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Opposition leader Modi lays foundation for Patel statue - India's tallest

Construction has begun on a planned Indian world wonder. A tribute to the country’s first home minister could rise twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and four times higher than Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer.

The structure, a project of opposition leader Narendra Modi in his home state, Gujarat, will rise 182 meters (600 feet) from an island in the Narmada river when completed (artist's rendering above) in four years. Modi laid the foundation stone Thursday, urging farmers to donate tools to melt down for use in the memorial to Sardar Patel, the "Iron Man of India." The "Statue of Unity" and its memorial complex will include a garden, exhibition hall and underwater aquarium, according to The Times of India newspaper.

"People come to see the Taj Mahal, flock to America for the Statue of Liberty and France for the Eiffel Tower," Modi said. "Now people from all over the world will come here to see this wonder."

The total cost of the statue could run to 25 billion rupees ($400 million/300 million euros), funded by public money and private donations. Some consider that price tag extravagant in a country where one-third of the population lives in poverty.

'Forced to look'

The Iron Man of India will tower over China's 128-metre Spring Temple Buddha, currently the tallest statue. The memorial has strong political undertones as it honors an independence hero who spent his life in the Indian National Congress, the main rival of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections next year. Modi is the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

"The world will be forced to look at India when this statue stands tall," said Modi, Gujarat's chief minister and leading opposition candidate for prime minister in India's elections, due by May.

Modi suggested that Patel would have made a better leader than India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru - a dig at the Gandhi dynasty, led by Congress chief Sonia and her son Rahul, descendents of Nehru. The family has ruled for most of India's post-independence history.

Nehru, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, all served as prime minister; Sonia is Rajiv's widow. Opinion polls show Modi more popular than Sonia Gandhi scion.

Patel's theme of national unity could help Modi, who bills himself as a secular candidate in the country of 1.2 billion people but had served as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when religious riots targeting Muslims left at least 1,000 dead and led to accusations he did too little to stop the violence. Various official investigations have cleared Modi of any wrongdoing.

Patel's story

Many in Gujarat feel that the Congress party has ignored the legacy of Patel, a native son, and Modi has used that to his advantage. His television advertisements ahead of Patel's 138th birth anniversary, also on Thursday, have claimed that "Sardar unified the country, and we will glorify it."

Patel had shared a prison cell with his close friend and ally Mahatma Gandhi, and became the leader of the Congress party in 1934. In his role as Nehru's Interior Minister - and the country's first - he helped molding a united country from hundreds of semiautonomous princely states and British-era colonial provinces. Patel died in 1950.

Turner Construction, which helped build the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, will build the statue.

mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, dpa)