As Modi recalls Patel, it’s time to ask why Congress forgot its icons
The BJP has laid claim to one Congress stalwart after another in the last six years – binding each claim with the common thread of the Nehru-Gandhi family being instrumental in their sidelining – and has gleefully allowed the Congress to claim the legacy of just one family and none else.
The birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – October 31st -- also happens to be the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrates Patel on this day, which has become National Unity Day under the present government.
Both Patel and Indira were towering Congress leaders, the former far senior and greater in stature as a respected leader and freedom fighter.
But, over the last decade or so, as I would drive past the All-India Congress Committee headquarters in the national capital as a journalist, I would notice that Indira Gandhi superseded Sardar Patel on the billboards put up by Delhi leaders of the Congress to mark the day.
After 2015, Patel also began to make his appearance on Congress posters on this day. But it was too late for the Congress by then. By this time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed Patel, a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman and Gandhian, as the BJP’s own.
The appropriation of Patel by the BJP may be a-historical, but the Congress has over the last few decades rendered the ground fertile for such appropriations.
It isn’t all about the truth, in an everyday sense. For, the masses aren’t professional historians. It is at the end of the day about making efforts to remember icons or allowing others to claim them.
The Modi regime and icons
In the last six years, the Narendra Modi government has walked the extra mile to recall icons. These vary from Congressmen – Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Bose, Sardar Patel and even the Congress-Hindu Mahasabha leader Madan Mohan Malaviya – to Hindutva figures like VD Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Atal Behari Vajpayee. The government has also left no stone unturned to claim the legacy of BR Ambedkar, who was as critical of Hinduism as the ruling party is enamoured of it.
But, even as historical figures are being evoked time and again – Gandhi as the icon of Swachh Bharat, Patel as the inspiration for unity, Netaji Subhas Bose as a freedom fighter whose papers were released for the public by the government, or Malaviya, the BHU founder awarded the Bharat Ratna by the Modi government – what has the Congress done over the last six years to tell people about its prime contribution to Indian independence?
The answer: it has done precious little. And for reasons best known to its leadership.
Rewind to the recent Maharashtra elections.
The PM attacked the Congress over not giving Savarkar and Ambedkar their due, even as the Maharashtra BJP in its manifesto promised the award of Bharat Ratna, India’s top civilian honour, to Savarkar.
The Congress did respond to this pitch by speaking in different voices – with Manish Tewari saying that the government should rather bestow Nathuram Godse with the award and Abhishek Manu Singhvi saying he acknowledged Savarkar’s contribution even while disagreeing with him – but did not attempt to remind voters about its rich, nationalist, past.
There was no attempt to recall Lokmanya Tilak, the foremost leader of the freedom struggle before Gandhi’s rise, or Gopalkrishna Gokhale, the moderate leader whom the Mahatma fondly called his political guru.
Portrait of of the Indian Interim Government; (L-R) Sarat Chandra Bose, Jagjivan Ram, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Asaf Ali, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Syed Ali Zaheer, outside the Council Room in the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, September 2nd 1946. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Why the Congress – with a vast array of nationalist icons -- did not even try to talk about them when the BJP discussed history passes ordinary comprehension. It may, in fact, not be long before the government lays claim to the legacy of Tilak – who popularized the cult of Ganesh and Shivaji as a means of anti-colonial mobilization – and accuses the Congress of obliterating his good name for projecting just one family, the Nehru-Gandhi family, at the cost of all others who made sacrifices for the nation.
It is precisely in this way that the Congress lost Patel in Gujarat. It did not remind people that Patel, after Gandhi, was its most towering leader from the western state, and opened itself to the charge of talking only about the Nehru-Gandhi family to the exclusion of all others.
Not that the charge is entirely without merit. Many Congress leaders on the ground have over the last few decades believed that it works best for their political careers if they keep discussing the contribution of the Nehru-Gandhi family to India.
While there is no doubt that Jawaharlal Nehru was one of India’s foremost anti-colonial leaders – and it is also true that he spent more years than any other top leader of the Congress in jail – attempting to discuss the sacrifices of Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi far more often than remembering a galaxy of its freedom fighters has done the Congress no good. It has in the eyes of the people given it the image of a nepotistic, dynastic party.
The manner in which many Congress leaders backed the Emergency, the manner in which attacks were carried out on Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 and the outcry when Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the Prime Minister’s post opened the party to the charge of being a family enterprise.
The family may have been no guarantee of electoral success after Rajiv Gandhi, but the rank and file of the party projected it much more than it deserved to be in the last few decades.
The BJP has taken advantage of this culture of sycophancy in the Congress, as also its workers’ utter disregard for the need to rise to the challenge and project its leadership of India’s epic struggle for freedom.
The BJP has laid claim to one Congress stalwart after another in the last six years – binding each claim with the common thread of the Nehru-Gandhi family being instrumental in their sidelining – and has gleefully allowed the Congress to claim the legacy of just the family and none else.
The opposition party – now a shadow of its former self in terms of leadership as also popularity – has been indifferently watching this from the sidelines. It has made no efforts to reclaim its icons like Patel or projecting more figures from its vast repertoire of nationalist leaders.
Professional history may be the BJP’s weakness till now, but the Congress has given it a walkover as far as putting in place an alternative historical imagination for the masses in place.
That the alternative history we get from sources as varied as WhatsApp and BJP IT cell head Amit Malaviya’s twitter handle is often not grounded in fact is something that won’t matter till the Congress gets its act together.