Special to Financial Chronicle
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had only just hoisted the tricolour at Red Fort to commemorate 100 years of the Azad Hind Fauj, when he was off to Gujarat to dedicate the Statue of Unity (a statue of Sardar Patel) to the nation, putting the Congress into a tailspin.
For too long the Congress has focused primarily on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to the exception of other leaders. It is not unreasonable to see why, since Independence, the Congress once a movement that accommodated diverse ideologies and icons, has over the decades become increasingly exclusivist and the personal domain of the Gandhi family. With its transformation, when in power, and it has been for most of independent India’s history, it has been Nehru-Gandhi dynasty focused. It is inarguable that two members of the first family of the Congress have met violent and gruesome deaths that would leave no human being unmoved. That they have been honoured, is a matter of national debt and must not be grudged. It gets problematic because the Congress’s focus has been spectacularly unilateral to the extent of alienating the memory of other leaders.
In 2012, in a written reply to the Lok Sabha, the MoS for Planning, Ashwani Kumar’s answer revealed that 25 per cent of schemes were named after the late Rajiv Gandhi. In 2016, when the veteran actor, Rishi Kapoor took to Twitter to outrage about the number of “things” named after the Gandhis, he articulated what has now become public disgruntlement amongst ordinary yet observant citizens. At that time tabulations were carried out of the “things” named after the dynasty, the final count as per a news report (India TV) was that 99 institutions and 66 schemes were named after the family, including 9 airports/ports and academies, 17 national parks/sanctuaries/museums, 117 scholarships/fellowships,4 power plants, 37 hospitals/medical institutions, 35 institutions/festivals/chairs, 37 roads/buildings/places and 41 awards. This is excessive by anyone’s estimation and that it has remained unremarked on for so long is unsurprising given that the scales of power have almost always tilted in favour of the Congress and hence the Nehru-Gandhis who have increasingly and especially since the seventies become synonymous with the grand old party.
As the Congress faces an unprecedented political low and is struggling to articulate its ideology at a time when India has rejected its “go to” brand of secularism, which was considered a wand that whooshed away all other considerations, but instead was burrowing deep cleaves in society, internal battles have erupted amongst its top leaders. Most recently there were media reports of an angry argument over seats in Madhya Pradesh between Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia. In Rajasthan, the relationship between Ashok Singh Gehlot and Sachin Pilot has been described as cold, the party it is said now more than ever needs the Gandhis to play peacemaker.
The BJP has no such issues in the present. There is no doubt about who leads and who is their mascot, while there are dissenters who have gone public, their disgruntlement is perceived by most to be of a personal nature. India is used to a pantheon, our gods and goddesses are aplenty, each drawing affection by association, humanised to the extent that they are relatable, and yet not in competition with each other. This Bharatiya approach sees no problem with a pantheon and welcomes it; there can never be enough great souls. Instead, it is jarring when there aren’t enough, for these heroes and heroines also represent our diversity. The BJP has understood this psychology and while the Congress may be described as Abrahamic and monolithic when it comes to this issue; the BJP has adopted the Indic approach, opening its doors to a multitude of icons that were drifting from public memory.
It was in 2013, as Gujarat chief minister that Prime Minister Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat laid the foundation stone for the Statue of Unity, there was no guarantee at the time that he would be in New Delhi, that he is today, has elevated this event to a national occasion, as it should have been and probably would not have been had he remained the CM of a state and the UPA was in power in New Delhi. Under those circumstances, the Statue of Unity would have been the honouring of a son of Gujarat, localised fare, given the Congress’s approach at the time to other leaders and hubris. Today, however, it has prompted them to emphasise Patel’s Congress-ness. And it is indeed important because although it has been pointed out that Patel “belonged” to the Congress, the historical fact is that by present-day standards of ownership, although the Sardar would have never viewed it as such, the Congress “belonged” to Patel. He was elected its president and we are aware of the events of 1946 that led Dr Rajendra Prasad to lament “(Gandhiji) had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the ‘glamorous Nehru’. The use of “once again” as noted in an article on the incident suggested it had happened before – however, the self effacement and deference that Sardar Patel chose at the time was later thrust on him by future generations when he was set aside, away from posterity.
Prime Minister Modi recognised that the Sardar’s story, especially that of merging 550 princely states into one nation, needed retelling at a time when calls of “Bharat tere tukde honge” rang out from a college campus and received support from political parties. Today the Sardar and his firm resolve are as relevant as when he was sewing this nation together. We need to re-darn his efforts, as ugly voices of separatism gain currency and are mainstreamed.
In the last four years, whenever these efforts of reviving and honouring legacies have taken place, criticism has followed. When tony Aurangzeb Road was named after former president APJ Abdul Kalam, the latter was referred to as a “saffron” Muslim who played the veena, alleging that his “compliance” was the expectation of Muslims by the BJP and Sangh parivar. With Kalam juxtaposed against Aurangzeb, one has to ask what point these critics were trying to make? Was Aurangzeb the ideal, then? It is no wonder that this tacit acceptance of Aurangzeb and justifying his brutality “in context” came far too easily to those who found an accomplished man like Abdul Kalam a problem. That road’s name in ‘this context” had to be changed and replaced with the name of a great Indian, who happened to be a Muslim.
The other argument by detractors is that Patel banned the RSS. In fact senior Congress leader Anand Sharma went so far as to suggest that there should be a plaque at the base of the statue saying so! Unwittingly and yet again the Congress reduced the legacy of the Iron Man of India to a ban that he had himself revoked! It is true that Patel as home minister enforced a ban on the RSS and then revoked it when his apprehensions were proved to be misplaced after a thorough investigation of the Mahatma's assassination. He was convinced with his findings to the extent that he even wrote to MS Gowalkar asking for the RSS to join the Congress, (August 1949) “there is no doubt that RSS has served the Hindu Society. When people were helpless, the young men of RSS went there, protected the women and children and did a lot of work for them (that is the refugees from Pakistan). I believe that the RSS men can fulfil and fructify their emotions of patriotism by entering Congress”. It bears reminding that this was not the first time Sardar Patel had asked the RSS to join the Congress believing its disciplined members would help build the organisational base (Eknath Ranade); in early January 1949, he reportedly delivered a speech with the same suggestion. Post the ban, when Nehru was abroad the Congress had voted to permit the entry of swayamsevaks into the party (a move supported by Patel supporters and opposed by Nehru’s), this was revoked a month later on Nehru’s return. The Sardar was a Congressman of his time and indeed a prescient politician, he may have anticipated that one day the Congress would face its existential challenge from a man who came from the Sangh parivar and that’s what happened in 2014. But that man would go on to honour him in the magnificent way that he has, may not have occurred to the self-effacing Sardar Patel.
But what if swayamsevaks at the time had not been discriminated against, would there have been a Jana Sangh or a BJP? And what if the Congress had heeded Mahatma Gandhi’s suggestion to disband post-independence since its purpose was served? But these are explorations for another column and the limited purpose of its reiteration here is to emphasise that much water had flown under the bridge before and after the ban on the RSS and during the lifetime of the Sardar, hence to define their relationship by that one incident is selectivity. In fact critics of Sardar Patel’s nationalistic stance say he was RSS leaning! And for all his reservations, it was none other than Pandit Nehru who invited the RSS to participate in the Republic Day parade, post the war with China.
Today, India has the tallest statue in the world, of one of its tallest leaders. It is a statue whose foundation stone was laid by a man who holds no filial connection with Sardar Patel, a hundred and forty-three years after his birth and decades after his passing. Its time had come a lot earlier, but it is here today. The United States, the oldest democracy in the world and a nation with a brief history has claimed their icons unreservedly; not many call Abraham Lincoln a Republican president, they call him a great one. In time to come, Sardar Patel will and should be recalled as the man who unified India; the statue will help reminding future generations.
Remember this is a country where Bhagat Singh despite his differences with Lala Lajpat Rai avenged his death leading Pandit Nehru who had differences with Singh’s ideology to write in his biography, “Bhagat Singh did not become popular because of his act of terrorism but because he seemed to vindicate, for the moment, the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and through him of the nation.”
Today Patel who gave up his place in history stands vindicated by a gentle and uplifting act.