NEW DELHI -- In February 1949, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel declared, "Hindu Raj was a mad idea...it will kill the soul of India." A year before, he imposed the first ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
These contradictions didn't hinder Narendra Modi, a lifelong member of the RSS, from appropriating Sardar Patel--a Congress Party leader, India's first Home Minister and a secular nationalist--as his icon.
While ruling Gujarat for over ten years, Modi tapped into the festering resentment shared by many Gujaratis, who believe that Patel was relegated to play second fiddle to Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and then cast into the shadow of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.
Even though the Congress Party never championed Patel or his mammoth achievement of integrating over 500 princely states to forge a united India, its leadership was irked by Modi's appropriation of their man. And living up to his reputation of being a "showman," the Gujarat chief minister decided to build the world's tallest statue in honour of Patel.
Shrugging off critics, who found it absurd to build a $400 million statue in a country where 400 million people live on Rs50 a day, Modi forged ahead with his 182-meter "Statue of Unity" at the the Sadhu-Bet Island on the Narmada. At its ground breaking ceremony in October, 2013, Modi packed a punch when he said that India's destiny would have been different if Patel instead of Nehru had been its first prime minister. Modi's high voltage general election campaign involved a mass movement to collect material for the statue from every district of India.
But two years on, Modi, now prime minister, rarely evokes Patel's memory while speaking in India or overseas. This begs the question--has he dumped the "Iron Man of India" for "The Father of The Nation," whose name is peppered in speeches from Bihar to the United Nations, and inspires polices ranging from sanitation to combating climate change.
पूज्य बापू को शत् शत् नमन । pic.twitter.com/6smt7ovIAq— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 2, 2015
Evoking Gandhi abroad makes sense since Patel has little resonance overseas, but Modi made no mention of him in landmark moments since winning the national election and taking office in May 2014, including his victory speech in Varanasi, his first address to the nation over the radio, and his special episode of 'Mann ki Baat' with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Modi made a token reference to Sardar in his first Independence Day speech in 2014, but gave him a miss this year.
The central government has set aside $33 million for the Statue of Unity, but Modi hardly speaks of the project, and the rare occasions on which he has spoken of Patel since May 2016 include his birth and death anniversaries.
Missing: Chotta Sardar
They were both Indian National Congress leaders, founding fathers and freedom fighters. On Gandhi's request, Patel stepped aside and let Nehru become prime minister. They differed in their vision and means of birthing a new nation--lending to decades of debate on their ideologies and magnification of their differences.
In his autobiography of Patel, Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, wrote, “The establishment of independent India derived legitimacy and power, broadly speaking, from the exertions of three men--Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. But while its acknowledgements are fulsome in the case of Nehru and dutiful in the case of Gandhi, they are niggardly in the case of Patel.”
Patel was clear in his mind about the integration of India, which involved Indian armed forced taking over princely states like Junagadh and Hyderabad, but he was not anti-Muslim.
On the contrary, he was responsible for the two most important minority-specific parts of the Indian constitution on the right to convert, and the right of all religions to set up their own institutions.
Political analysts say that Bharatiya Janata Party exploited differences between Nehru and Patel to dilute the power of the Congress Party in Gujarat over the past few decades. And then, the BJP-RSS combine distorted the tough measures he took against Muslim rulers of princely states like the Nawab of Junadgadh and the Nizam of Hyderabad to portray him as anti-Muslim.
During his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi styled himself as "Chota Sardar" to ingratiate himself with the powerful Patel community, to show that he could also be tough on Muslims, and to challenge the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Once Modi set his sights on leading the nation, said Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, he used Patel to fight Delhi, but now he had no need of the icon. "Today, Modi is Sardar and Sardar is a statue," he said. "Sardar is a statue and Modi is Bismarck."
In terms of personalities, political analysts say that Modi had nothing in common with either Gandhi or Patel.
"Sardar was altruistic who gave up his desire to be prime minister whereas Modi is ambition incarnate," said Visvanathan.
Dilip Mohite, former head of the political science department at Baroda University, questioned Modi's proclivity for expensive clothes, fountain pens, and his desire to travel in luxurious planes of the industrialists instead of the state aircraft when he was chief minister. "Modi is the antithesis of Gandhi," he said.
It was in the years following the 2002 Gujarat riots, when Modi became a political pariah outside of Gujarat, and even within his party, that he really needed a strong personality to boost his legitimacy, according to Mohite.
Patel fitted the bill because he is seen in Gujarat today as someone who could have dealt decisively on the Kashmir situation, put Pakistan its place, and followed a policy of non-appeasement towards Muslims.
"For this, he is unfortunately identified as anti-Muslim. It was a feeling perpetuated by Modi. His image has become ruffled for the common man in Gujarat," he said.
Mohite is of the opinion that Modi isn't particularly committed to any leader--Gandhi or Patel--but his appropriation of historical figures serves an immediate political purpose. "Perhaps, he believes in the RSS, but I'm also not sure of that," he said.
So now, Gandhi is front and centre.
Icons Made An Icon
While he ruled Gujarat, Modi has also extolled the virtue of another INC leader and freedom fighter, Subhas Chandra Bose, whose mysterious disappearance continues to raise suspicions over how Nehru dealt with him, and haunts his descendants to this day.
On January 23, 2009, Modi commemorated the birth anniversary of Bose by unveiling his statue in Haripura in Bardoli, where he was elected president of the INC in 1938 at the age of 39.
Vishnu Pandya, an Ahmedabad-based political analyst, said that by appropriating several personalities, Modi had linked himself to their range of traits in the public mind.
"He has borrowed from Bose, Gandhi, Patel, and turned himself into an icon," said Pandya. "It may change in the future, but people think him of the biggest icon right now."
Pandya, who is also a historian and biographer, writing mostly in Gujarati, has been a keen observer of Modi since the days of the Emergency, in which they both participated. One unique quality about Modi, he said, is his strong sense of history, which he balances with an ability to adapt.
"Till now, I have never met such a shrewd and experimental man. His mind is always working 24 hours a day--what to try next, what to try next, what to try next." he said.