What do you think about Narendra Modi’s and BJP’s attempts to lay claim to the legacy of Sardar Patel?

Modi is trying to redefine a certain standing that the BJP historically lacks. The BJP traces its origin to leaders who were not particularly active during the nationalist movement. The lack of inspiration for the people in the parent body of BJP means people like Modi will have to look for role models elsewhere. But in looking for someone who would be both a respected pan-India figure and have affinity for his home state Gujarat, Modi would have found three great Gujarati leaders in the nationalist movement – Gandhi, Jinnah and Patel. In Gandhi, of course, Modi could not have found anything common with him. Jinnah, for him, is reviled. And that leaves Modi with Patel as the only viable option. It helps that Patel is widely admired for his extraordinary role in forging India that gave him an unchallenged standing as the Iron Man. Patel represents both a national appeal and a Gujarati origin that suits Modi. Patel represents an image of decisive and firm actions, which is what Modi wishes to convey through his political appeal. Now we can understand the motivation. But we have to nonetheless raise some legitimate questions about Modi’s blatant attempts at appropriating someone else’s life and records.

What kind of questions?

Modi is trying to say he is walking in the footsteps of Sardar Patel. But then he has to really look at how Patel conducted himself in certain situations and whether he can show that either he conducted in the same way or showed inclination to do so. The most obvious parallel is that both Patel and Modi were faced with serious breakdown of law and order in their respective domains involving major violence and riots against the Muslims. How did Patel handle it and how did Modi handle it? In Delhi in 1947, Patel immediately and effectively moved to the protection of Muslims. Because Patel was afraid that the local security forces might have been affected by the virus of communal passions, he even moved troops from Madras and Pune to Delhi. Patel also made it a point to go and pray at Nizamuddin (Dargah) to convey a clear message. Patel also went to Amritsar when there were attacks on Muslims and he pleaded with both Hindu and Sikh mobs to stop that. In each of these cases, Patel succeeded and there were literally thousands of people who were alive precisely because of his interventions.

But we all know what happened in Gujarat in 2002. Whether or not you ascribe direct blame to Modi for what happened, you can certainly give him no credit for acting in the way Patel did in Delhi. In Gujarat, there was no direct and immediate action by Modi as the chief executive to protect the Muslims. Nor did Modi make any public communication to convey it was wrong. Nor was there any symbolic action from Modi of going to a masjid or the Muslim areas. On the contrary, there was a tendency to provide protection and comforts to the rioters and not to the victims.
Do you think Patel was a ‘Hindu Nationalist’ of the sort that Modi is trying to project himself as?

Sardar Patel, above all a Gandhian, believed in equal rights for all irrespective of their religion or caste. It is true at the time of partition Patel was inclined to believe, unlike Nehru, that an entire community had seceded. In my biography of Nehru I have given some examples of Nehru and Patel clashing precisely on this issue. But I have to stress that there are an equal number of examples where Patel, if he had to choose from what was the right thing to the Hindus and what was the right thing morally in the Gandhian way, invariably plumped for the Gandhian approach. An example, so often distorted by the Sangh Parivar apologists, was his opposition to Nehru’s pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, on the question of violence in East Pakistan against the Hindu minority. The Nehru-Liaquat pact was indeed criticised by Patel and both of them disagreed quite ferociously. But when Nehru insisted on his position it was Patel who gave in and the reason for which he gave in was very much a Gandhian reason, which was that violence in West Bengal against Muslims essentially took away our moral rights to take steps to condemn violence against Hindus in East Pakistan and resort to attack. That was not a Hindu nationalist position but a classically Gandhian fair approach as an Indian nationalist. And look at Modi, who has openly declared himself as a Hindu nationalist and has made speeches with thinly concealed contempt for Muslims. Patel would have been truly outraged by the kind of remarks that Modi has made against minorities.

How do you react to the argument that Patel, not Nehru, should have been the first PM of India?

Gandhiji decided it would be Nehru, not Patel, who would be the PM and Patel readily accepted it. Even in the first elections of 1937, it was Nehru who was the principal Congress campaigner and Patel the principal organiser. Nehru was more charismatic, moderate with a pan-Indian appeal and much more brilliant intellectually while Patel was a firm, unwavering and powerful anchor. Once Patel wrote to Nehru that “our combination is unbreakable and in that lies our greatest strength”. And Nehru showed his total trust in Patel by designating him, while travelling abroad, as acting PM who could take critical decisions. Even those Congress leaders who wanted Patel to take over as Congress president on the eve of Independence knew Nehru was chosen to be the PM. It is also a fact that Patel died three years after Independence. So I don’t know what enormous difference it would have made to history even if he was the first PM. Even then Nehru would have 14 years as against the 17 years he had as the PM. To me, what Modi and BJP are making is a futile argument.

What about the charge that the Congress neglected Patel’s legacy to prop up the Nehru-Gandhi family legacy?

It is merely a fact that Patel died in 1950 and Nehru ruled for 17 years. And other Nehru-Gandhi family members held the highest office for a very long time. Therefore, it was inevitable that their contributions and longer reigns would be remembered more. But then it is false to suggest that Patel’s legacy was neglected by the Congress. The long list of institutions, programmes, roads, buildings etc that have been named after Sardar Patel stands testimony to this fact. On charges of Nehru nurturing dynastic ambitions, let me point out that it was (Lal Bahadur) Shastri who was chosen by the Congress as PM after Nehru. Shastri died at the age of 66 when many thought he would continue as the PM for at least 10 years. After Shastri’s death, it was then top Congress Syndicate leaders, mind you, not any family manipulation, that ensured the election of Indira Gandhi as PM by defeating Morarji Desai in a vote. It was a different matter that the Syndicate’s calculation of reducing Indira Gandhi to a mere figurehead was proved completely misplaced. But then Modi and his supporters always misrepresent many other issues.

Source : ET