Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Political iconography: Significance of Sardar Patel in India Today

Narendra Modi is building the world's tallest statue, in memory of Sardar Patel, in the Narmada district, of Gujarat? Why does Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, and the prime
ministerial candidate of the BJP in the forthcoming general election in 2014, need to lay a claim over political legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India's first home minister, who died in 1950. Is it an attempt to saffronise Patel, the nationalist icon who was opposed to religious and communal politics? Or is it a sign of desaffronisation of Modi, in his attempt to shed his own communal image? These are some of the questions which I explore in the following article. 

Every political ideology or movement needs a face or an icon, symbolising the essence of the campaign to the public. To be effective, such a political icon needs to be seen as bipartisan, something which the wider sections of the population, beyond the party faithful may be able to related to easily.

With the elevation of Narendra Modi as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general election, Modi is now the obvious face of the campaign. But Modi is a highly polarising personality, who attracts acolytes and critics in equal measure. Therefore Modi's campaign needed a bipartisan figure as its icon.

By claiming Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the icon of BJP in the current political campaign, Modi is making a distinct effort to use the bipartisan appeal of Patel, to diffuse his own partisan image.

Will Modi succeed in desaffronise himself, riding on the image of Sardar Patel? Or Will he try to saffronise the Sardar, and succeed in claiming the first nationalist icon for the BJP?

Political icons

In the 2009 general election, the BJP had tried to project L. K. Advani as a decisive leader, "Louha Purush" or the 'Iron Man', in the mould of Sardar Patel. The campaign did not succeed. So now Modi as the head of BJP's campaign in 2014, is trying to claim for itself not just the lexicon, but the icon itself, Sardar Patel.

It is really interesting that, today the Congress party, which espouses inclusive governance, have over the decades increasingly excluded many of its own nationalist icons, focusing primarily on the Nehru-Gandhi family. And now that the party is feeling increasingly marginalised, it is trying to reclaim some of the political icons it had willfully discarded. But as the 2014 campaign unfolds, Congress seems unsure whether to reclaim some of the political legacy, or stay loyal to its first family.

Other political parties have their icons, too. BSP has adopted Ambedkar. The remnants of Indian socialists have Lohia. The communists have Marx and Lenin. The Naxalites have Mao. The DMK has Periyar and ADMK has in addition MGR in Tamil Nadu. TDP has NTR in Andhra Pradesh. Shiv Sena has Shivaji in Maharashtra. Akalis have the Gurus in Punjab. Mamata routinely idolises Tagore, Vivekananda, Subhas Bose and others from the Bengali pantheon, although she is her own best motif.

But the BJP-RSS combine with a national political ambition has no icon with pan-India appeal. Most Indians have not heard of Hegedewar the founder of RSS. Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Jan Sangh, the precursor of BJP, may be better known, but does not have much popular appeal. Deen Dayal Upadhayay, who laid the intellectual and organisational foundation of Jan Sangh, and conceptualised integral humanism, as an alternative political ideology, to western theories of capitalism and communism, is today largely unknown. And A.B. Vajpayee, the prime minister of the BJP led NDA government between 1998 and 2004,  is too recent to become an icon. Also, Vajpayee's differences with Modi on the 2002 riots in Gujarat is too fresh in public mind to allow Modi to claim him.

So it is interesting that Modi is trying to claim Sardar Patel, who was from Gujarat, although Patel had banned the RSS in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Patel was foremost among Indian nationalist, and had nothing to do with Hindu nationalism, the brand which Modi and his party tries to propagate. Patel said about the RSS: "The speeches of the Sangh leaders are poisonous. It is as a result of this venom that Mahatma Gandhi has been assassinated."

Sardar Patel and Politics

Modi is attempting to recreate the political image of Patel, according to his own electoral need. Patel had gradually faded from the contemporary Indian political lexicon, and yet has an element of mythology surrounding him for his effort to unite the 500 odd princely states that constituted British India, following Independence from colonial rule. Therefore Modi believes it may be relatively easy to resurrect Patel as a symbol of united India.

It is a small matter of history that in Patel's vision of India, he considered both Hindu and Muslim identity based communal nationalism posing a fundamental threat to Akhand Bharat, the united India.

In order to project Patel, Modi feels necessary to speculate on the direction India may have taken had Patel been the Prime Minister at Independence in 1947. But Patel was a life long member of the Congress, working closely with prime minister Nehru, who was many years younger to him.

Mobilising the faithfuls

Political icons are not mere statues cast in iron. They have a practical purpose. One is to project a message or idea that may appeal to a broad cross-section of the people. But in an election campaign, it is critical to be able to turn that appeal in to votes, as well. This requires political mobilisation.

Advani's rath-yatra in the late 1980s, as part of the campaign to build a Ram Temple, at the alleged site of Ram's birth in Ayodhya, was more than just an effort to build awareness of the idea of Ram or the temple. It was a very astute move to mobilise a large section of Indian society towards the idea of Hindu Nationalism. The campaign stood out in contrast to apologists for secularism, who were portrayed as playing vote bank politics and practicing a policy of minority appeasement.

Even while disagreeing with the goals and narratives of the Ram Temple campaign, one can hardly deny that this was one of the most successful political mobilisation at the grassroots in modern Indian history.  The bricks being mobilised from thousands of villages across the country to build the temple, demonstrated that it had stuck a chord among a large segment of the population. It had catapulted BJP from its nadir in the 1984 general election, to the doorsteps of political power in Delhi by the mid-1990s.

Political base

Advani and Modi may have their political differences, but their political strategies are strikingly similar. There seems to be a clear political strategy underlying the desire to build the world's tallest statue of unity, to Sardar Patel, in the Narmada district of Gujarat, near the Sardar Sarovar dam, at a cost of Rs 2500 crore.

Apart from claiming the political legacy of Patel, the building of the statue provides a practical tool for mobilising people, and try to translate the general political appeal, in to votes for the BJP. Like the bricks for Ram Temple, this time Modi is appealing to farmers to donate their redundant farm equipment, so that the metal could be recyled to build the statue. Rural India is critical in BJP electoral calculus.

The BJP's political rise in the 1990s came due to wholesome support from urban India, and its loss in 2004 and 2009, is also a reflection of the urban voters moving away from the BJP. This time, with a strong sense of anti-incumbency towards the Congress led UPA government, it is expected that a large section of urban voters may return to BJP and its allies.

At the national level, there is a general consensus among political analysts on the depth of disillusionment towards the Congress led UPA government across India. However, given the scale of expenditures and range of projects aimed at the rural population, undertaken by the UPA in the past decade, there are doubts regarding the scope of anti-incumbency sentiments across the country side.

But rural votes have been a challenge for the BJP for a long time. Even in Gujarat, in the 2012 assembly election, when Modi won his third assembly election, BJP swept the urban and semi urban seats, but Modi could only win half of the rural constituencies. Clearly, the BJP needed a political strategy to effectively mobilise people and opinion in rural India. The appeal to farmers to share their spare equipments for the purpose of building the statue of Patel, is aimed at doing that. Also, perhaps in not too a small measure, Modi may also be trying to assuage the feelings of the Patel community in Gujarat, many of may still have misgivings about his treatment of leaders from their community.

Despite mobilising on the issue of Ram Temple, and moving the bricks from villages, the construction of the temple in Ayodhya, is quite far from being realised, given the political and legal opposition. In contrast, the statue of Patel in that sense is a much more feasible venture. There is no major opposition expected from any significant section of society, and so it is a statue that can actually be built.

Politics of polarisation

While the BJP may be averse to Gandhi, the Mahatma, they have no hesitation in taking a lesson from the greatest political mobiliser the world has ever seen. The key to Gandhi's strategy for political mobilisation was to pick a simple idea which people can relate, and then provide a way by which people can actually participate in a concrete way, and thereby feel politically empowered.

Idea can touch the intellect, but the capacity to act can help mobilise the heart. This is how Gandhi transformed the Congress from an elite group of Indians, and built the mass support for India's political emancipation.

While mobilisation on the Ram temple was quite a success, it has continued to be extremely divisive even today. The Ram Temple campaign had peaked almost twenty years ago. While it did make the BJP in to a national political force, by that same token, it showed the political limitation of such a polarising political strategy. At its peak, the BJP had so far been able to secure only about 25% of the votes nationally, and therefore needed political allies in order to form national government.

Sardar Patel is not seen as divisive by most Indians today. Despite attempts to reinterpret Sardar Patel's political legacy, saffronisation of Patel may not succeed. For one reason, Patel is being resurrected by the BJP, in the hope benefiting from the Sardar's impeccable nationalist credentials and bi-partisan appeal. Saffronising Patel, would only polarise opinion, and defeat the very purpose of adopting him. Secondly, a polarising political strategy may be useful in mobilising the faithfuls, but in a country as diverse as India, this inevitably limits appeal of the sectarian idea beyond faithfuls, and limits the electoral dividend.

In 2009, the BJP's vote share had fallen to about 18%, nationally. If it is to have a realistic prospect of forming the next government in 2014, it needs to attract 28-30% of the votes, if successful, this may double its seats in Lok Sabha, to over 200.

The questions that remain

Sardar Patel's statue of unity is being billed as the tallest statue in the world, at 182 meters, nearly double the height of the Statue of Liberty, in the United States. That is a billing that is likely to be overcome somewhere in the world, sooner than later.  Today, the iron lady in New York is not known for her height or age, but stands as a symbol of freedom across the world. Unfortunately, in India, we are prone to creating idols and statues, while preferring to argue and even fight over the inanimate form, rather than debate the substance that gave them meaning. Over time complex rites and rituals become dominant, and seem to clog the capacity to even think about the possible meaning? Would the statue of Patel suffer the same ignominy?

Modi's claim on Sardar Patel raises a number of interesting political questions. Is Modi trying to send a secular message to the public, and trying to distance himself from the RSS, the very forces that paved his rise as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate? Or is Modi trying to create a new icon with saffron colour in a true Goebblesian style distorting history in order to ride on a larger than life image of Sardar Patel?

Or is it that, having highlighted the development plank, and soft-pedalling on the core Hindutva issues, Modi is now trying to use Sardar Patel, as a mere instrument, for political mobilisation, to which people, particularly in rural India may able to relate?  And is the RSS' silence of Modi's adoption of Patel, only tactical, for the possible electoral benefit? Or is it a deeper acknowledgment of Patel's views of RSS?

In 2009, the debate over Patel's political legacy had split the top leadership of the BJP itself. While Jaswant Singh, had held Nehru and Patel both responsible for the partition of India in his book, Advani had suggesting that Patel had banned the RSS in 1948, under pressure from Nehru.

The dichotomy

Whatever Modi does or says seem to have a way of dividing opinion. He recently spoke about the priority to build toilets, rather than temples. While the sentiment attracted a lot of sympathy from a section of aspiring Indians, who are looking at Modi for deliverance; it also attracted hostility from the hardline Hindutva activists at the core of his support base.

The proposal to build the statue of Sardar Patel have not been politically divisive, so far, except for political opponents accusing Modi of opportunism. But the proposal to build a tourism and recreational facility near the statue, replete with resorts and golf courses, on land acquired from poor villagers, is surely going to raise further questions about the political sincerity of Modi and his commitment to professed development agenda.

This dichotomy is not limited to the statue of Patel, though. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, there has been a distinct attempt to polarise public opinion on religious lines, by the lieutenants of Modi, as well as his opponents, in search of electoral dividend. While Modi continues to ride his developmental horse on his own campaign trail.

The greater irony may be that the Statue of Sardar Patel may look over the yet to be completed Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada. The strong and decisive Sardar will be a permanent witness to the social, legal and political divisions created by his political inheritors leading to the indecisiveness on the future of the dam whose gates have not yet been installed, while money have flown like water over the dam.

If Sardar Patel, the symbol of united India, was alive, he surely would not have been happy to see the disunited political fabric of India today. And Modi himself typifies that political division. While Modi may need Patel, but there are doubts whether Sardar Patel will oblige Modi!

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