NEW DELHI // Six months before a national election, India’s two biggest parties are embroiled in a tussle. Nothing unusual there — except that this time it is over a politician who has been dead for 63 years.
Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are claiming to be the true inheritors of the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a statesman and freedom fighter. He is often called the “Iron Man of India” based on his success in integrating disparate territories and princely states into the new Indian union, using a combination of strategy and force.
The battle was taken to new heights — almost literally — five days ago, when the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a 182-metre statue of Patel that will be known as the Statue of Unity.
To be cast out of melted farm equipment, reflecting Patel’s agrarian roots, the statue will cost more than 23 billion rupees (Dh1.32bn) and is to be funded by the Gujarat government as well as private donations. The statue will be built by Turner Construction, which erected Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, it will tower over an islet in the Narmada river in Gujarat, the home state of both Patel and Mr Modi.
Mr Modi, who has been the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, has drawn often upon this link to proclaim himself Patel’s heir, contrasting his and Patel’s qualities as “strongmen” with the perceived weaknesses of other Congress leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
“Every Indian still regrets that [Patel] did not become the first prime minister,” Mr Modi said during a public function in Ahmedabad two weeks ago. “Had he been the first prime minister, the country’s destiny would have been different.”
At the same function, however, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rebutted Mr Modi’s appropriation of Patel, pointing out that the late leader was always a proud member of the Congress.
“Sardar Patel was secular to the core,” Mr Singh said, a veiled reference to Mr Modi’s reputation as a Hindu right-winger who allegedly abetted anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. “He had a deep faith in the integrity of India.”
Patel died in 1950, three years after India became independent, in which time he served as the country’s first home minister.
He was one of the first Congress leaders to accept the partition of the subcontinent into India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. In this, he differed from colleagues like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, who were distressed by the partition and wished to keep India whole.
The BJP and other organisations of the Hindu right, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — not a political party but the BJP’s ideological mentor — mistakenly interpret Patel’s acceptance of partition as making him a supporter of Hindu chauvinism, said Shamsul Islam, a professor of political science at Delhi University.
“But in fact, Patel was no fan of the RSS,” Mr Islam said.
Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and one of Patel’s foremost biographers, said in a television interview earlier this last week that Patel would have been “pained and saddened” by the anti-Muslim violence that occurred under Mr Modi’s watch in 2002. “I think it is quite obvious that [Patel] would have been very disappointed … not only as an Indian statesman but also as coming from Gujarat, that this should not have happened in Gujarat and the government of the time was not able to prevent it,” Mr Gandhi said.
He also pointed out that Patel, although appreciative of the RSS’s work helping refugees during the violence of partition in 1947, soon changed his mind and became a fierce critic of the Hindu right.
In 1948, as home minister, Patel temporarily banned the RSS, of which Mr Modi was once a member.
Mr Patel said the government was determined to “root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country”.
The ban order came after a former RSS member assassinated Gandhi, although an inquiry found later that the group was not responible for the crime.
In a letter to RSS leaders that year, Patel decried their speeches “full of communal poison” and pointed out that “it was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection”.
The Hindu right, Patel wrote later to Nehru, “will have to change its entire outlook”.
The Congress has been foolish in neglecting its ties to Patel, Mr Islam said. Instead, the party has chosen to play up the Nehru-Gandhi family, which still controls the Congress today.
“But it is a sad commentary on Indian politics that both parties are even fighting so fiercely over this leader from the past,” Mr Islam said. “It’s sad that they aren’t instead talking about the policies and politics of today.”