THE IRON HARVEST
Narendra Modi has announced plans to erect a gigantic iron statue in Gujarat of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first home minister and deputy prime minister of independent India. Patel, who had a reputation for his decisive, no-nonsense approach to leadership, has often been described as ‘The Iron Man of India’. While most commentators have interpreted this as an idolisation of the major Congress leader of the first half of the twentieth century that the Hindu Right most admires, some have wondered why he is using a material that soon becomes tarnished and rusty. Is this a subtle insult to the Sardar? After all, as home minister in 1948, it was Patel who banned the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.
In the mythology of the Hindu Right, it is asserted that if Gandhi had chosen Patel rather than Jawaharlal Nehru as his political heir, many of India’s problems would have been resolved from the start. He would, it is claimed, have created a firmly ‘Hindu’ India rather than the ‘pseudo-secular’ India of Nehru’s dreams. Although Patel’s political career had been forged as a particularly successful leader of nonviolent Gandhian satyagrahas, it is well-known that he did not, unlike Gandhi, have a moral commitment to nonviolence. In 1942, he put in place the conditions for a mass uprising in Gujarat that involved rowdy and violent protests, sabotage of state property and terrorist attacks. Though Patel was arrested right at the start of the movement, his followers carried out his instructions, causing considerable disruption during that year. Then, once he gained power as home minister in 1947, he used the full apparatus of the state and its army to enforce law and order using violence if necessary.
The Hindu Right celebrates the Patel of the Partition period for his supposed ‘realism’ towards the Muslims who remained in India. While Gandhi insisted that they be considered full and equal citizens without any question, Patel doubted their commitment to the Indian state. He demanded that Muslims who remained in India must demonstrate their active and practical commitment to the new state. He told them to denounce Pakistan unequivocally. In this, he was taking for granted the loyalty of Hindus, while calling into question that of Muslims. Gandhi reprimanded Patel for this, and the dispute on this matter was still simmering at the time of Gandhi’s assassination.
Although it is true that Patel banned the he had for long admired its sense of discipline and patriotism. He also shared with it a strong hatred of communists. He was the one who negotiated at this time with the imprisoned RSS supremo, M.S. Golwalkar, urging him to merge the RSS within the Congress party and accept the new Indian Constitution. Golwalkar turned this proposal down. Instead, he drafted his own
RSS constitution and sent it to the government. In July 1949, after much negotiation with the home department, the ban on the organisation was lifted. The stage was thus set for the RSS to gradually rebuild its popularity and strength in independent India.
One of the striking features of this process in Gujarat was the way the RSS reached out from beyond its traditional urban high caste base to include the dominant rural community in Gujarat, the Patidars, or Patels. This community had been strong supporters of the Gandhian Congress in the pre-independence period, and then after independence until the late 1960s. When the Congress split occurred between the Congress (I) of Indira Gandhi and the Congress (O) of Morarji Desai, the Patels gravitated towards the latter.
They supported this party in its transformations in the 1970s into the Janata Party of Morarji Desai, led in Gujarat by the Patidar Babubhai Jashbhai Patel. Once that disintegrated in the late 1970s, they went over to the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani. The Patels supported the anti-reservation agitations of the 1980s and subsequently the Ayodhya movement of the 1990s. The first
BJP chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel, was from that community. In constructing a statue of the great Patidar hero, Vallabhbhai Patel, Modi is acknowledging this crucial support base.
For Modi, Sardar Patel connotes many positive qualities. Above all, he is seen as the model strong leader and Hindu nationalist, and Modi clearly sees himself in a similar light. Indeed, as today’s ‘Iron Man’ of Gujarat, he hopes to go one better than Patel and become the prime minister of the Indian nation, rectifying—in his mind—the many errors of the Nehruvian state. Indeed, if things go well for him politically, one day there may also be a mega iron Modi alongside that of the iron Sardar. Nonetheless, in building such a tasteless monument, he appears to be emulating the repulsive megalomania of a Mayawati, rather than the low-key but firm style of the actual Congress stalwart, Vallabhbhai Patel.
As today’s ‘Iron Man’ of Gujarat, Modi hopes to rectify, in his mind, the many errors of the Nehruvian state.