NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set aside $33 million of government money to help fund the construction of the world's tallest statue, a project close to the newly elected leader's heart.
Modi launched the project to build the bronze-and-iron statue - which aims to be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty at 182 metres - half a year before he was elected prime minister in May to honour one of the country's founding fathers Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
The tribute was widely seen as a bid to break the grip over India's post-independence history of the Nehru-Gandhi ruling dynasty that Modi sought to unseat in the election.
Patel was the deputy of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as well as his home minister, but was often at odds with him.
The total cost of the project, estimated at some $338 million, was originally to have been fully funded by the government of Gujarat, the home state of both Modi and Patel, and public donations.
The announcement that the central government would chip in, which was buried in a two-and-a-quarter-hour budget speech by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday, quickly sparked a debate about whether the expenditure was justified.
Some users of social media noted that the money allocated was the same as the amount allocated for women's safety, in a country plagued by violence against women, and twice that to promote education for girls.
Others said the statue, which is to be built on a river island in Gujarat, would be a major global tourist attraction, which justified the outlay.
"Sardar Patel stands as the symbol of the unity of the country," Jaitley said in the speech to parliament.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) credits Patel with using strong-arm tactics against the hundreds of princes who ruled parts of India at the time of independence to forge a united republic.
Many in Gujarat feel his legacy has been neglected by the once mighty Congress party.
Nehru and his descendants ruled India for most of the period since independence from the British in 1947, and numerous development projects are named after Nehru, his daughter Indira and her son Rajiv Gandhi.
Modi seems bent on creating a nationalist symbol in Patel that strays away from the legacy of a dynasty that he blames for many of India's ills, including poverty and corruption.
Modi has previously said that every Indian "regrets Sardar Patel did not become the first prime minister. Had he been the first prime minister, the country's fate and face would have been completely different."
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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