Making little effort to conceal his strategy, Narendra Modi has started to press history into service to build up the political capital needed for an extended stint in the prime minister’s chair. Grabbing at icons rather indiscriminately, Modi has already made references to the staunchly secular Nehru, his dynasty-loving daughter, Indira and socialist Jai Prakash Narayan. Gandhi’s vision of cleanliness was bought on for the Swachch Bharat campaign, quietly setting aside the Sangh Parivar’s disagreements with the Mahatma’s legacy. Less oxymoronically, Modi has also called upon more right-wing icons such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madanmohan Malaviya.
Even in this crowded firmament, the brightest star from Modi’s point of view is obvious: Vallabhbhai Patel. Modi has fashioned himself closely after the Sardar, right from his days as Gujarat’s chief minister. He has promised to build a statue of Patel that would be the tallest statue in the world, at an estimated cost of Rs 2,500 crore. Not surprisingly, Modi seems to have chalked out big plans for Patel’s birthday on October 31, declaring it to be “Rashtriya Ekta Diwas” or “National Unity Day”.
Of course, historical figures are complex, three-dimensional characters and often, the Patel that Modi or the larger Sangh Parivar seems to imagine, differs quite a lot from the historical Sardar. Here are four such ways in which the real Patel would probably leave Modi cold.
1) Patel was not enamoured of the RSS
The Sangh Parivar has claimed ideological kindredship with Patel for some time now. In 1966, MS Golwalkar, supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh wrote in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, “We were fortunate that we had in Sardar Patel a person with an iron will to face the reality in those days.”
Modi, who considers Gowalkar a “guru worthy of worship”, naturally has a similarly positive view about the Sardar. Liberals, on the other hand, have tended to discredit the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to invoke Patel. Ramchandra Guha, for example, thinks it is ironic that Patel is being claimed by the BJP when he “was himself a lifelong Congressman”.
Despite being a Congressman, the conservative Patel certainly had common ground, ideologically, with the RSS. Three weeks before Gandhi’s assassination, Patel warmly invited swayamsevaks to join the Congress:
“In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by the virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen, by love.”
However, things changed sharply after Gandhi’s assassination. While the direct involvement of the RSS was never pursued in a court of law, the fact that the RSS ideology was responsible for motivating Godse was quite clear. In a letter on July 18, 1948, after Gandhi’s murder, the Sardar wrote to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who would later found the Jan Sangh:
“… as [a] result of the activities of these two bodies [the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha], particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasbha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State.”
Patel banned the RSS just after Gandhi’s assassination but also unbanned them after a year and a half. However, wary of their proclivity towards of violence, Patel ensured that this unbanning would come with a rider: the RSS would not take part in politics. Within a year, however, the RSS had broken their promise, pushing the Jan Sangh as its political arm. Later on the Jan Sangh would morph into the modern-day BJP.
2) Nehru did not steal the prime minister’s crown from Patel
It is often imagined by the Indian Right that Patel was India’s “rightful” first prime minster but was somehow cheated out of the position by Nehru. Modi himself flirted with this thought when, in October last year, he attacked Nehru, bemoaning the fact that Patel would have made a better prime minster. More recently, politician Subramanian Swamy had a more detailed take on the matter:
Gandhiji took a vote of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents in 1946, and only one of the 16 PCC Presidents voted for Nehru. The other 15 voted for Sardar Patel. But Gandhiji asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for practical politics ‒ to hasten British departure.
This, as you may know, is an extremely popular tale on the internet. As you also might know, Pradesh Congress Committees voting to elect the prime minister is an absurd proposition ‒ a bit like Modi getting elected by BJP state units.
A variant of this conspiracy theory is that the Pradesh Congress Committees thought they were electing the Congress president (and not the prime minster). But the Congress president at the time of Independence somehow became prime minster (the exact process is never explained). Problems here too: Pradesh Congress Committees don’t elect Presidents, delegates of the All India Congress Committee do. Moreover, Nehru was not the Congress President when India gained independence, JB Kripalani was. Tragically, no one informed Kripalani of this mechanism and he remained bereft of prime ministership right until his dying day.
The simple reason as to why Nehru became PM was that he was, by far, the Congress’ most popular politician (after Gandhi, of course). Right from the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru was the party’s star campaigner, enthralling crowds with his Hindustani oratory. Patel had an iron grip on the Congress party itself but he was many miles behind Nehru as a popular leader. The Sardar himself conceded this: at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, he told American journalist Vincent Sheean, “They come for Jawahar, not for me.”
Thus, in 1946, when the Viceroy formed his interim government, Nehru was, unsurprisingly, given the highest post. Later, on August 15, 1947, he naturally took office as prime minster, without the least opposition from anyone in the Congress.
3) Patel bears as much responsiblity for Partition as Nehru
The most recent espousal of the theory that Nehru was responsible for Partition came via the RSS’s Kerala mouthpiece, which argued that Nathuram Godse should have targeted the first prime minister instead of Mahatma Gandhi since he was responsible for acceding to the creation of Pakistan.
Whatever be the wrongs of Partition, it was a decision taken jointly both Nehru and Patel. In fact, if anything, Patel was far more receptive to the idea and Nehru only came around much later and far more reluctantly. VP Menon, the architect of the Partition Plan, informs us that as far back as December 1946, Patel had accepted the division of India while Nehru would only acquiesce six months later. Abul Kalam Azad, a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, was disappointed with Patel’s support and writes in his memoir, India wins Freedom, that he was “surprised and pained when Patel in reply [to why Partition was needed] said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India”.
4) Patel did not want the Babri Masjid demolished
The birth of the BJP is inextricably linked with the movement it led to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and have a temple constructed in its place. Modi himself was a part of the movement, albeit as a low-level functionary. On December 6, 1992, frenzied mobs actually demolished the mosque, as top BJP leaders hugged each other and distributed sweets. Till today, the BJP has the construction of the Ram Temple on its manifesto.
The BJP would, therefore, be surprised to know that Patel did not share their enthusiasm in this matter. In 1949, a mob descended upon the Babri Masjid and, after chasing away the muezzin, installed an idol of Ram Lalla in order to claim it as a temple. Within a month of the incident, Patel shot off a letter to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, GB Pant warning that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force”.
Differing even more starkly from the final outcome of 1992, Patel opined that “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us”.