The issue of Patel not being conferred the Bharat Ratna is cited as proof of his undermining.
There are two sub-themes to the argument of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party while appropriating Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy. First, despite being in the Congress for the entirety of his political life, the Iron Man remained a closest Hindu nationalist. Second, Jawaharlal Nehru and his inheritors, premeditatedly undermined the Sardar’s memory because of being political pygmies and fearing his presence in the political discourse would hinder their project to eternalise the Congress. The BJP claims that Patel’s concealed political orientation was the reason why the Congress conspired to push him out of the national memory.
A little examination of these contentions are in order. The first charge that history books toned down Patel’s role is flimsy because this writer learnt through school history textbooks in the early 1970s that he was also known as the Iron Man. Patel’s role in securing the accession of the princely states was too significant in history to ignore. However, Congress governments after Indira Gandhi, and particularly after Sonia Gandhi assumed the party presidency, became paranoid about perpetuating the Sardar. Consequently, hardly any new streets and, more important, government programmes were named after Sardar Patel.
The issue of Patel not being conferred the Bharat Ratna is cited as proof of his undermining. This, however, is a two-sided argument. The existence of Nehru and Indira Gandhi on the awardees list much before Patel was honoured by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991 is cited as proof of Nehru’s and his inheritors’ belief in self-aggrandisation. But then Nehru and later Congress governments honoured leaders who had been out of step with them — Purushottam Das Tandon in 1961, K. Kamaraj in 1976 and Vinoba Bhave in 1983. It thereby cannot be said that Patel was not conferred the Bharat Ratna by design. Rather, this was an avoidable procedural error and oversight. Moreover, when the award was instituted in 1954, no procedural process of selecting awardees was drawn up. As a result, decisions were ad hoc and haphazard — most conspicuously when Nehru was bestowed with the honour in July 1955 by President Rajendra Prasad, who unilaterally announced the award at a state banquet. Nehru was presented with a fait accompli, but he should have made amends by immediately honouring the Sardar, especially when in 1956 no one was awarded the Bharat Ratna. Likewise, Indira Gandhi was awarded the honour after the 1971 war, and this too should have been soon followed with Patel being placed at par with other awardees. The Congress Party leadership is open to accusations of being self-centred, but no charge beyond this will stick.
This, however, does not in any way, justify the falsification of history and painting Sardar Patel as the wronged one. True, he stepped aside for Nehru for the Congress presidency not once, but thrice — in 1929, 1937 and 1946. However, this was at Mahatma Gandhi’s behest, and Patel was of the view that he was a mere soldier of the Mahatma and it was not for him to question Gandhi’s decisions and opinions. Subtly, Narendra Modi, the BJP and the entire Sangh Parivar has appropriated Patel within their majoritarian framework. For instance, at his Satute of Unity inaugural speech on Wednesday, Mr Modi, while taking a dig at Rahul Gandhi for his proclaimed shiv bhakti, also recalled Patel’s role in securing the Somnath temple (part of Junagadh state) and ensuring access to Hyderabad’s Charminar. Selective representation of incidents and ideas, besides his choice of words, often carry implicit messages and this is not the first time that Mr Modi has smartly reminded people of the Hindutva argument of India’s 1,200 years of slavery.
One must understand why this ruling establishment has appropriated the nationalist mainstream and its icons alongside elevating their own heroes. If Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were most preferred when government programmes were named, under this government the honour goes to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. The urgency to name schemes and change the names of famous places like Mughal Sarai has to be placed against the politics of renaming, and Hindutva discomfort with names reminding Indians of their Islamic heritage. The push to embrace national icons and claim they were ignored by Congress governments because they stood at par, if not in challenge, with Nehru, points to the twin realities — the Sangh Parivar is faced with paucity of icons who resonate with people. However hard the Sangh Parivar tries to remind people of V.D. Savarkar being a “veer”, he will be everlastingly recalled as the man who was tried for conspiring to assassinate Gandhiji. Despite acquittal, the J.K. Kapur Commission report raised unanswered questions regarding his role.
Patel’s appropriation is a carefully conceived Sangh Parivar project and efforts were first made to project L.K. Advani as the Iron Man’s avatar. After his political eclipse, Mr Modi donned the role and the Statue of Unity was announced in 2010 to mark the beginning of the tenth year of him becoming Gujarat chief minister. It virtually launched his prime ministerial bid. When the project was announced, the UPA’s terminal decline had started and public sentiment had begun intensifying that India needed a decisive leader who while being Prime Minister would act at his own behest and not as per diktats of a largely inaccessible party president living in a cocoon with access to just a handful. It is not only Patel who has been appropriated — days earlier a similar bid was made at another event at Delhi’s Red Fort, when an attempt was made to cast Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in the Parivar’s framework. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat too has revised the Sangh’s line on the freedom struggle, and in the past the fraternity has embraced many others who they opposed in their lifetime. This just underscores the shallowness of the Sangh Parivar’s political ancestry. It will remain to be seen if people continue to bank on an organisation and its leaders with a past at conflict or which stands in contradiction with its present.