Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kept at least one of the promises he had made in the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections—of installing in Gujarat what will briefly be the world’s tallest statue, honouring one of the state’s illustrious leaders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister. It will soon be overshot by the Chhatrapati Shivaji statue coming up off the coast of Mumbai. The irony of the prime minister, who has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), extolling the man who banned the RSS after the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi should not be lost.

But Modi doesn’t have a choice. The men—and usually they are men—that the RSS looks up to are not considered heroes by the majority of Indians. So Modi has to appropriate heroes of other parties and movements, as long as they aren’t called Gandhi or Nehru.

Patel isn’t the first non-Hindutva hero Modi has discovered. Think of Subhas Chandra Bose, whom Modi attempted to imitate a couple of weeks ago, even wearing a cap of the Indian National Army, and all but naming Bose, who proclaimed India independent in Singapore at a cinema hall in 1943, as India’s first prime minister. (If proclamations were enough, then Jawaharlal Nehru had unfurled the Tricolour on the banks of the Ravi in 1930, but let that pass). The same Bose, who had named his regiments after Gandhi, Nehru, and Abul Kalam Azad, and not after Vinayak Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, or Keshav Baliram Hedgewar; Bose, who published the Azad Hind Times in Hindustani but in the Roman script, so as not to privilege the Devanagari-reading Hindus, Urdu-reading Muslims, or Gurmukhi-reading Sikhs; Bose, whose politics would be pilloried today by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as urban Naxalism.

And why stop at Bose? Earlier, there was Bhagat Singh, another candidate for the ‘urban Naxal’ tag, whom the BJP claimed as its own while ignoring his revolutionary Marxism and atheism. And there was Bhimrao Ambedkar to attack Gandhi with, though many Hindus wanted his book, Riddles in Hinduism, banned.

And so it is Patel—disciple of Gandhi, ally of Nehru, and the man whose ban on the RSS was lifted only after it promised not to participate in politics—who is now the BJP’s hero.

The BJP’s fascination with Patel rests partly on the premise that Patel is neglected in India. While Patel championed the rebuilding of the Somnath temple, few BJP leaders make that the reason to honour him. They cite his commitment to India’s national unity, as if other Congress leaders had other commitments. There is also the speculation, popular within circles close to the BJP, that had Patel become India’s first prime minister, the country would have taken a different—presumably better—path. But Patel would have still died in 1950—and that would have meant Nehru would have most likely become India’s leader then, and ruled till 1964, leaving an impact almost as large as at present.

Regardless of Patel’s presumed support for Hindu nationalism, he would not have wanted Muslims to be told where not to pray, what not to eat, what not to trade, who not to fall in love with, and to know their place as second-class citizens; nor would Dalits be whipped; nor would farmers and peasants be facing an unprecedented crisis; and nor would Patels themselves be demanding benefits. A state that voted for an opposition party wouldn’t have to rely only on federal mercy to recover from catastrophic floods.

The real audacity lies in the claim that Patel is neglected. In Gujarat alone, the Ahmedabad airport and a major bridge are named after him and a university town carries his name. Many Indian cities have his statues. In Mumbai, a major road and a stadium are named after him, as is an important school in Delhi and the nation’s police academy. Gujarat’s lifeline, the Narmada River, has its Sardar Sarovar.

Patel knew the role he was expected to play. As a friend recalled recently, Patel’s daughter Maniben Patel (who took part in the Borsad and Bardoli satyagrahas during the freedom struggle and who was a member of the Congress (O) and later the Janata Party) noted, when Patel was asked what he’d have thought of Gandhi choosing Nehru over him to be India’s prime minister, he said, “E vaat no mane ranj nathi ane dankh nathi “ (I have neither rancour nor have I suffered any pain over it).

Patel united Indians to fight a common enemy—British rule—and got peasants in Gujarat to rise in support of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. He used his skills to lure, threaten and compel India’s princely states to give up their delusions of grandeur and join independent India. He stayed loyal to the Congress.

The real tragedy is that in constructing the statue (and the Sardar Sarovar project), the Gujarat state (and indeed the Indian republic) ignored the rights of India’s most marginalized communities, taking away their land and disrupting their livelihoods, to build monuments whose long term purpose and value will always remain questionable. For Patel believed in not only unity, but a unity that respects India’s diversity.

Patel was a tall man who does not need propping up. He could see the larger vision of India that Gandhi had. The politicians in his shadow, who would like to bask in some reflected glory, had neither sacrificed for India’s freedom, nor understood his politics. More likely, the rancour and pain he would feel would be over what has become of India and the bad faith in which his name is being used.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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