SONS OF SARDAR
In a fun new book, If Kennedy Lived: An Alternate History, on what would have happened had John F. Kennedy survived the assassination of November 22, 1963, Jeff Greenfield argues that there would have been no Vietnam but no civil rights act either. There would also have been a second inaugural gala where The Beach Boys and Roy Orbison would have sung, and The Beatles would have been introduced to the White House with the classic quote: “Not since the British burned the White House in 1812 has a foreign invader conquered our land as swiftly and thoroughly as have John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” But the BJP is not indulging in counterfactual history for intellectual stimulation. There is a bigger game at play—creating new national icons of Hindutva since their own, Veer Savarkar, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, are entirely limited in their appeal. The BJP, more specifically L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi, have long tried to appropriate Swami Vivekananda, but he is too “secular” for their liking. That leaves the Sardar, as Jawaharlal Nehru liked to call him.
Vallabhbhai Patel was a great administrator and extraordinary unifier who outwitted several maharajas, Lord Mountbatten and the crafty C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar; and he had the complete support of the party cadre. Qualities Modi aspires to. Plus, he is the only Congress leader in independent India who could compare with Nehru. There is a third reason. Before Modi discovered the Iron Man, Advani loved to style himself on Sardar Patel, even choosing the same portfolio, home, and the same designation of deputy prime minister. But in raising the “what if” bogey, Modi is repudiating Mahatma Gandhi, an even greater Indian, who also happens to be a son of Gujarat. If anyone was responsible for Nehru becoming prime minister, it was Mahatma Gandhi. Patel was the overwhelming choice of 12 of the 15 Pradesh Congress Committees as Congress president in 1945 but Gandhi made Patel withdraw his name. Advani may well quote from civil servant MKK Nair’s book to say that Nehru called Patel communal but perhaps he should also quote from his eulogy where he called him a friend, a colleague and a comrade above all, at whose absence he would feel “rather forlorn”.
Patel acceded to Gandhi’s wish because he was a loyal Congressman. There was room for principled disagreement within Congress those days—between Gandhi, the non-official leader; Maulana, the official leader; Nehru, the de facto leader; and Sardar, the dynamic leader. Gandhi felt that Nehru was more suited to the post of prime minister because of his charisma and popularity. He was also younger than Patel by 14 years.
In revisiting who became prime minister, Modi and BJP are re-righting history, a hobby Murli Manohar Joshi converted into a fullscale cottage industry during NDA rule. This re-righting also serves a far more subversive purpose, one that has always been on the RSS agenda. Questioning Gandhi’s deified status, as someone who they saw as appeasing both Muslims and foreign states, notably Pakistan, says historian David Hardiman.
In restoring Patel, Modi seems to be setting right a historical wrong. But he also does a great disservice to Patel, projecting him as a victim, which he never was. And even if Patel would have been prime minister, he would not have created a Ram Rajya where Sanskrit would have been the national language and cow worship the national obsession. Educated in England, he loved wearing western clothes—till he discovered Gandhi— and though he didn’t exactly spawn a dynasty, he did have a son who became an MP. Doesn’t that sound almost like Nehru?
IN RESTORING PATEL, MODI SEEMS TO BE SETTING RIGHT A HISTORICAL WRONG. BUT HE ALSO DOES A GREAT DISSERVICE TO PATEL, PROJECTING HIM AS A VICTIM, WHICH HE NEVER WAS. AND EVEN IF PATEL WOULD HAVE BEEN PRIME MINISTER, HE WOULD NOT HAVE CREATED A RAM RAJYA.