Modi, Sardar and politics of legacy grabbing

Sardar Patel – or Gandhi or Nehru for that matter – has little to do with Vote 2014, except helping pygmy leaders in need of image makeovers

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Ashish Mehta | October 31, 2013


Narendra Modi (left) and Manmohan Singh at the inauguration of the renovated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel museum in Ahmadabad on October 29.
Narendra Modi (left) and Manmohan Singh at the inauguration of the renovated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel museum in Ahmadabad on October 29.

Narendra Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has revived yet another debate. On October 29, he said Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel should have been the first prime minister of the country. “This country will always have one regret. Had Sardar Patel been our first prime minister, the destiny of the country would have been different,” Modi said.

The occasion was the inauguration of a renovated Sardar memorial in Ahmedabad and prime minister Manmohan Singh was also on the dais. Singh had no reply to make since he only read out from a previously prepared speech but he underlined that Patel worked with Nehru and remained in the Congress party.

Giving a reply to Modi was a job left to other Congress leaders like Digivjay Singh, Manish Tewari and Anand Sharma, who accused Modi of attempting to ‘usurp’ Sardar’s legacy.

This non-debate was a precursor to the big event on the great leader’s birth anniversary two days later, when Modi is slated to formally launch the project to build the tallest statue in the world – of Sardar Patel – to be called the Statue of Unity. The price tag? Rs 2,500 crore. This, for a man all whose belongings could go into just one iron trunk when he died.

Legacy politics is not new to Modi. It is one of the many innovations he has introduced with his distinct way of doing politics. A decade ago, he brought the ashes of a radical freedom fighter called Shyamji Krishna Verma from London to his home in Kutch, and it was a big event in Gujarat.

Over the past decade or so, he has launched at least two major rallies on the birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan. Ditto for Swami Vivekanand. In September, Modi paid tributes to Bhagat Singh and he is invited to release the legendary martyr’s jail notebooks in November. Coming from the land of the Mahatma, Modi has named after Gandhi an international convention centre in the Gujarat capital (the cost: Rs 150 crore).

But it is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who heads the list of the icons Modi has attempted to appropriate. In the first decade of his chief ministership, paying tributes to the first home minister of the country was his way of keeping the influential Patel community in good humour. In parallel, another script was playing out during this period: at the national level it was another home minister to a Nehruvian prime minister, LK Advani, who was ‘Chhote Sardar’, and in the state it was Modi who was something like pocket edition of a Chhote Sardar.

Now on the national stage, Modi would like to bask in the selectively reflected glory of the great leader for two reasons: one, Sardar was right of centre, practising a no-nonsense variety of secularism, rather than the so-called minority-appeasement variety of it. Modi would like to align his own answer to communal question – which is actually right of the right and hardcore Hindutva – to Sardar’s secularism.

The second reason is that the Sardar is a strong counter to the dynasty politics in the Congress which started after Nehru.

In this image makeover of the Sardar that Modi is attempting, what is forgotten is that it was Patel who banned RSS in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination. Also, Patel was humble enough to work under the leadership of somebody with whom he had differences on some (though not all) counts, and remained within the Congress till his death.

On the other hand, how hollow it sounds when the Congress accuses anybody of usurping some great leader’s legacy – when the party has not lived up to even Nehru’s legacy, forget other greats of the freedom struggle? Why Patel, even Gandhi is being appropriated by the Hindutva fraternity – professing the ideology that claimed the same Mahatma’s life – because it is the Congress that has reduced politics to a petty number game.

Either way, the exchange of allegations over Sardar reveals only one thing: how Lilliputian today’s politicians seem before the great icons of another era.

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