September,1990: Advani embarks on a nationwide rathyatra to educate people about the Ram Janmabhoomi and the Ayodhya movement while karsevaks collect “holy” bricks (bricks that had Shri Ram inscribed on them) from all over India to build the Ram Mandir.
June, 2013: Narendra Modi embarks on the journey as BJP’s poll committee chief and possible prime ministerial candidate gives a call to farmers across the nation to donate iron for building the tallest statue of SardarVallabhbhai Patel.
Two different personalities, two different journeys, two different props, but the purpose and the strategy are still the same- ideological connect, electoral gains and what we call in internet language, crowdsourcing.
But what explains this radical shift in the strategy of BJP? And what forces a hardcore BJP leader who became a Rashtriya Swayam Sevak pracharak as a teenager, to cash in on the image of a leader who was essentially a devoted Congress worker. Both followers and critics of Modi aren’t surprised, and this is not the first time the Gujarat chief minister has tried to use a national hero as a mascot for his campaign.
To appeal to the state’s youth,Modi began a statewide tour “Vivekananda Yuva Morcha” just before the Gujarat election in September 2012. He distributed volley balls, cricket bats and several other sops with stickers of Vivekananda to young boys and girls.This was aimed at spreading the message of the monk across the state. Big cutouts of Vivekananda would accompany Modi’s cavalcade to every nook and corner of the state. Modi’s fascination for national or spiritual heroes is not new.
Coming back to the issue of Patel’s statue,Modi’s mentor-turned-detractor LK Advani embraced the lohpurush tag with equal panache. He even created a furore by saying that it was Jawaharlal Nehru and not then Home Minister Sardar Patel who ordered the banning of the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. However, there are documents to prove Advani’s claims. For Modi, though, the statue politics is not only about ideology but also about identity. Some political analysts feel that Patel and Modi do have certain things in common.
Alam Srinivas, author and journalist speaking to Newslaundry said, “Patel for him (Modi) and most of us who remember him in any way, is an icon of ‘muscular nationalism’. He in some senses represents pan-India nationalism. He is an icon of modern nationalism, the man who integrated India despite the Partition by getting princely states to agree to accession. More importantly, Patel is a counter to the Nehru-Gandhi family and Nehruvian ideals. Patel’s economic ideas were exactly the same as Modi’s — reforms, growth, development, investments, etc. This is opposed to Nehruvian-Indira Gandhi socialism, statism and nationalisation”.
Patel’s right of centre attitude, his views on Partition and the iron hand with which he integrated the Indian state makes him a tempting option for Modi to model himself on. However, the differences between Patel and Modi couldn’t be starker. Patel was known to be a team player. Despite having several differences with Nehru on economic policy,Pakistan and foreign policy,Patel was a quintessential team player- knowing exactly when to take charge and when to let his team-mates hold fort. In his essay titled, “Indians great, greater, greatest?” Ramachandra Guha writes, “Patel and Nehru were, in practice, collaborators and colleagues rather than rivals or adversaries. To be sure, they had their disagreements, but, to their everlasting credit, they submerged these differences in the greater task of national consolidation. Theirs was a willed, deliberate, division of labour and responsibilities”.
But Modi is not a team player. A hugely polarising figure, he has not only alienated the allies of the National Democratic Alliance but also the party patriarch and his mentor Advani. He is at best a one-man army. Why else would he need to address 53 locations across Gujarat simultaneously in his 3D avatar and create a record of sort during assembly election campaigning? The 3D technology was not just to exhibit to the world the technological might of Narendra Modi. It was also a manifestation of his deep distrust of his own local MLAs. He single-handedly fought the anti-incumbency factor through those 3D appearances. Although his one-man army formula has been successful in its own way, he certainly lacks the team playing abilities of Sardar.
Also Patel had the power of renunciation. After giving his word to Gandhiji on not opposing Nehru’s prime-ministerial prospects, he quietly played second lead to Nehru to the hilt. But Modi’s ambitions have only just taken wing and the fallouts are for all to see.
Finally, Modi has the knack of making news with everything he does. He is a headline grabber. Even something as private as visiting his mother looks like a PR exercise and the photographs of his seeking blessings from her are instantly mailed to media houses and videos of his visit uploaded on his own website.
Patel was more of a doer than a talker. In fact, in his book Makers of Modern India, Ramachandra Guha despite wanting to keep Saradar Patel in the list failed to do so because “he didn’t leave behind books or essays of any substance or depth”.Probably because Patel must have been too busy doing his job rather than spinning a PR story around himself.
Similarities and differences notwithstanding, will playing the SardarPatel card reap electoral dividends for Modi? The Rs650 crore Ambedkar Park often touted and even credited as a symbol of Dalit pride didn’t win Mayawati the 2012 Assembly elections. So, will the politics of statues work for Modi?No one is sure, but political analysts say Modi might have done his calculations well in advance to pitch himself as a modern day Patel to his electorate.And it is pertinent to remember that the Gujarat chief minister, who has won three consecutive terms in his state, is a master strategist.
Alam Srinivas says, “He hopes to consolidate votes on factors over and above caste. And he cannot openly play the Hindutva card. So, Patel and Vivekananda may be a strategy to consolidate Hindu-Indian, Indian-Hindu votes”.Kingshuk Nag, author of The NaMo story: A Political Life says, “Whether this announcement will convert into votes will depend on the other moves that Modi will make. My guess is that he will first take a secret poll on how much the appeal of Patel is to the electorate (for all you know he may have already done so). And if he finds that Patel appeals strongly to the Indian electorate, then he will pitch the fight against the Congress as a sort of Patel versus Nehru fight”.
What is ironical is that while Modi, whether for political gains or not, has taken upon himself the task of preserving Patel’s legacy, the Congress continues to remain as indifferent towards Patel as ever. During a debate on NDTV 24X7’s The Buck Stops Here, defending Congress’ apathy towards Sardar Patel, HRD Minister (MoS) Shashi Tharoor made a bizarre statement. When Barkha Dutt asked him why the freedom fighter and the former Home Minister of India despite laying the foundation of modern India has not been given his due by the Congress, Tharoor answered“he died within three years after independence and that’s why he has a lesser impact on the subsequent generations”.
It is exactly because of this kind of apathy of the Congress and its refusal to acknowledge the contribution of leaders outside the Gandhi-Nehru clan in nation building that Modi has found a new icon for himself. However, given his timing to harp on the glory and achievements of Sardar Patel one is not sure if Modi is the right custodian to carry forward his legacy. Columnist and former strategist for Advani, Sudheendra Kulkarni speaking to Newslaundry says, “Building the statue per se is not a bad thing. The Congress has not given due importance to this national hero and it is a good thing that Modi is doing. But any person who is erecting his statue shouldn’t do it for political ends and should live up to the name ‘statue of unity’. Any person building a statue of unity should have the ability to unite”.