Thanks to Modi, Sardar Patel lives again - and 'true secularism' is discovered
Our scientists lift us up to Mars, our politicians drag us down to the pits. The cameras on Mangalyaan will not make our dogfighting parties look any better. Not when Sardar Patel himself is turned into a battle axe to hit one another with. Narendra Modi’s bid for the legacy of Sardar Patel is understandable. But trying to win it by erecting the world’s biggest statue is condemnable. Size is not substance. More importantly, the politics of the Patel statue is divisive and it will diminish India.
We have become a statue-obsessed nation. Standing/sitting/waving Ambedkars, Gandhis, Nehrus and Indiras dot every town. The proliferation is mostly a triumph of commercial art. A statue of Kengal Hanumanthaiah, builder of Bangalore’s famous Vidhan Soudha, was so unlike him that the authorities were forced to remove it from the Soudha’s premises. The replacement had a better turban, but the face was still alien. Justice to sculptural aesthetics was done only by a few. Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury’s Dandi March at Delhi’s Willingdon Crescent, Triumph of Labour in Chennai’s Marina Beach, Memorial to Martyrs in Patna are among the finest. Ram Vanji Sutar’s bronze Gandhi opposite Parliament’s Gate No. 1 throbs with life.
Narendra Modi and others in his political universe are not known for aesthetic sensibilities. So they go for the cheap alternative—a monolith taller, larger, hulkier, more colossal than anything else on earth. Some 70,000 villagers are to be displaced for developing the gigantic project. They organised protests but were “silenced”, according to their spokesmen in South Gujarat.
Modi underlined the politics behind the resurrection of Sardar Patel when he said that Patel was “truly secular” while the Congress was following “votebank secularism”. That is true of all parties today. The BJP is following “votebank Hindutva” while the Muslim parties are following “votebank Islam”. Ditto with Sikhs, Christians, Bhoomihars, Vanniars, Nairs. The Sardar, though as devoted a Hindu as Gandhi, never used religion for political ends. On the contrary, fighting communal politics was their life’s mission. Therefore, if Modi wants to inherit the Patel legacy, he will have to become “truly secular” like Patel. Can he?
For that matter, can he comprehend the subtleties that lie beyond his simplistic thesis that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister than Nehru. We can debate this “if” of history till the end of time. Would C Rajagopalachari have made a better Prime Minister? Would Rajendra Prasad? Any of them would have been more focused as a consolidator of India because none of them had either the family weaknesses that made Nehru promote his sister and daughter and sundry cousins in public life, or Nehru’s emotional linkages that led to the Mountbattens “advising” on Kashmir policy until it became intractable, unsolvable and a dreadful disgrace.
The real missed opportunity, however, revolved round the growth of a monolithic Congress in defiance of the natural laws of democracy. When Independence arrived, there was a clear ideological division between conservatives and socialists. The Congress Socialist Party had a galaxy of stars, from Jayaprakash Narayan and Achyut Patwardhan to Ram Manohar Lohia and Narendra Deva. They were thwarted by Jawaharlal Nehru’s refusal to support them. He, a professed socialist, ended up with professed anti-socialists such as Morarji Desai, S K Patil and Jagjivan Ram, turning India into a madhouse of policies. If he and JP had headed an Indian Socialist Party and Patel and Rajagopalachari an Indian Conservative Party, a healthy party system would have developed. Now the monolith is in a shambles and India left to count its lost years.
Today’s Congress does not even have the moral right to blame Narendra Modi for trying to hijack the Patel legacy. Where was the Congress all these years when that legacy remained neglected in the attic? The Congress, in its obsession with the Indira dynasty, tried to depersonalise men like Patel and Narasimha Rao. But historical figures of that stature cannot be erased. It is the dynasty that will eventually have to go, because in a democracy dynasty is an unnatural idea. As unnatural as Narendra Modi praising “true secularism”.