After Modi’s lionisation of Sardar Patel the Indian National Congress sat up and tried to put the latter back to where he belonged – a high pedestal. In the latest issue of its official organ “Sandesh” it has paid homage to him.
Modi must have been aware that he would be courting controversy if he gave pride of place to the Late Sardar Vallabhai Patel on the 31st October last. The 30th death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, the Late Prime Minister and the 139th birth anniversary of the Late “Sardar”, the first post-independence Home Minister, coincided on that date. All these years the Centre, marginalising the “Sardar”, had marked 31st October as “Martyrs Day” in commemoration of Mrs. Gandhi’s tragic death at the hands of two of her security guards in 1984. This year, however, Modi decided to celebrate the birth anniversary of the “Sardar” in a big way. Not only was it designated as the “National Unity Day”, a “Unity Run” too was organised in acknowledgement of Patel’s role in unifying India after the British left in 1947, amalgamating 600-odd princely states within the Indian Union. Mrs. Gandhi’s “martyrdom” was reduced to a sort of foot-note to the celebrations.
The inevitable happened and an unseemly controversy raised its ugly head. The Congress accused Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) government of not only marginalising Indira Gandhi but also appropriating a Congress stalwart like Vallabhbhai Patel only to “downplay the traditional Congress heroes Nehru and his daughter, former PM Indira Gandhi”. Congressmen voiced their anger at the lack of plans to adequately venerate the anniversary of assassination of the former PM. Prominent Congressman Shashi Tharoor tweeted “Disgraceful that government is ignoring the martyrdom of our only prime minister who was killed in office in the line of duty.” Officially though, the Congress had no objections to the government’s plans as they too revere Patel. However, a top Congress leader was quoted as saying “no one can overshadow the legacy of anyone.”
The BJP had, in fact, not exactly painted itself in a corner. After all, Narendra Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, had already initiated plans for erection of the tallest statue ever to be erected anywhere in the world only to honour the “Sardar”. He, apparently, has enormous respect for Patel because of the latter’s role in unification of the country. The statue is going to be almost 600 ft tall and will be called “Statue of Unity”. On the latest controversy, however, the BJP says, “There is no question of anyone being pitted against anyone else”. Senior journalist, MJ Akbar, a new entrant in BJP, said on the controversy, “...the row is quite unnecessary. It is not necessary to forget someone to remember another...” He also said that there was a concerted effort to portray Patel as a leader who took anti-Muslim stand. Akbar said that Patel was against Muslim League for demanding partition and not Muslims. It is true, Patel was vehemently against partition but he agreed to partition only after the “Direct Action Day”, also known as the “Great Calcutta Killings”, initiated by the then Bengal chief minister Soharawardi.
Patel and Mrs. Gandhi defy comparison. Both were, undeniably, great patriots but they lived and worked in different eras and circumstances. While Patel was an important figure in the national struggle for freedom, Indira Gandhi had very little to do with it. The simple reason was that she was much too young to participate in it. However, the legacies left behind by each could be a basis of evaluating their respective contributions.
It will not be way off the mark if one says that if we are one big nation today it is largely because of Sardar Patel. Had it not been for him India would have not even been like the “moth-eaten” Pakistan that Mohammed Ali Jinnah cribbed about after the Partition. Patel went about meticulously and tenaciously persuading 600-odd princes soon after independence to join the Indian Union. On India’s independence with the lapse of suzerainty over them of the British Crown they had become free to decide either to remain independent or to join one of the two newly-emerged countries. Besides, had it not been for him we would have lost Kashmir as it was he who forced an indecisive Nehru to send troops to defend the state from Pakistani-supported marauders after its accession to India. Likewise, it was he who forced a vacillating Nehru for the so called “Police Action” against the Nizam of Hyderabad and his “razakars” led by Qasim Rizvi. Earlier, Patel had ensured assimilation of the princely state of Junagadh after its Nawab and Divan fled to Pakistan. With determination, tact and sometimes brute force Patel created a unified, monolithic India which exists until this day. But for him this would not have been possible. It was a gift of great significance to his beloved people who cherish it to this day as his most constructive, valued and abiding legacy.
Indira Gandhi’s legacy stands quite a distance away, at the other end of the spectrum. The foremost element of her rule that comes to one’s mind is corruption and its institutionalisation under her rule. Earlier too, there used to be corrupt politicians but those who happened to be corrupt then were milk-sucking kids when compared to her. Daughter of a well-regarded father, she took measures the fallout of which was copious corruption in public life. For instance, she banned as early as in 1969 corporate contributions to political parties. It opened the flood gates of political corruption. Over the years, corruption has got deeply embedded in India’s political and administrative psyche. Loot and plunder of national resources have become the norm regardless of the party in power. The “license-permit” “Raj” that she ran was a source of ill-gotten gains, as, indeed, foreign defence and other contracts. Every opportunity of making money was used to further her political clout.
The other significant legacy of hers is subversion of well-established institutions that ensured smooth functioning of our democracy. Ruthlessly ambitious as she was, she wanted to rule without any irritants like courts or the press or any public institution that happened to be independent of the government. The Emergency declared by her was an example of her relentless pursuit of power. She just bulldozed her way through subverting the parliamentary democracy with its cabinet system, putting the entire Opposition under arrest, amending laws with a brute majority to bend the courts and other institutions of the government to toe her line. Her party men lost all voice and were herded around like cattle. They even acquiesced to her dynastic ambitions and after she was gone sucked up even to her sons and daughter in-law. The political dynasts that later became prolific took the cue from her.
On an objective assessment, therefore, Patel’s legacy stands out as beneficent, while that of Indira Gandhi as baleful.