Reviving the Sardar debate: Modi's experiments with half-truths

By putting up a counter-icon to Nehru, the challenger is giving a historical grounding to the current mood against the dynasty. That’s why the Congress is rattled by him


Ajay Singh | December 7, 2013

Narendra Modi is aligning himself with people’s anger against a Congress regime symbolised by the dynasty and has revived a subterranean discourse of history which does see Sardar Patel as having been wronged.
Narendra Modi is aligning himself with people’s anger against a Congress regime symbolised by the dynasty and has revived a subterranean discourse of history which does see Sardar Patel as having been wronged.

Politics is a nonlinear equation. It defies conventional wisdom. But the strange phenomenon that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi has turned out to be is more like a complex puzzle than a mathematical equation. Contrast the past image of Modi with his utterances today, and the enigma deepens further.

Nothing highlights this better than the show at the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam in Kevadia, Gujarat, on October 31 – the 138th birth anniversary of India’s first home minister Sardar Patel. On this day, Modi and LK Advani laid the foundation for the world’s biggest statue of the Sardar—twice the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York—to immortalise his sterling role in the unification of the country after independence which earned him the title ‘Bismarck of India’.

Befittingly named the ‘Statue of Unity’, the project is coming up at a befitting site as well: the Sardar Sarovar dam. It was Sardar Patel who originally conceived the idea of tapping the river’s water to take it to the arid and drought-prone areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The dam project is nearly complete.

But what is particularly significant is the political narrative Modi is weaving around the statue. This narrative has thrown up idioms with which the vocabulary of independent India’s electoral politics is not very familiar. There is a sustained attempt through this project to build Sardar Patel as a counter-icon to India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the subsequent traditional political space largely monopolised by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

ALSO READ: Modi, Sardar and politics of legacy grabbing

This is not the first time the Patel versus Nehru debate has taken place. It has existed as a below-the-surface politico-historical chatter for as long as India’s independent life. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi raised this issue in his scholarly biography on Sardar Patel and was critical of the fact that Patel’s contribution towards nation-building and his legacy have been all but obliterated. In fact, he said his book on the Sardar was some kind of reparation.

In the preface to the book ‘Sardar—A Life’, Rajmohan wrote: “Whether or not Gandhi was unjust to Patel when the moment arrived to select free India’s first premier is a question that frequently crops up. The answer disclosed by my inquiry will be found in these pages. But the opinion of some that the Mahatma had been less than fair to Vallabhbhai was a factor in my decision to attempt to write the latter’s life. If a wrong has been perpetrated, some reparation from one of the Mahatma’s grandsons would be in order. In addition, I seek to discharge the obligation of a citizen to a founder of his nation.”

But there has never been any open attempt to project Patel as a rival of Nehru by any politician ever, much less by a rising national political star and claimant to the highest political office of the country. That is because history is witness to the fact that though the Sardar and Nehru differed with each other on some issues of critical importance, both were close comrades in the freedom struggle and disciples of Mahatma Gandhi. They had only admiration for each other’s sense of national duty.

That is why Modi’s belligerent assertion that Sardar would have taken India on a course different and better than Nehru’s choosing set the cat among the pigeons. Historically speaking, Modi was mouthing an ardha-satya, a half-truth, because he knows politics is less about scholarship and more about seizing the moment even if, in the process, facts have to be strecthed a trifle. And when he propped up the Sardar as a counter-icon to Nehru—in the presence of prime minister Manmohan Singh at the inauguration of the upgraded Sardar Patel memorial building at Ahmedabad on October 29—he did exactly that. “It is a source of perpetual sadness” that Sardar Patel was not picked as the first prime minister, he said.

“If he (Patel) had been the first prime minister, India would have evolved in a different way, a better way,” Modi said, much to the embarrassment of the PM who is widely perceived as a vestigial organ of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Modi’s move to pit Patel against the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is a carefully crafted strategy to weave his own narrative against the Congress and its dynastic rule. In the process, he is willing to economise on history as he deftly mixes facts with fiction to evolve a powerful narrative that can resonate with the people.

That Modi’s strategy was working became evident two days later, on October 31, at the Statue of Unity function referred to earlier from the stark contrast in the peoples’ response to speeches by Advani and Modi. Advani spoke at length about the historicity and rationale of naming the project after Sardar Patel and gave insights into the personality of the first home minister. But his erudite exposition, full of incontrovertible historical facts, bored his audience. His attempt to strike a rapport with them by recounting some jokes produced yawns. Whatever little response he got was when he took Modi’s name in adulation. There was a collective sigh of relief when the grand old man of BJP wound up his address.

Contrast this with Modi’s one-hour speech: heavy on rhetoric and convenient interpretation of history and historical facts, his speech was an instant hit with the audience, which often went into raptures. This explains Modi’s ability to steer the country’s political discourse on his own terms, which has effectively stunned not only his rivals but also party veterans such as Advani. “The manner in which he tried to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Patel and used his symbolism is illustrative of his skills as a politician,” said Prof. Purshottam Marwania of Rajkot University.

With his hand on people’s pulse, Modi is responding to a growing social impulse for change. He is aligning himself with people’s anger against a Congress regime symbolised by the dynasty and has revived a subterranean discourse of history which does see Sardar Patel as having been wronged. Juxtaposing historical facts and half-truths to arouse a dormant political discourse, Modi is making India think: “Ok, even if he lost out to Nehru, because Nehru was a giant in his own right and deserved to be prime minister, why has Sardar Patel been banished into oblivion by generations of Nehru-Gandhis after him? Did he not deserve a permanent place of pride in unified India’s history?” Even if he is twisting it a bit here and a bit there, Modi is thus giving a historical context to the current anger at the Congress party, telling the people that this party has been only about one family at the cost of everybody else and everything else.

Without discounting the history that Patel belonged to the Congress and was responsible for banning the RSS after the Mahatma’s assassination, Modi’s project of building a 183-metre statue of Patel is as an apt counter to the exclusive Nehruvian ownership of the idea of India.

The fact that the RSS-trained Modi chose an icon like Patel from the Congress to weave his own narrative is in itself quite enigmatic. Why did he not choose icons from the Sangh Parivar’s stable? Firstly, it wouldn’t have as much as made local headlines if he did. Secondly, he would not have rattled the Congress as much as he has done now by snatching away the icon of the rusting Iron Man from the latter’s own neglected showcase at a time when the electorate seems keen to hear alternative discourses on secularism and nationalism. And, finally, those raising such queries are oblivious to the consistent attempts by the Sangh Parivar to appropriate legacies of right-wing Congress leaders who fell out with Nehru in the post-independent phase.  

In a specific query about the BJP’s political positioning, Advani once told this correspondent that his party would be the natural inheritor of a stream within the Congress once represented by Sardar Patel, Purshottam Das Tandon and Dr Rajendra Prasad. Given the fact that the RSS lacked a powerful icon around whose personality a counter-narrative to Nehruvian dominance could be weaved, Modi’s choice for Patel is obvious.  

It is not easy to decode what makes Modi click. But there is little doubt that he has built his political persona on certain basic home truths that contradict traditional political positioning. For instance, he surprised the planning commission at the annual meet by saying that Gujarat was totally urbanised. Similarly, he urged people in his political rallies to discard the ‘below poverty line (BPL)’ tag and reject freebies. Instead he asked them to believe in their abilities and enterprise to rise above the poverty line. “Throw off this tag of poverty,” he said in a series of meeting in rural areas, which ran counter to prevailing socialist slogans.

A noted historian in Delhi, who does not want to be named, sees a parallel between the Modi phenomenon and the rise of Ronald Reagan in the US in the 1980s. Beset by economic crisis and Cold War, Reagan changed the old and worn out American narrative and conjured up a ‘US first’ dream to firm up people’s perception about his country’s invincibility. Modi’s ‘India first’ slogan is also carefully coined to reclaim the country’s prestige and pride in the international space, now endangered by economic downturn and timid foreign policy as was evident in the prime minister’s decision to skip the CHOGM meeting in Sri Lanka because his party did not want to risk enraging allies.

Yet another home truth about Modi that runs counter to the traditional political narrative and is not consistent with socialism is his espousal of the maxim “greed is good”. Gujarat has always been an attractive playground for the free market economy. But Modi has succeeded in projecting it as an ideal model for free economy and governance, his panacea for all ills. His idea of ‘less government and more governance’ is a formulation that is in consonance with the principles of neo-liberalism. Intriguingly, the ground for Modi’s formulation was originally laid by Manmohan Singh as finance minister in 1991. But Modi seems to be the real beneficiary of that while the Congress seems entangled in the framework of socialism.

There is a pattern to Modi turning conventional logic and wisdom on its head. For instance, he is making brazen attempts to reach out to Muslims by roping in a section of the community’s intellectuals and students. His attempt to distribute burqas and skull caps at his rallies in Bhopal and Kanpur was much frowned upon but found acceptability as a political strategy within the Sangh Parivar.

In fact, after BJP declared Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate he has been travelling extensively across the country and weaving a narrative distinctly different from the traditional and conventional political idioms and vocabulary. He is neither a gifted orator nor a polemist. Yet he has been drawing crowds whose attraction to hear him could be matched only by religious fanaticism.

He has carefully cultivated the image of an antihero, hemmed in by circumstances and chicanery, but doing his best to deliver good governance. Having ruled Gujarat for 12 years on the trot and having mine-swept all contenders, it may be out of place for him to be deploring dynastic rule but he is walking away with it nonetheless.   

Of course Modi’s speeches, devoid of usual scholarship, may fall foul with the traditional political pundits but are attractive to his audience. That is the precise reason why the audience usually jeers and hoots any other speaker, irrespective of his standing at his rally. If Advani was shouted down at Bhopal with cries of “Modi, Modi”, it was the turn of party president Rajnath Singh and leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley to put up with such humiliation in Patna. In all these places, Modi’s speeches were ordinary but directly addressed to the people.

As for Sardar Patel and his legacy, it is not just the attempted usurption of an icon that is worrying for the Congress. For the ruling party, the devil is in the detail of Modi’s rollout plan. The Unity Walk he proposes to organise across the country on December 15 (Sardar’s death anniversary) has the potential to suddenly associate the most divisive personality of Indian politics with “unity”. And his programme to collect pieces of metals from farmers’ used tools from seven lakh villages of the country to contribute to the Statue of Unity and collect photos of gram pradhans to be put up at the memorial library along with the history of each village is a symbolism that has the potential to turn the BJP’s weakness—lack of party presence in many states—into a mass outreach programme. That cannot be good news for Modi’s opponents so close to the general election.

The Congress and all the parties and intellectuals occupying the “secular” space as defined by them are rattled not just because Modi is challenging those definitions but because they are worried he just might succeed. At least his record of a decade of defying conventional political wisdom suggests so.

(This story appeared in the November 16-30, 2013 print issue)



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