First published on NewsYaps
Last week saw the resurrection of a rather old controversy: who owns the legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel? Invited by the Prime Minster to inaugurate a museum on Patel, Modi, with characteristic rudeness, used the platform to attack Nehru, bemoaning the fact that Patel wasn’t chosen as the first Prime Minster of a Free India. Singh, though, came back with a spirited reply, pointing out the fact that Patel, just like himself, was a Congressman and believed in secularism.
This is the latest outbreak of a long simmering controversy, the biggest expression of which (literally) is the Statueof Unity that Modi plans to build. A statue of Patel, the monument will be the tallest statue in the world and will cost a whopping Rs 2,500 crore. To put this in perspective, this is almost equal to the Rs 2,700 crore the entire state of Gujarat spent on education last year. Of course, in spite of this monumental wastage, unlike Mayawati’s rather more modest statues (2,987th tallest in the world) there has been no brouhaha over it amongst the urban middle class. Welcome to post-caste India, ladies and gentleman, where some statues are more #1 than others.
Of course, much of this is a manufactured controversy. While Singh was factually correct when he pointed out that Patel was a Congressman, his implication that his legacy only belonged to the current-day Congress was not.
The fact of the matter is the both the Congress and BJP are miles away from the pre-independence Congress built by Gandhi and Singh’s party has no monopoly over claiming this legacy. Firstly, the Congress has ignored almost every politician who isn’t a Nehru-Gandhi. Ironically, even Nehru stands forgotten by the current party, with Rajiv towering over his naana if we measure stature by counting things that each have named after them. Patel’s forgotten legacy was ripe for the picking.
Secondly, given Patel’s largely Right-wing bent, it is hardly unnatural that the BJP/RSS would look to his legacy as a source of inspiration. Given how the hard Right (the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha) were mostly absent during the freedom struggle, Patel is a best fit.
In this whole rush by some sections of the Congress and the media to delegitimise the current Right’s claim on Patel, what is often forgotten is that the pre-independence Congress party was largely a Right-of centre part. It was pro-capitalist (being controlled by the middle and upper classes) and religion was a huge and, indeed, integral part of its functioning. It was also, almost exclusively, a Hindu party (in membership, not necessarily in ideology), its programmes being almost completely devoid of Muslim participation, a natural consequence of which was that in 1946, it failed to win even a single Muslim seat across the sub-continent (in the central assembly, which later on went to become the Constituent Assembly).
Of course, the Congress did have a Left-wing but it was feeble and largely ineffective. Socialist like JP and Kripalani were so powerless within the party that they eventually left the Congress to form socialist parties of their own.
Post-1947, though, Nehru, using his enormous utility as a vote-catcher, tried to effect a significant turnaround. Economically, contrary to the generally held view, Nehru was fairly open to foreign capital; indeed, he was desperate for it. Relations with Britain remained strong—the USSR alliance is more a creation of Indira than her father. It was with respect to religion in politics though, that Nehru was able to launch a determined and, in retrospect, remarkable rear guard action. In speech after speech, Nehru insisted that India was not going to become a "Hindu Pakistan" and that religion had no space in the business of governance in India.
In this, Patel, the tallest leader of the Right-wing (which was, remember, still the strongest bloc within the party) was less than impressed. Till his death Patel clashed constantly with Nehru and often had his way, installing Rajendra Prasad as the first President (whose abiding contribution to our history will remain his opposition and delaying of the Hindu code bills which modernised Hindu personal law) and PD Tandon as the Congress President, defeating Nehru’s candidate Kripalani. Patel was also the person responsible for initiating the Somnath Temple project and if it wasn’t for his death and Nehru’s opposition, Independent India might have started its innings as a modern nation by spending its time and resources building places of worship. But, of course, what endears Patel most to the BJP might be his hard-line stance on Muslims, post-Partition. The Sardar made it very clear that he did not trust Muslims after their role in supporting the League. In a letter to Nehru, Patel bluntly wrote:
“Muslim citizens in India have a responsibility to remove the doubts and misgivings entertained by a large section of the population about their loyalty [to India]”
In another remarkably Orwellian incident (that occurred, ironically, the same year that 1984 was published), Patel’s Home Ministry wrote a letter to the secretaries of all other departments instructing them to produce a list of all Muslim employees whose “loyalty to the Dominion of India is suspected”. Once identified for committing this Thoughtcrime, the members of this list would be excluded from “holding key positions or handling confidential or secret work.”
Given these facets of Patel, it's very understandable that the RSS/BJP would look to cast him as their political predecessor.
That said, for all his warts, Patel was still very removed in degree, if not in orientation, from the current ideology of the RSS/BJP. This gulf becomes the sharpest when one recalls that Patel actually did what no Indian government could do after him: he banned the RSS. He called the RSS a “clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State” and blamed them for vitiating the atmosphere which led to his mentor’s murder. “The followers of the Sangh have celebrated Gandhiji's assassination by distributing sweets, " Patel complained bitterly in a letter to SP Mukherjee.
Even more remarkable was Patel’s position on the Babri Masjid controversy that had just broken out in 1948. In a letter to PD Tandon (and a key mover in getting the then functional masjid converted into a temple), Patel warned Tandon that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force. In that case, the force of law and order will have to maintain peace at all costs.” He also made it clear that the solution would have to be a joint one and “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us." A rather far cry from the BJP chant of “Babar ki Aulad, Wapas Jao” and “Ek Dhakka aur Do” as it illegally tore the mosque down.
And, of course, in what would be called “minority appeasement” today, Patel in a speech in the Constituent Assembly said, “it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel and imagine how we would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated." How very sickular.
Right and Left are relative terms, and their meaning depends much on time and context. In Pakistan, the PPP, a party which banned Ahmedis from calling themselves Muslim (I would use the term ‘Orwellian’ but what’s the use), is considered Leftist. In the Indian context, it's instructive to see how much the definition of the Right has changed. Patel—a man who banned the RSS, called for consensus on the Babri Masjid issue and spoke about the plight of minorities in post-Partition India—was once the leader of the Right wing in India. Today, the leader of the Right-wing in India is an RSS swayamsevak, belonging to a party which literally demolished the Babri Masjid and thinks that minorities, far from being oppressed, are “baby-making factories” which are being mollycoddled by the state.
Possibly, the real lesson from this attempt by Modi to draw a descent from Patel is to contrast the two and see how drastically and fanatically to the Right, India has shifted in the 60-odd years since Independence.