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Why Modi is constructing a 'taller' leader

November 07, 2013 12:33 IST

In embarking on building the world's tallest statue, Modi is hoping his stature will also rise -- if not across India then at least in Gujarat, says Bharat Bhushan.

The construction of a 182-metre statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the tallest in the world, is also about adding inches to the stature of Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate. Modi’s election campaign is an example of how a clever agenda set by a challenger can put the ruling party on the back foot.

The icons of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are so far removed from the public imagination that if the organisation’s one-time proselytiser (pracharak) Modi were to build a statue of its founder Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar or his mentor Dr B S Moonje, or even the subsequent heads of the organisation such as Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar or Rajendra Singh, it would have no resonance with the public. Most Indians would not recognise these people or their contribution, even if their pictures might adorn the walls of RSS offices across the country.

Although they helped shape his ideology and political life, Modi is unlikely to get any brand rub-off from building their statues. It would not put the Congress on the defensive nor, crucially, do any of them have an all-India or a Gujarat-specific appeal.

Sardar Patel, however, is the tallest leader that Gujarat has produced after Mahatma Gandhi. Unlike the RSS leaders, he also had an all-India appeal. He was a leader of the farmers and had the gumption (did he have any choice as the home minister of newly-independent India?) to order police action against two Muslim rulers, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Nawab of Junagarh, who wanted to opt for Pakistan after Partition.

The RSS and its acolytes never looked up to Gandhi. They hold him responsible for the partition of India and being soft on the newly-created state of Pakistan. His secularism was seen as “weak” and effete by militarising and militant Hindus.

Patel, on the other hand, was “strong” -- taming recalcitrant Muslim rulers who wanted India to look moth-eaten -- and balanced his strength with his Hinduism by rebuilding the SomnathTemple. The significance of rebuilding Somnath cannot be missed by the Hindutva votaries because the temple was destroyed by Muslim raiders and rulers several times -- including Mahmud of Ghazni, Allauddin Khilji’s army and Aurangzeb.

When it was rebuilt with funds collected from the public in 1950 by Sardar Patel and K M Munshi, a mosque situated at the site was shifted a few miles away. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as a moderniser, distanced himself from the mobilisation for the reconstruction, seeing it as an attempt at Hindu revivalism. The context was of an India that had decided to be avowedly secular, despite the communal carnage and the logic of creating an Islamic Pakistan staring it in the face. However, some of his cabinet colleagues and President Rajendra Prasad saw the reconstruction as righting a historical wrong done to the Hindus.

In Patel’s association with the Somnath reconstruction, today’s Hindutva votaries see a template for “righting” other historical wrongs -- whether it be in trying to construct a Ram temple at Ayodhya, removing the Gyanvapi mosque near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, or reclaiming Krishna Janmabhumi in Mathura.

This is what “Patel’s secularism” means in Modi’s Orwellian Newspeak that allows the equation of “communal” with “secular”. The new language where words mean the opposite of their meaning has been evolving among Hindutva ideologues for some time -- secular first became “pseudo-secular” and is now “secular fundamentalism”, and “communalism” has become “secularism” that India needs and which now Modi claims to uphold.

Make no mistake, embracing inclusive politics at this late stage of his intellectual life would make no sense to Modi whose success in politics was paved by entirely different principles -- of communal polarisation and violent riots. If Patel united India, Modi has tended to divide its people. Yet, he needs Patel’s legacy to make it permissible to reconstruct Hindu temples destroyed by Muslim rulers, be tough on those who are seen by the State as challenging India’s unity and integrity – modern-day terrorists and the suspect community they come from. He is only attempting a clever re-branding exercise to repackage the communalism of the BJP.

Modi wants a political dividend from Patel -- not only as a secular leader who was not embarrassed to be a Hindu but also as the son of the soil who was “strong”. It is not for nothing that his public relations functionaries have time and again tried to project him as “Chota Sardar” (the Little Sardar), the modern-day inheritor of Sardar Patel’s legacy

In embarking on building the tallest statue in the world, Modi is hoping that his stature would also rise -- if not in rest of India then at least in his home state of Gujarat. He needs to bag most of the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat -- in 2009 his party won only 15 of them. For this he is seeking to unite Gujaratis by suggesting that a historical wrong was done to Patel, and he is somehow righting that by building his statue.

The lie that Nehru did not attend the funeral of Patel (later retracted in the face of historical facts) and the attack on the Nehru-Gandhi family fits in well with the psychological profile of the Sangh Parivar and its proclivity to promote conspiracy theories.

That Nehru prevented Patel from becoming the first prime minister of India is one of a kind with other popular conspiracy theories propounded by the RSS and its acolytes -- that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple or that Subhas Chandra Bose did not die in a plane crash in Taipei in August 1948 but lived on as Gumnami Baba in Uttar Pradesh till 1985. By propagating such theories the RSS and the BJP hope to erode the influence of the Nehru-Gandhi family in Indian politics. The hope is that the more Patel is projected as the tallest icon of post-Independence India, the political goodwill that Nehru and his progeny enjoy would also be diminished.

The writer is a journalist based in Delhi

Bharat Bhushan
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