Sharing the dais with Gujarat leader, Manmohan Singh counters that the Iron Man was a Congressman

Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections, asserted here on Tuesday that post-Independence India would have been different had Sardar Patel been the country’s first Prime Minister. To this, Congress leader and Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who shared the dais with Mr. Modi, responded that Vallabhbhai Patel was a truly secular Congress leader who stood for a united India.

They were speaking at a keenly watched function where Dr. Singh inaugurated a renovated and upgraded Sardar Patel Memorial Museum. The function was held under the aegis of the Sardar Patel Memorial Society chaired by Union Minister of State for Mines and Congress leader Dinsha Patel.

The speeches by the Prime Minister and the Gujarat Chief Minister came on the eve of the ground-breaking ceremony for a 182-metre statue of Sardar Patel, a prestigious project initiated by Mr. Modi, at Sadhu Bet, 3 km from the Sardar Sarovar dam site. The museum and statue projects are interpreted as a tussle between the Congress and the BJP to claim the Sardar Patel legacy.

Speaking as the chief guest, the Prime Minister made an indirect reference to a recent claim by Mr. Modi that Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first Prime Minister, did not attend Sardar Patel’s funeral in 1950 and stated that the Iron Man spoke very highly of Nehru as a “respected friend and colleague” despite differences of opinion.

“[The] Sardar said it was his privilege to be able to advise Nehru on issues of governance and organisation and that Nehru would eagerly have his advice. Both immensely respected each other’s views and this is possible only between those who have faith in each other,” Dr. Singh said.

The Prime Minister went on: “Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were all secular, broad-minded, tolerant, had compassion for the poor and stood for a united India.”

Dr. Singh reminded the audience that “Sardar Patel belonged to the Congress and worked hard to strengthen the party as its president.” And then the Prime Minister said: “I too belong to the same party.”

Speaking earlier, Mr. Modi said it was time to learn from Sardar Patel’s hard work to preserve the country’s unity and integrity and to channel “some misguided youth” to shun “the gun and the bomb”.

“No community or country could benefit from violence, and it is time we take inspiration from Sardar Patel,” the Chief Minister said. He regretted that the Iron Man could not become the first Prime Minister.

The Chief Minister did not miss the opportunity to say that during the last decade, Gujarat has received nearly 200 awards for its achievements, including 90 from the UPA government. He thanked the Prime Minister for this.

Tuesday’s was a rare function in many years when Mr. Modi shared the dais with his Congress opponents, including his one-time BJP senior Shankersinh Vaghela, now Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly.

It was also an unusual function in Gujarat where Mr. Modi’s photograph was conspicuous by its absence though he was a special guest. The background banner had the photographs of only Sardar Patel and the Prime Minister.

But, in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion, Mr. Modi was seen sharing banter with Dr. Singh as they sat together.