Mumbai: Seven years since it was first proposed, Maharashtra is set to take the first step to building a memorial to Shivaji, off the Mumbai coast. The project cost may have gone up four-fold in this period, but for chief minister Devendra Fadnavis “no amount is too much” for the memorial.
Fadnavis’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) obviously gets to take credit, but given the near-unanimity among political parties on the subject, it’s no surprise that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi lays the foundation stone for the Rs3,600 crore project in Mumbai on 24 December, Uddhav Thackeray of alliance partner Shiv Sena, and Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) will also be in attendance.
Fadnavis told the assembly session in Nagpur on 16 December that all approvals were in place and work would begin soon. The centrepiece of the memorial would be a 190-metre-high statue of Shivaji riding a horse and holding a sword.
The symbolic and political significance of the Shiv Smarak(Shivaji Memorial) in the state cannot be overstated. The 17th century ruler is seen as the benchmark of good governance, a magnanimous yet magisterial leader of the masses. That is why the project has seen near total unanimity among major parties and promises political dividends.
Deepak Pawar, assistant professor of political science at the University of Mumbai, agreed that Shivaji is a political constituency too. “Chhatrapati Shivaji is Maharashtra’s greatest icon and it is natural that political parties find great symbolic and political value in commemorating him. Congress-NCP exploited his name in the 2009 election, BJP did that in the 2014 assembly polls, and Shiv Sena has over-exploited him,” Pawar said.
Shivaji’s significance in the current context can be seen from the competitive politics over the foundation stone-laying event. Thackeray, apparently flustered by what he sees as the BJP’s attempt to appropriate the Sena icon, made sure he was present at the event. Sena legislator Pratap Sarnaik demanded in the assembly that Thackeray be invited to the event and seated next to Modi.
Thackeray is conscious of the upcoming civic elections in Mumbai, which may see an all-out war between his party and the BJP. “He sees the BJP as a challenger to the Sena’s claim over Chhatrapati Shivaji. He is not comfortable with it and he is aware of the political mileage we are hoping to extract out of this,” said a Mumbai BJP functionary who did not wish to be named.
So on Wednesday, senior BJP ministers Chandrakant Patil and Vinod Tawde visited Thackeray’s residence to invite him. The NCP too threw a tantrum, insisting its chief Sharad Pawar be invited. Now, both Thackeray and Pawar will be seated with Modi on stage.
The memorial is among the nine demands raised by the Maratha community in its ongoing protest. In fact, the Maratha protestors have blamed the previous Congress-NCP government for the delay in the project.
For the BJP, it is a great opportunity to score over the previous regime, and also reach out to the restive Maratha community.
“Building the memorial to Chhatrapati Shivaji is the easiest Maratha demand to fulfil as compared to the legally and constitutionally arduous demand for quota and amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. It is also the least controversial option, with maximum potential for political mileage for the BJP even in the 2019 elections because the memorial would only be half completed by then and the BJP could always ask for votes to be able complete it,” Deepak Pawar said.