First published in Scroll.in
Modi idolises Patel and pushes him as a counter to Nehru’s legacy. However Patel’s wariness of the RSS’ capacity for violence or his opposition against using force to settle the Babri Masjid dispute might leave the Prime Minster in an awkward spot
Already preparing for a long reign, Modi has started to press history into service, building up the political capital needed for an extended stint in the PM’s chair. Grabbing at past icons rather indiscriminately, the Prime Minister has referenced the staunchly secular Nehru, his dynasty-loving daughter, Indira and socialist, Jai Prakash Narayan. Gandhi’s vision of cleanliness was bought on for the Swachch Bharat campaign, quietly setting aside the Sangh Parivar’s disagreements with the Mahatma’s legacy. Less oxymoronically, Modi has also called upon more right-wing icons such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madanmohan Malaviya.
Even in this crowded firmament, the brightest star from Modi’s point of view is obvious: Vallabhbhai Patel. Modi has fashioned himself closely after the Sardar, right from his days as Chief Minister. He promised to build a statue of Patel which would be the tallest statue in the world and is estimated to cost a whopping Rs 2,500 crore. Not surprisingly, Modi seems to have chalked out big plans for Patel’s birthday (which is today) declaring it to be "Rashtriya Ekta Diwas" or “National Unity Day”.
Of course, historical figures are complex three dimensional characters and often, the Patel that Modi or the larger Sangh Parivar might imagine, would differ quite a bit from the historical Sardar. Here are four such instances when the real Patel might leave Modi cold:
Patel loved/hated the RSS
The Sangh Parivar has claimed ideological kindredship with Patel for some time now. In 1966, M.S. Golwalkar, supremo of the RSS wrote in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, “We were fortunate that we had in Sardar Patel a person with an iron will to face the reality in those days”.
Modi, who considers Gowalkar a “guru worthy of worship” naturally has a similarly positive view about the Sardar. Liberals, on the other hand have tended to discredit the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to invoke Patel. Ramchandra Guha, for example, thinks it is ironic that Patel is being claimed by the BJP when he “was himself a lifelong Congressman”.
No matter his being a Congressman, as a conservative, Patel certainly had common ground, ideologically, with the RSS. Three weeks before Gandhi’s assassination, Patel warmly invited swayamsevaks to join the Congress: “In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by the virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen, by love.”
Things changed sharply after Gandhi’s assassination, however. While the direct involvement of the RSS was never pursued in a court of law, the fact that the RSS’ ideology was responsible for motivating Godse was quite clear. In his letter of July 18, 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee after Gandhi’s murder, the Sardar wrote:
“… as [a] result of the activities of these two bodies[the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha], particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasbha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State.”
Patel banned the RSS just after Gandhi’s assassination but also unbanned them after a year and a half. However, wary of their proclivity towards of violence, Patel ensured that this unbanning would come with a rider: the RSS would not take part in politics. Within a year, however, the RSS had broken their promise, pushing the Jan Sangh as its political arm. Later on the Jan Sangh would morph into the modern-day BJP.
Patel deserved to be Prime Minster but Nehru stole his crown
It is often imagined by the Indian Right that Patel was the “rightful” Prime Minster but was somehow cheated out of it by Nehru. Modi himself skirted with this thought when, back in October last year, he attacked Nehru, bemoaning that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster. More recently, Subramanian Swamy had a more detailed take on the matter:
Gandhiji took a vote of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents in 1946, and only one of the 16 PCC Presidents voted for Nehru. The other 15 voted for Sardar Patel. But Gandhiji asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for practical politics — to hasten British departure.
This is, of course, as many of you might know, an extremely popular tale on the Internet across a number of blogs. As you also might know, PCCs voting to elect the Prime Minister is an absurd proposition—a bit like Modi getting elected by BJP state units.
A variant of this conspiracy theory is that the PCCs were electing the Congress president (and not the Prime Minster). The Congress president at the time of independence would somehow become Prime Minster (the exact process is never explained). Problems here too: PCCs don’t elect Presidents, AICC delegates do. Moreover, Nehru was not the Congress President when India gained independence, JB Kripalani was. Tragically, no one informed Kripalani of this mechanism and he remained bereft of prime ministership right until his dying day.
The simple reason as to why Nehru became PM was that he was, by far, the Congress’ most popular politician (after Gandhi, of course). Right from the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru was the party’s star campaigner, enthralling crowds with his Hindustani oratory. Patel had an iron grip on the Congress party itself but he was many a mile behind Nehru as a popular leader. The Sardar himself conceded this: at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, he told American journalist Vincent Sheean, “They come for Jawahar, not for me”.
Thus, in 1946, when the Viceroy formed his interim government, Nehru was, unsurprisingly, given the highest post. Later, on 15 August 1947, he naturally took office as Prime Minster, without the least opposition from anyone in the Congress.
Nehru is often blamed for Partition by the Sangh Parivar but Patel never is
The most recent espousal of this theory came via the RSS’ Kerala mouthpiece which put forth the argument that Nathuram Godse should have targeted Jawaharlal Nehru instead of Mahatma Gandhi since he was responsible for Partition.
Whatever be the rights and wrongs of Partition, this was a decision taken jointly both Nehru and Patel. In fact, if anything, Patel was far more receptive to the idea and Nehru only came around much later and far more reluctantly. VP Menon, the architect of the Partition Plan, informs us that as far back as December 1946, Patel had accepted the division of India while Nehru would only acquiesce 6 months later. Abul Kalam Azad, a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, was disappointed with Patel’s support and writes in his memoir, India wins Freedom, that he was “surprised and pained when Patel in reply [to why Partition was needed] said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India.”
Patel did not want the Babri Masjid demolished
The birth of the BJP is inextricably linked with the movement it led to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and have a temple constructed in its place. Modi himself was a part of the movement, albeit as a low-level functionary. In December 6, 1992, frenzied mobs even demolished the mosque, as top BJP leaders hugged each other and distributed sweets. Till today, the BJP has the construction of the Ram Temple on its manifesto.
The BJP would, therefore, be surprised to know that Patel did now share their enthusiasm in this matter. In 1949, a mob descended upon the Babri Masjid and, after chasing away the muezzin, installed the idol of Ram Lalla in order to claim it as a temple. Within a month of the incident, Patel shot of a letter to the then CM of Uttar Pradesh, GB Pant warning that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force”. Differing even more starkly from the final outcome of 1992, Patel opined that “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us”.