India’s Historical Hijacker

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New Delhi – As the political temperature heats up in India, with five state assembly elections this month and a general election due to be held by April, one might expect Indian leaders to be dueling over visions of the future. Instead, they have been engaged for weeks in an unseemly brawl about the past.

The main opposition leader, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has moved aggressively to lay claim to the legacy of one of India’s most respected founders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Like Modi, Patel was from Gujarat, where Modi is now Chief Minister. He was a determined nationalist, a key leader of the independence struggle, and a lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi.

As independent India’s first deputy prime minister and home minister, Patel is credited with the integration of roughly 600 princely states, sometimes by persuasion and sometimes by force. A firm, tough, and effective administrator, Patel, who died in 1950 at the age of 75, is revered as the “Iron Man” of India.

In the normal course of events, Patel’s illustrious life might have been left to the history books. But Modi, seeking to wrap himself in a more distinguished lineage than the BJP can claim, has called on farmers across India to donate iron from their plows to construct a giant 550-foot statue of the Iron Man in Gujarat. When finished, it will be by far the world’s largest statue, dwarfing New York City’s Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. But it will be a monument less to the modest Gandhian it ostensibly honors than to its builder’s overweening ambitions.

Modi’s identification with Patel is an effort at character-building by association. His own image has been tarnished by his inaction (or worse) during the massacre of more than a thousand Gujarati Muslims in a pogrom on his watch in 2002. Modi would rather be perceived as embodying Patel’s decisiveness than as the destructive bigot his enemies decry.

To hear Modi tell it, India would have been better off with Patel – who forged national unity, defended the country’s Hindus during the horrors of Partition, and stood firm on issues like Kashmir – instead of the allegedly pussyfooting Jawaharlal Nehru, as its first prime minister. The implication is clear – a vote for Modi is a vote for a latter-day Patel.

That message resonates with many Gujaratis, who are proud to be reminded of a nationally admired native son, and with much of India’s urban middle class, whose members yearn for a strong leader to cut through the confusion and indecision of a sprawling country’s messy democracy.

But the ruling Congress Party is not about to relinquish one of its greatest leaders. Congress politicians have reacted with robust indignation to Modi’s attempt to appropriate Patel’s legacy. Both men were faced with a serious breakdown of law and order in their respective domains, involving violence and rioting against Muslims. But Patel’s conduct during the violence that accompanied Partition stands in stark contrast to Modi’s behavior in office.

In Delhi in 1947, Patel immediately and effectively moved to protect Muslims, moving 10,000 in the most vulnerable areas to the security of Delhi’s historic Red Fort. Because he feared that communal passions might have infected the local security forces, he moved army troops from Madras and Pune to Delhi to ensure calm. He attended prayers at the famous Nizamuddin Dargah to convey to Muslims that they and their faith were unquestionably part of India. He even went to the border town of Amritsar and pleaded with Hindu and Sikh mobs to stop victimizing Muslim refugees fleeing to the new Islamic state of Pakistan.

In each case, Patel succeeded. Tens of thousands of people are alive today because of his interventions.

The contrast with what happened in Gujarat in 2002 is painful. Whether or not Modi bears direct responsibility for the pogrom, he certainly cannot claim to have acted as Patel did. He took no direct and immediate action, as the state’s chief executive, to protect Muslims. Nor did he publicly condemn the attacks, let alone visit a masjid or a Muslim neighborhood as a sign of reassurance. On the contrary, many believe that he provided protection and comfort to the rioters.

There is a particular irony to a self-proclaimed “Hindu nationalist” like Modi, whose speeches reveal a thinly veiled contempt for Muslims, laying claim to the legacy of a Gandhian leader who would never have qualified his Indian nationalism with a religious label. Patel would have been outraged not only by Modi’s conduct in office, but by the kind of remarks that Modi has repeatedly made against minorities.

History has often been contested terrain in India. The Gujarat riots in 2002 were, after all, directly linked to the destruction in 1992 of the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque, which was allegedly built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple.

Modi is of course well aware that the past retains a powerful hold over India’s present. How Indian voters judge his attempt to reinvent himself as a latter-day Patel could have a major impact on the country’s future. But one thing is certain: they will render their verdict long before his enormous avatar is placed on its pedestal.

Shashi Tharoor
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Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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