It required the direct intervention by the Rashtrapati Bhavan to settle the unsavoury controversy involving Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi over the seating arrangements on the dais at the inauguration of a community hall at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial here by President Pratibha Patil on Thursday.

The Society, a public charitable trust which runs the memorial at the erstwhile Raj Bhavan in the posh Shahibagh area, initially ignored the Chief Minister, not inviting him to the function.

Society sources admitted that the decision to ignore Mr. Modi was “purely political” as chairman Dinsha Patel, who is also the Union Minister of State for Small Industries, did not see eye to eye with him. Mr. Patel unsuccessfully contested against Mr. Modi in the December 2007 Assembly polls and has always been a bitter critic of the Chief Minister.

The sources claimed that the inauguration of the community hall was a “private function” and that the Rashtrapati Bhavan protocol division earlier confirmed that the Chief Minister’s presence was not compulsory at such “private functions.” Hence, the decision.

Pressure, however, mounted on Mr. Patel from various quarters, and a last-minute invitation was issued to Mr. Modi, but Mr. Patel refused to reprint the invitation cards to include his name.

On requests from the Chief Minister’s Office, Mr. Patel also agreed to accommodate Mr. Modi among the list of speakers and allotted him five minutes.

Mr. Patel, however, refused to budge on the CMO’s demand for Mr. Modi be seated next to President Patil with Governor S.C. Jamir on the other side. He insisted that as Society chairman, it was his right to occupy the chair on the President’s left, and that Mr. Modi would be seated next to the Governor. This was not acceptable to Mr. Modi.

The controversy remained unresolved till a communication was issued by the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Society sources said a message was sent by the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Tuesday night saying the President should be flanked by the Governor and the Chief Minister, with Mr. Patel seated at the right corner and the Society’s vice-chairman and industrialist, Karsan Patel, at the left corner after Mr. Modi.

Mr. Patel was left with no option. Mr. Modi also ignored Mr. Patel’s diktat to limit his speech to five minutes and went on to address the gathering for more than 10 minutes.

‘Sardar Patel should have been PM’

Mr. Modi said at the function that the “complexion of India” would have been different had Sardar Patel been made the first Prime Minister instead of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Criticising Nehruvian economic policies and his policy on China, Mr. Modi said Patel and Nehru always had serious differences of opinion, and had the Sardar been Prime Minister, “the farmers would not have been forced to commit suicide now.”

Mr. Patel later condemned Mr. Modi’s speech and told the media that the Chief Minister unnecessarily created a controversy more than six decades after Independence. Pointing out that Nehru was Gandhiji's choice, Mr. Patel said a leader like him would not have taken such an important decision without merit. Besides, Patel then was not keeping well when the country badly needed stability.

Pradesh Congress president Sidhhartha Patel and leader of the opposition in the Assembly Shaktisinh Gohil also condemned Mr. Modi’s statement as “unsuitable for the occasion” and “insulting” to the office of President. It was another attempt by Mr. Modi to play with the sentiments of the people of the State for petty personal political gains, they alleged.

In another development, traffic snarls also threatened to mar the function and many people could reach the venue only after the President left.

The Society said more than 5,000 invitation cards had been issued, but only 3,000 turned up in time. Only those who reached the venue before 9 a.m., about an hour and half before the schedule time, or made a detour of about 40 km to come via Koba on the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar highway, could make it to the function.

Police blocked all the roads from the city to Shahibagh. Traffic was supposed to be blocked on the President’s route for only 15 minutes to let her entourage pass, but all the roads except the one from the Gandhinagar side were blocked for nearly two and a half hours instead, and were opened only after the Presidential party left the venue. Many mediapersons could not reach the venue in time.

The President, in her address, narrated Sardar Patel’s qualities that made him the “Iron Man of India” and said India could emerge stronger only by following the path shown by the Sardar to strengthen the unity of the country.

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