New Delhi: On February 24, President Ramnath Kovind inaugurated what is considered the world’s largest cricket arena, after refurbishment, in Motera, Ahmedabad.
However, the more significant news point the event threw up was that the Motera stadium has been named after India’s sitting prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Until Wednesday, the stadium had the name of an illustrious national leader from Gujarat, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Now, Patel’s name will now be shifted to a new sports enclave in Ahmedabad.
Inaugurating the cricket ground, the president said, “This stadium was conceptualised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. He was president of the Gujarat Cricket Association at that time.”
Adding his bit to the Gujarat Cricket Association’s rationale for naming the stadium after Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah said, “We have decided to name it after the country’s prime minister. It was Modiji’s dream project.”
The GCA is a trust and not a government body but its current president is Amit Shah. Earlier, it was headed by Modi.
India has a number of stadia and other public edifices named after prime ministers, but they never took on their names while the leader was still in office. The February 24 development, therefore, is in all likelihood a first in India’s political history, where the president, India’s highest constitutional head, dedicated a facility made on land donated by the government in the name of a sitting prime minister.
Though there appears to be no precedent for this naming in India’s recent history, the ‘Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium’ places the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy on the same plane as some of the world’s most notorious leaders whose personality cults led to the naming, among other edifices, of sporting stadia after themselves in their lifetime.
First, let us flip back in time to see where there are any parallels to this unusual development within India itself.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati, during her term as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, erected a few statues of herself and placed them across the state alongside the party’s founder, the late Kanshi Ram. Her defence was, “In his will, Kanshi Ramji (had) stated that as ‘Mayawati is my true follower, her statues shall also be installed’.”
In 2012, in the run-up to the state’s assembly polls, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had ordered that all the statues of the chief minister and her party symbol be covered up until the voting was over. Since that election, she has never returned to power.
That move by the ECI does leave one wondering whether the February 24 event has added an extra task for the Commission to consider while administering the conduct of the next parliamentary – or indeed even assembly – polls in Gujarat.
Bharat Ratna to Nehru
Yet another parallel, some would say, could be Jawaharlal Nehru being the first and only sitting prime minister to be given the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in July 1955. Though critics of Nehru claim that he awarded the honour to himself, a fact-check by Sharik Laliwala for The Wire in 2018 suggests a more complicated story:
On July 13, 1955, Nehru had returned from a successful tour of European countries and the Soviet Union, a tour aimed at the promotion of peace as the Cold War was rapidly escalating. Nehru’s efforts to establish India as a major player in world affairs found popular support outside India. On Nehru’s return to Delhi, the then president of India, Rajendra Prasad, went to receive him, disregarding protocol. A large crowd had gathered to celebrate Nehru’s arrival; their cheerfulness and enthusiasm forced Nehru to deliver a short speech from the tarmac of Delhi airport.
President Prasad hosted a special state banquet on July 15, 1955, at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was at this event that Prasad announced conferring the Bharat Ratna upon Jawaharlal Nehru. This suo motu decision by the president was ‘kept a closely-guarded secret’ as a Times of India report dated July 16, 1955 notes. Prasad described Nehru as the ‘great architect of peace in our time’, the same newspaper quotes him as saying.
“In fact, the President himself confessed that he had acted unconstitutionally as he had decided to confer the honour “without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister” or the Cabinet”, the newspaper reported.
Whatever the backstory, though, Nehru’s decision to accept the Bharat Ratna remains controversial.
Now, let’s look back at world history to find instances of sports stadia and gymnasiums being named after leaders who were in power. Naturally, in a democracy, such a move is rare. So we are inevitably left with some of history’s most infamous dictators.
The immediate name that comes to one’s mind is the Stuttgart stadium, which was built in 1933 in the Nazi era and named after the Fuhrer – Adolf Hitler Kampfbahn. When Allied troops occupied Germany in 1945, US soldiers used it to play baseball. Today, it is called the Mercedes-Benz Arena.
— Simone Zoppellaro (@S_Zoppellaro) June 27, 2017
From Stalin’s era in the Soviet Union too, one can easily pluck out such examples, including a whole city, Stalingrad, named after the leader. Forced labour of World War II German prisoners was used to complete the construction of what is today the Tofiq Bahramov Republican Stadium, now a part of Azerbaijan, in 1951. It was first named after the Joseph Stalin while he was at the helm. In the de-Stalinisation era, it was named after Vladimir Lenin, who had, of course, passed away by then. The stadium took its new name in 1993, after the famous football referee Bahramov.
The capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, was named Stalinabad between 1929 and 1961.
Aside from several statutes of the dictator built around Iraq, sporting facilities too were named after the ruling leader. One major example of it was the Baghdad Gymnasium. The original design of that structure was designed by French architect Le Corbusier, who also planned Chandigarh. However, after the fall of the Iraqi King Faisal II in a coup in the mid-1950s, the work stopped. It underwent several architectural changes thereafter, until it was readied in 1980 during the Saddam Hussein regime. Since it was built as per his vision, Saddam inaugurated it and it was named Saddam Hussein Gymnasium.
After the fall of his government, US troops famously occupied it for some years.
Kim II Sung
Like Saddam, there is no lack of public edifices named after the rulers of North Korea. One can list here the most prominent sports facility at Pyongyang, the Kim II Sung Stadium, dedicated to him in 1982 after its renovation. Kim II Sung was the founder of the country and its supreme leader until 1994. He also used the football stadium to deliver speeches.
In Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy too, such examples are evident. The stadium known today as Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino was originally named after Mussolini while he was in power. Built in the 1930s, it was called Stadio Municipals Benito Mussolini. The present name was given after it was renovated for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
The list of authoritarian world leaders who named stadia and gyms after themselves may be longer, but the point being made remains the same. In a democracy, if during Nehru’s regime, the Delhi stadium would have been named after him, questions of propriety by a people’s leader should have been raised. The yardstick remains the same for Modi.
Simply because we are still the world’s largest democracy.