The BJP, which is joined at the hip to the RSS, has internalised a convenient amnesia about what Sardar Patel actually thought of the RSS.
Why should a statue of Sardar Patel cause controversy? Is it because it is the tallest statue in the world? Or, is it because its inauguration was an extravaganza choreographed by the PM? Or, is it because it cost — as per reports — something in the vicinity of Rs 3,000 crore? Other reasons have been cited too. Is erecting statues out of fashion and a waste of money? Or — as some people have said — would Sardar Patel have been less than happy at this kind of spectacle in his name? Perhaps, there are even those who feel that Sardar Patel does not deserve this kind of glorification. Or, maybe, the Congress is annoyed at the “appropriation” of Sardar Patel by PM Narendra Modi and the BJP. And, finally, there could be some who feel that such tributes are best pursued only for the Nehru-Gandhi parivar.
To the critics of this statue, I say simply, choose from any of these options. As far as I am concerned, a befitting tribute to the Iron Man of India was long overdue. If his statue in his home state has been erected, and is the tallest statue in the world, so be it. For too long, the Nehru-Gandhi family has tended to monopolise all such tributes, and by doing so, has pushed to the relative margins other iconic figures of the Freedom Movement, and of India’s recent history. When Pandit Nehru died, his home was converted into a museum. That was the first overreaction. A home once designated for the first Prime Minister of the country should have been the residence for future PMs as well, much like, for example, 10 Downing Street is. I am of the firm opinion that there is no better address for the PM of our country than Teen Murti Bhavan. It has the right location, size, and suitability for protocol requirements. Instead of that, we now have our PMs living in an improvised residence which clumsily combines three bungalows.
We seem to be congenitally disposed to create museums to honour our PMs. Former PM Indira Gandhi’s residence is also a museum now. The airport in the capital is named after her, too. Connaught Place, another landmark in the capital, is now called Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. The capital’s premier National Centre for the Arts bears Indira Gandhi’s name. New Delhi’s largest stadium is named after Jawaharlal Nehru. There is the Jawaharlal Nehru University too in the capital. The country’s largest open university — also in the capital — is named after his daughter. Apart from this, there are huge swathes of priceless real estate marked for the final resting place of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The city’s only planetarium is in the name of Nehru. The capital’s largest cancer hospital is named after his grandson.
These are only some examples, and restricted to New Delhi, but they clearly indicate that there has been an excess. Since the Nehru-Gandhis were in power for most of the last seven decades, it is not difficult to understand why this happened. The role of sycophants, forever ready to suggest what they believe will appeal to those in power, must have played a role too. Of course, none of this is intended, even for a moment, to belittle the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi. They served the nation with great distinction, and need to be remembered. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi gave their life for the nation. This can never be forgotten. Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular, is someone I hugely admire. In fact, in my study, there is a black and white photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and this is the permanent backdrop to my participation in TV debates.
However, this does not make me blind to the fact that there were other leaders in the pantheon of our Freedom Movement, and in the making of more recent Indian history, who have not got their due. The allegedly shabby manner in which the Congress Party — then in power at the Centre — dealt with the body of the late PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, is a case in point. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and later, Lal Bahadur Shastri, did not get their due either. There were other iconic leaders, like Ram Manohar Lohia, who remained sidelined. Sardar Patel suffered the same neglect.
The BJP is obviously trying to do a course correction. Some leaders of eminence from the BJP stock, like Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, have suddenly shot into prominence, knocking off the names of well-established railway stations like Moghul Serai. But the BJP has a paucity of iconic figures linked to the Freedom Movement. Hence the need for appropriating figures like Sardar Patel. The appellation “Iron Man” appeals, I think, to a person like Narendra Modi. There is, undoubtedly, an irony in this new-found deification. The BJP, which is joined at the hip to the RSS, has internalised a convenient amnesia about what Sardar Patel actually thought of the RSS. He was unrelentingly critical of RSS ideology, and made no secret of it. Perhaps, the BJP thinks that the size of the statue will make people forget this part of Patel’s legacy.
But all this notwithstanding, a tribute to the Iron Man of India, cannot — and should not — be made a matter of controversy. The money spent on the statue could have been less, but it is hardly a material factor, given the thousands of crores spent on remembering other great leaders, mostly from the Nehru-Gandhi family. The contribution of Sardar Patel to the Freedom Movement is immeasurable. The resolve of steel he displayed in uniting India — earning for himself the sobriquet of “Bismarck of India” — is something that can never be forgotten. He was a true Gandhian, a peasant leader of great sensitivity and acumen, and the founder of the modern all-Indian civil services system. As the integrator of the Republic of India, the Statue of Unity dedicated to him on October 31, 2018, deserves the support of every patriotic Indian.