government’s involvement in discretionary public projects such as statues of dead politicians. I am sure that the government has a role but only indirectly. What I am arguing for is that the discretion should be exercised by the people and not by government officials and bureaucrats. If the government has to be involved at all, that role has to be limited to providing a coordinating signal. Let the government announce that “there is a need to finance a massive statue of this dead politician, and so we have put a huge big donation collection box into which you can put your hard-earned money.”
That’s an example of direct democracy. People choose to put their money where their mouths are. There is no force or coercion involved. People vote with their wallets and if enough votes are collected, the massive statue gets erected without fuss.
Go read it all.
 The median household income is just around Rs 1 lakh per year. Most of those families perhaps have less income than half of that per year. Transferring Rs 1 lakh to them would make a significant improvement to their lives and their future.