Attempts to glorify Sardar Patel are a part of Modi govt’s larger efforts to give due recognition to national ‘heroes’ outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
New Delhi: True to his style and politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 182-metre tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in a grand, ostentatious event in Gujarat Wednesday, with a speech laced with symbolism, political undertones and electoral considerations.
Giving Patel — independent India’s first home minister — the entire credit for building a united country, Modi left little unsaid in underlining how the leader has been largely ignored over the past few decades and how it is his government that is giving him his due.
The very overt attempts to glorify and honour Patel are a part of the Modi government’s larger efforts to ensure national ‘heroes’ from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty also get due recognition.
As part of this, the BJP has not just put forward its own leaders but has also appropriated the more conservative strand of the Congress, including leaders such as Patel and Madan Mohan Malaviya.
The statue was unveiled on Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary, that happens to coincide with former PM Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary. The messaging of the flamboyant, grand event that clearly overshadowed tributes to Indira Gandhi was also hardly lost on anyone.
We are deeply grateful to our readers & viewers for their time, trust and subscriptions.
Quality journalism is expensive and needs readers to pay for it. Your support will define our work and ThePrint’s future.
“Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was responsible for us living in a united India today. It was his efforts after Independence that led to India being what it is today,” Modi said.
“From Kutch to Kohima, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Sardar Patel united the country. This shows what a great resolve he had. It is because of him that we can travel to all the great sites and meet the great people of all the states without a visa,” the PM said.
“Sardar Patel was made the home minister of India at the country’s most difficult period. No one can imagine how he managed to keep India from disintegrating after Partition. The greatness of his deeds cannot be put in words. Each and every one of us owes it to this man for what he has done for the country,” he added.
According to top sources in the BJP, the PM’s very evident underlining of Patel as the one responsible for a united India is a clear way to pit him against India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and highlight the former’s contribution versus the latter’s.
In its traditional worldview, the BJP and its parent outfit RSS, have been pro-Patel and anti-Nehru. They’ve held that Patel represented a hard, muscular state, someone who stood for a united India with strong Hindu roots, as against the more westernised elite they have perceived Nehru as.
Modi also said without Patel, it would have been difficult to create the structure of the Indian civil services. He said it was Patel who was responsible for giving women the right to make an active contribution to politics in the country.
Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat in 2013, had laid the foundation stone of the project, and sources say he has personally supervised its progress since.
BJP for a ‘united’ India
The PM’s entire speech centred around the theme of unity, with the slogan ‘Ek Bharat, Shresth Bharat’ finding mention multiple times. While underscoring how Patel had ensured India does not disintegrate after Independence, Modi tried to send out an emphatic message about how BJP stands for a united India — an unmistakable pitch to its vote bank ahead of the forthcoming state and Lok Sabha polls.
“There were many pessimists who used to always think that a diverse country like India can never remain united. It will fall apart. But, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel showed how it is done. We should learn how to grow from strength to strength, how to always stay united,” the PM said.
“Statue of Unity is a symbol of India’s integrity, India’s resolve, India’s determination and India’s unity,” he added.
Modi’s constant stress on an integrated nation was as much a way to highlight Patel’s contribution as it was to appropriate the message as something the BJP stands for.
Political and electoral undertones
BJP’s push for Patel is hardly devoid of well-thought out political objectives. To begin with, it helps the BJP make a fresh bid to reach out to Gujarat’s influential and electorally crucial Patel community, which had deserted it in the 2017 state elections, causing the party much damage.
Given Gujarat sends 26 members to the Lok Sabha, of which the BJP won all in the 2014 elections, the party would hardly want to take risk of not making active efforts to build bridges with the community. Patels or Patidars make up for roughly 14 per cent of the state’s population.
In addition, given Sardar Patel’s farmer roots, the idea is to also pander to the farmer community, which, in Gujarat and other parts of the country, has expressed its unhappiness with the BJP government. Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government has attempted to cultivate a pro-farmer image, launching several programmes for the rural sector.
The PM, in his speech, pointed to Patel’s farmer roots and said this “extraordinary” man was born in an ordinary farmer family.
“In order to build the Statue of Unity, lakhs of farmers from all over India came together, gave their tools, portions of the soil and thus, a mass movement developed,” Modi said.
Not oblivious to the criticisms about the need to construct the grand statue, Modi was careful to point out how this was not just a manifestation of Patel’s resolve and talent, but was also an expression of the “confidence of a new India”.
He also talked about how it would bring “prosperity to the tribals, farmers and villagers in this region”, bringing them better livelihood and business opportunities through tourism.
In a veiled but difficult to miss attack at the Congress, which has dismissed the move as tokenism, Modi said he is “amazed” at how even this is “politicised” by forces in the country.
“We are criticised even for praising great men like Sardar Patel. We are made to feel that we have committed a big crime,” he said.
With this, the PM evidently attempted to indicate the Congress was reluctant to glorify Patel, and was targeting the BJP merely for political reasons.
Leaving behind a legacy
Sources in the party also say this is PM Modi’s way of creating his own legacy to leave behind, and this was reflected in his speech as well.
“Today is a day that will be remembered in the history of India. No Indian will ever forget this day,” he claimed.
Modi also subtly slipped in his own rise to the top, when he said he had conceived this idea as chief minister of Gujarat, but had never imagined he would unveil the statue as the prime minister.
BJP’s internal dynamics
Underneath the glitter and glamour of the grand show, the event to unveil Patel’s statue was an unlikely, but unmistakable, reflection of BJP’s own altered power dynamics.
In 2013, Modi as chief minister had invited veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani to do the bhoomi pujan for the statue. On Wednesday, the very leader who had performed the ground-breaking ceremony was nowhere to be seen.
The troubled equation between Advani and Modi ahead of 2014 as the latter made his PM candidature pitch was hardly a secret. After coming to power, the Modi-led party relegated Advani, among other veterans, to the margdarshak mandal, a subtle way of conveying he would no longer play an active political, organisational or decision-making role in the party.
Advani’s absence from Wednesday’s event, therefore, is as part of the same tale of the generational shift and altered dynamics in the BJP.
This was also a reflection of the steep rise of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, who was on the sidelines at the 2013 foundation stone laying ceremony, but was seated as the CM on the dais at the unveiling of the statue just five years later.
News media is in a crisis & only you can fix it
You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.
You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.
We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And we aren’t even three yet.
At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly and on time even in this difficult period. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is. Our stellar coronavirus coverage is a good example. You can check some of it here.
This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it. Because the advertising market is broken too.
If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous, and questioning journalism, please click on the link below. Your support will define our journalism, and ThePrint’s future. It will take just a few seconds of your time.