Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel must be chuckling somewhere. Fifty-seven years after his death, the Iron Man of India has never been more in demand. Everyone wants to bask in his reflected glory.
"Some people tried to ensure the contribution of Sardar Patel is forgotten," said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He added that his "momentous service and monumental contribution to India can never be forgotten."
Rahul Gandhi called him "an embodiment of integrity and strength, one of the architects of (the) idea of India."
President Ram Nath Kovind hailed him as "India's Man of Iron, of Integrity and of Integration."
While Bengal angrily rebuffed a directive from the UGC to send them video recordings of events marking Sardar Patel's birth anniversary in institutes of higher learning, Mamata Banerjee made sure to remember the "great Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on his birth anniversary" and to greet all her brothers and sisters on National Unity Day.
In short, Vallabhbhai Patel has emerged as the man for all seasons for India's political parties.
It is undeniable that under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the legacy of Patel, like all national leaders, got pushed into the background, while a hundred Nehru-Gandhis bloomed around us. An RTI application in 2009 showed that over 450 government projects and schemes were named after the Nehru Gandhi family — 98 educational institutions, 51 awards, 39 hospitals and so on. October 31 became memorialised as Indira Gandhi's death anniversary as opposed to Sardar Patel's birth anniversary.
It is also undeniable as the Congress is now quick to point out that Patel said "The speeches of the Sangh leaders are poisonous. It is a result of this venom that Mahatma Gandhi has been assassinated." In fact, Patel, one of the last to speak to Gandhi before his assassination, was so shocked that within months he had a massive heart attack. He attributed it to his bottled up grief at the death of Gandhi. Patel banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Patel also lifted that ban though with a rider, that the RSS should never participate in active politics.
This tug-o-war over Sardar Patel proves two things.
One, the Congress is paying the price for sidelining many leaders, or rather their legacies, because in the Indira Gandhi era, it started morphing into a party of yes-men and sycophants to one family. Nehru and Patel indeed sparred and publicly disagreed with each other. But they also dissuaded each other from resigning at key moments because they believed it would not be good for the country. The Bharatiya Janata Party has even launched a WhatsApp campaign in Gujarat cataloguing the insults meted out by the Congress to the two sons of Gujarat — Sardar Patel and Morarji Desai.If the Congress had always accorded Sardar Patel enough respect and prestige, it would not now have to defend him from the claims of the BJP.
But the BJP is also betraying its hunger for its own icon of the Independence movement. Gandhi is obviously off limits. Nehru belongs to the other side. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee is not iconic enough for the masses. Patel is the only one it can lay any claim to. It's a shaky claim since Patel was a Congressman through and through, whatever his differences with the leadership. Unlike Mukherjee he did not leave the government to found his own party after falling out with Nehru.
"In this context it is imperative for a party bereft of a nation-building iconography to borrow an icon, who invokes the sacrificial sentiments of the freedom struggle," writes Rajesh Ramachandran. Sardar Patel who used force against the Nizam of Hyderabad fits the bill. As Mukul Kesavan has noted back in 2003, Modi liked to be called Chhote Sardar. "By invoking Sardar Patel, Modi invites us to see him as the integrator. His task is to keep India from disintegration." So desperate is the BJP that some in it even falsely claimed Nehru skipped Patel's funeral when, in fact, he was apparently so bereft and broken, Rajagopalachari had to deliver the oration.
In a way, the two men, both giants, sometimes at odds with each other, complemented each other and lived up to Gandhi's idea that India needed both of them. What's ironic now is that we are paying lip service to Patel by building giant statues and inaugurating a Run for Unity, but we forget that the strongest way to forge unity is to learn to listen to each other. We think that nation building is about playing the national anthem in movie theatres, building mega statues, axing comedy skits targeting the prime minister, hauling students to court for sedition. We want dissent to be immediately dubbed anti-national.
But the man being hailed as the counterpoint to Nehru had this to say about him: My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me.... Our combination is unbreakable and, therein, lies our strength.
"Therein lies our strength". On National Unity Day it's worth remembering that Sardar Patel. Nehru and he might have come from very different milieus but they were united by their love for India and Gandhi. Patel understood their differences of opinion could actually strengthen India and not split it. At a time when dissent is quickly dubbed anti-national, it seems hard to believe that once it was possible to serve in a cabinet together and disagree with each other on a matter of principle and still serve together.
That's an idea of national unity that cannot be captured even in the biggest of statues.
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