“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” were the famous last words of an Egyptian emperor in a poem. As we all know by now, the said emperor is reduced to dust, or to two vast and trunkless legs of stone and a shattered visage. A desert howls artistically around the ruins while British travellers poke at them.

There is no desert in Tripura but a large bronze Lenin statue in the state is going through roughly the same fate. After the Bharatiya Janata Party defeated the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s 25-year-old government, heads have been rolling. Days after the electoral victory, a crowd pulled down the statue, chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

The BJP says it had nothing to do with the incident – the crowds were chanting a Hindu nationalist slogan and going on a vandalising spree out of sheer relief at being delivered from Left rule.

When Left is Right

The claim wore slightly thin after a BJP leader in Tamil Nadu offered the same treatment to a statue of Periyar, considered the founder of the anti-caste Dravidian movement. Because we have got it wrong all along, explained the dear leader, Periyar was actually casteist. Hours after he put out these views on social media, a statue of Periyar was vandalised in Tamil Nadu.

BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav also tweeted about the Tripura toppling. The party’s poll slogan in Tripura, “chalo paltai”, let’s change, was invoked. So was the fall of Soviet Russia. But maybe he had second thoughts, because the tweet was later deleted.

Cheerleaders of the Right continue to paint it as a modern day storming of the Bastille or the revolutions of 1989. Bollywood director Vivek Agnihotri posted a picture of the falling Lenin with lines from the Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem written in protest against the dictatorial rule of General Zia ul Haq in Pakistan. In the decades since then, the poem has become something of a Marxist anthem. If Agnihotri was going for irony, as he now claims, it fell flat.

Madhav seems to have known better. The BJP bringing down a communist government in today’s India is about as revolutionary as an elephant squashing a pesky ant. Besides, if building oversized monuments has been the hubris of autocratic rulers, toppling them has been the favourite sport of the next set of autocratic rulers. Ask Ozymandias, currently rolling about in the desert.

Rise and fall

If history teaches us anything, it is this: when you are an authoritarian leader and want to announce that you have arrived, build a statue. Preferably big, terrifying and funded by the blood, sweat and tears of your citizens.

The Left had a particular weakness for it. Lenin’s plan for “monumental propaganda” unleashed a series of sculptures aimed at the “aesthetic and ideological education” of the masses, in other words, to encourage ideas favoured by the Soviet Union. Artistic freedom was obviously a capitalist conspiracy. Stalin followed suit. Over the decades, Soviet Russia would be bristling with statues of the two leaders and other monstrosities.

Communist China decided to honour Chairman Mao with a giant stone head of the leader rearing out of a mountain. Officials seemed to draw the line at a massive gold statue of Mao in the bare fields of Henan province. Some critics are believed to have quoted “Ozymandias” at the statue to bring it down.

It’s not just the Left. Authoritarian leaders the world over cannot resist the sight of themselves in stone or fortified concrete. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein couldn’t. Neither could Libyan narcissist Muammar Gaddafi, who rendered himself in bright gold and also commissioned a giant fist squishing a United States fighter plane.

But history also teaches us this: if your idea of a good regime change is destroying the old statues, you are probably not good news. Maybe you are a righteous, emotionally stunted megalomaniac calling yourself the Leader of the Free World. Or maybe you are George Bush Junior, who seems to have thought knocking down that statue of Saddam Hussein would be a nice, subtle way to bring peace in the Middle East.

A crane removes the last large bust of Saddam Hussein from the top of the former Presidential Palace in Baghdad

Or you could be a religious bigot who flies into an existential fury at the very thought of another faith; please see, the Taliban bringing down the Bamiyan Buddha and the Islamic State in Palmyra.

Sometimes, the most radical statue toppling can be deceptive. After the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown by Libyan rebels, with some unsolicited help from the West. But the rebels who danced around his fallen statue also hunted down and executed the martial leader in the most brutal manner. Today, the country is still roiled by civil war, with various militias fighting for control.

Most recently, statue toppling was used to signal regime change in Ukraine. Angry crowds brought down a statue of Lenin during the Euromaidan protests of 2014, ending the tenure of the pro-Russian government and prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex Crimea. But Leninfall, or knocking down Lenin statues, has really taken off after the Ukrainian government passed decommunisation laws to erase the country’s Soviet past. Is it an act of resistance to bullies like Putin or the sign of a growing rightwing nationalism? Depends on where you stand on the political spectrum.

The taller Buddha of Bamiyan before (left picture in 1968) and after destruction (right in 2008). Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

Pure will

India does not have a traumatic Soviet past to deal with, no matter how many KGB agents rendezvoused at Delhi’s pastry shops in the 1960s. Communist governments like Manik Sarkar’s in Tripura and the Left Front in West Bengal might have grown autocratic through the course of their tenures but they were not exactly sending dissenters to gulags.

Both governments face the far more grievous charge of spending a fortune on terrible public art. It was a practice avidly taken up by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who replaced the Left as she swept the assembly polls of 2011 and proceeded to colour Kolkata in a blue and white wash and to build miniature Big Bens. With her political guns trained on the BJP rather than the Left now, Banerjee vows to protect the communist monuments she was once keen to tear down.

Perhaps the real hubris of Indian politicians with large mandates, including those who build statues and those who bring them down, lies in the sense that they represent the “pure will” of the people against a “corrupt elite”. It is a trademark of populist governments across the world, shading from the Left to the Right, and has a tendency to dissolve into authoritarianism. If the Left in Tripura thought it was the channel of this pure will in decades past, the BJP sees itself in that role now. But, as the Left is finding out the hard way, there is no telling when this will might change.

Speaking of hubris, isn’t there a rather large Sardar Patel statue taking shape somewhere?