India Today - - THE BIG PICTURE - David Hardi­man is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of War­wick, UK

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.

SAU­RABH SINGH/­di­a­to­day­im­

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