In the past few days, political parties have vied with each other to lay claim to the political legacy of India’s first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and to build their own partisan narratives around the beliefs that are thought to have defined him. As elections approach, the re-imagining of Patel as one of India’s strongest leaders is clearly intended to shore up the images of the respective leaders invoking his memory. The Congress, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself, has claimed ownership of Patel on the ground that essentially, he was a loyal Congressman. The Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi has not just recast Patel in its own image but has sought to project a historically unsound thesis that there was a divide between the two greats of pre- and post-Independence India — Patel, and the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The historical record is quite to the contrary. Both leaders held each other in the highest esteem. They disagreed on the execution of certain policies but they placed the interests of the newly-born nation above everything else, and repeatedly reaffirmed their faith in each other. Unfortunately, current-day politics thrives on dramatic stereotypes designed to excite the popular imagination, which inevitably sacrifices the nuances and subtleties of the real historical picture.
Mr. Modi has conflated Patel’s role in integrating India into a united, independent nation with projections for how the country might have fared had he been at the helm instead of Nehru. Given that Patel died in 1950, such theoretical speculation is futile. Patel had real concerns that the welding together of the states — the stimulus for which he admitted “has come from above rather than below” — would not hold, leading to the “danger of collapse and chaos,” according to V.P. Menon, Patel’s close confidant. It is a tribute to that remarkable nation-builder that the Indian Union has not just survived but is today a force to reckon with globally, as a leading democracy. The BJP’s political bid to reposition Patel’s place in the Indian pantheon of heroes is of a piece with its angst at the perceived dominance of the Nehru dynasty. It is indisputable that more than half of all Centrally sponsored schemes and programmes are named after one or another member of the Congress’s ‘first’ family. Yet, the question arises if the only way to correct this imbalance is by building the tallest statue anywhere of the Sardar. Had he been alive today, Patel would have been distressed at this showmanship, especially knowing the objective of the exercise was to elevate him over Nehru with whom, as he noted in a letter, he shared “mutual love and regard.”