Just in case anyone hasn’t noticed, India is ending its love affair with the small. Anything we do must be big now. Two months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s tallest statue, the 182-metre Statue of Unity, in a tribute to the “Iron Man of India”. Costing nearly ?3,000 crore, it drew its usual bunch of naysayers. Could the money not have been put to better use? India doesn’t care. The early reports are that the statue is drawing huge crowds of up to 30,000 a day, and that brings its own positive economic activity. It does not matter what you build, for building anything brings jobs and livelihoods, whether it is a statue, a highway or a temple.
A nation that once idealised the small, the kirana shop, the roadside temple, is now thinking Walmart. Ideas of what to build may be coming from political motivations or religious ones, from the humble need to give back to society or personal hubris, but there is no doubting the emerging Indian hunger for scale and size. Forget the Sardar statue for a moment. Consider just a few recent projects in the realm of the religious and the spiritual. In Coimbatore, the Isha Foundation of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev built a 34.3m-high statue of the Adiyogi, or Lord Shiva. In Hyderabad, the world’s second largest sitting statue is being built as the Statue of Equality, to commemorate the 1,000th birth anniversary of the Vaishnavite saint, Sri Ramanuja. The statue, which will be 65.8m in height, will use 120kg of gold. It will be two-thirds taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. When finished, it could cost upwards of ?700 crore. Clearly, the new state of Telangana is not unhappy that a spiritual destination to rival Andhra Pradesh’s Tirupati is in the making. Whatever brings in the devotee brings business and revenue.
Iskcon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, wants to build the world’s tallest temple soaring up to 213m near Mathura. It could cost upwards of ?300 crore. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has promised an even taller 221m-statue of Sri Ram on the banks of the Sarayu in Ayodhya. So, Ram Mandir or no Ram Mandir, the physical presence of Sri Ram will tower over the horizon, assuming soil conditions permit.
What is happening? And why is one writing about statue- and temple-building in a column that largely deals with economic topics? The answer is that the spiritual and the temporal converge into business opportunity and livelihoods at some point. The same thought process has made Baba Ramdev of Patanjali Yogpeeth a giant fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) player that could, if he gets the business model right, rival the Hindustan Unilevers and Colgates of the world, with the Baba playing yoga guru, brand ambassador and entrepreneur. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev are going upscale in their spiritual and business operations. Yoga, meditative techniques and philosophy—and everyday FMCG goods—are their “products”.
After centuries of thinking in terms of limitations rather than potential, an aspirational India is rediscovering its ancient mojo, where building big and beautiful was the way to prosperity. Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath may have politics at the back of their minds, but they realize instinctively that Indians are no longer content with “povertarian” thinking. This is the same thought that made Mukesh Ambani sink ?2 trillion or more in Reliance Jio to make India one of the world’s largest consumers of data. The goods and services tax (GST) is, indirectly, a fiscal goad to small businesses to get growing or get out the way.
Today, big is aspirational. Ordinary Indians want the biggest and most powerful gadgets, the best-paying jobs, the biggest malls—and big statues and temples to gawk at. Even the relatively poor are unwilling to accept jobs that pay breadline wages, which is one reason for the fall in our labour force participation rates. With acute hunger and poverty now shrinking to a few pockets, the poor are no longer obliged to work for a pittance. They are mounting a million mutinies to demand more and better jobs. Outside the arena of personal growth, few Indians are willing to accept an also-ran status for their country, whether it is in sports or other fields. Scale and size are an important part of the emerging Indian statement, and this is reflected in the new cultural, religious and political projects. It is about projecting power and economic clout. We are tired of being losers.
Despite the hubris surrounding this newer, bigger, shinier, taller, richer mindset, these projects will bring us huge economic benefits as new jobs and opportunities are created around tourism, trade and related businesses. The Walmartisation of the Indian mind is going to gather pace as India modernises and becomes a middle-income country over the next decade. It is interesting that the temples of modern India will not just be the IITs and IIMs that Nehru dreamt of, but actual temples and projects that boggle the mind in terms of scale and vision. It is good economics and leads to better livelihoods. It will also bring us bigger problems, but that is something we need to deal with later. For now, India’s ambition deficit is over.