On 31 October, the birth anniversary of Vallabhbhai Patel, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the “Statue of Unity”—a 182-metre tall statue of Patel, erected on the banks of the Narmada river in Gujarat—to commemorate the leader of the Indian independence movement. Built at a cost of Rs 2,989 crore, the statue is the tallest in the world, and forms part of a pattern that reveals Modi’s desire to construct monuments to his legacy.
Modi’s efforts to leave an architectural legacy trace back to his reign as chief minister of Gujarat. In this excerpt from “The Emperor Uncrowned,” Vinod K Jose’s profile of Modi in the March 2012 issue of The Caravan, he explored this long-standing aim and spoke to architects who had worked for the then Gujarat chief minister. An official, who worked with Modi on a project in Gujarat in 2007, said, “If an architect in front of him realises the stupidity of one of his suggestions, even a world-renowned designer will just be shutting up and delivering what’s asked.”
The scale of the massive architectural projects he is building in Gujarat suggests an equally grand desire to erect monuments to [Modi’s] legacy. I spoke to more than 20 top officials, architects, managers and planners involved in Modi’s construction spree, all of whom insisted on anonymity, as they continue to interact with him on a regular basis. “He can really screw me if he comes to know that I spoke with you,” one told me. “So keep me off the record.” Some of the designers and planners working under Modi are Indians returned from abroad; others come from Chinese construction companies; some are government engineers. But in Gujarat, there is only one architect, and his word always carries the day.
In the weeks prior to the 2007 Vibrant Gujarat summit, Modi decided that he wanted to showcase the plans for a massive urban renewal programme in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project. The Sabarmati divides the city in half, and the proposed redevelopment will remove at least 10,000 people who live in slums on either side of the river, reclaim 500 acres of riverbed for 12 km along the shore, and build parks, promenades, markets, offices and business hubs. The riverfront redevelopment was not Modi’s idea: it was first proposed by a French architect 50 years ago, inspired by the example of great river-straddling cities like London and Paris. It had been mothballed for decades, and only moved past the drawing board in the 1990s, before being cast aside once again after the deadly earthquake that struck Gujarat in 2001, which helped drain the state’s coffers. But in the wake of the 2002 violence, Modi saw an opportunity. “The Riverfront was one of the first projects Modi embraced after the riots, as a way to show he was a pro-development man,” an official associated with the project told me.