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Sardar Patel's Statue of Unity: It took an activist Prime Minister to finally give the Ironman of India his due

Narendra Modi is an activist. This point is lost in the din of debate around him. Activist leaders do not tire or retire until their objectives are met. As the prime minister, Modi holds India’s most powerful office, enjoys his power, doesn’t answer to any extra-constitutional authority and never shies away from wielding his clout. However, even as he operates within the ambit of his office and amid the cut and thrust of electoral politics in a democracy, Modi is also led by a higher motivation beyond the trappings of power.

 Sardar Patels Statue of Unity:  It took an activist Prime Minister to finally give the Ironman of India his due

Narendra Modi looks at the Statue of Unity. Twitter/@BJP4India

We got a glimpse at the higher motivation that drives the prime minister when he unveiled the Statue of Unity on Wednesday to commemorate Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary. The 600-feet sculpture of a sombre Patel is not just a fitting tribute to the Iron Man of India, an engineering marvel or a depiction of the monumental aspirations of this young nation state, it is equally a treatise of the inspiration that drives the PM in his activism.

This is evident when we consider the prime minister’s words during his address while inaugurating the statue, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, at Kevadiya in Gujarat’s Narmada district where he vowed to fulfill Patel’s dream of making India “empowered, strong, sensitive and inclusive” and added that his government is working towards constructing concrete houses for all, electricity to every house in every village, connecting all villages through roads and digital network, providing gas connection to the poor and building toilets in every home. To achieve these complex objectives within a deadline on a scale as large as the country’s requires resolve, and Modi seems to have found the inspiration for that resolve in Patel’s life.

In his blog on Patel as the ‘Maker of Modern India,’ Modi wrote: “It was due to round-the-clock effort of Sardar Patel that the map of India is what it is today!” This point is easily overlooked. The idea of India as a nation state isn’t just an idea in the realm of ideas but a cartographic reality on which rests the nationhood and nationalism that binds a diverse country. Had it not been for Patel’s “herculean” effort in laying the foundation of a united India by negotiating with each of the 550 princely states (by dint of persuasion, pressure or force) the cartographic vision of an ‘India’ as a civilisational and Westphalian nation would have not existed.

The prime minister put it well when he wrote that Patel “saved India from Balkanisation and integrated even the weakest of limbs into the national framework. Today, we, the 130 crore Indians, are working shoulder to shoulder to build a New India that is strong, prosperous and inclusive. Every decision is being taken to ensure that the fruits of development reach the most vulnerable, without any corruption or favouritism, just as Sardar Patel would have wanted it.”

If activism led Modi to Sardar Patel’s doorstep and occasioned the building of world’s tallest memorial, at another level the monument is a master-stroke in political symbolism. The larger-than-life structure is simultaneously the prime minister’s self-projection as the torchbearer of Sardar Patel’s legacy, a call for ideational unification of India, a political positioning against ‘breaking-India’ forces and appropriation of an icon whom Congress had lain by the wayside.

The Congress may accuse Modi of trying to “usurp Sardar Patel’s legacy”, but the truth is in its missionary zeal to glorify one dynasty, the party ignored other icons within its own fold, belittled their contributions and sacrifices and thus created the space for Modi to exploit: And he isn’t one to let go of an opportunity.

As a vehicle for furthering the ambitions of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Congress and its pet historians undermined the towering personalities who made equal contributions towards freedom movement and nation-building. Now that it is facing an existential crisis and haunted by the ghost of its past mistakes, it is a little late for Congress to reclaim the legacy of a leader who was never given his due.

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweets about Sardar Patel being a “Congressman to the core”, it appears less a genuine tribute and more a panicked reaction from a leader who knows that the moment has slipped through the fingers.

Modi’s construction of world’s tallest monument as a way of paying homage to Sardar Patel is also the laying down of a marker that history will no longer be written by one family. It signals a “paradigm shift in politics”, as this Firstpost article says, to the extent that Modi has brought to the foreground a “nationalist stream of the Congress represented by Patel and others like Purushottam Das Tandon and KM Munshi” which “was constricted within the party by Jawaharlal Nehru and his Left-leaning colleagues within the party.”

But there are deeper symbolisms at work here as well. The nomenclature of the mega monument as “Statue of Unity” isn’t by accident. It signals Modi’s intention of creating a political narrative of ideational unification of India. In his blog as well as the address, he repeatedly stressed on the need for India to stay ‘united’, in essence binding the collective will of a multifarious nation in one string of aspiration, self-confidence and prestige. Here, the height of the sky-scraper becomes a symbol of India’s rise in the world.

As Patel’s biographer Hindol Sengupta told The Washington Post, “When Modi says he wants India to take its rightful place as ‘vishwa guru,’ or world teacher, he actually means it… In Modi’s worldview this statue is a crucial part of the signaling of the rise of India and the presenting before the world that rise in visual terms.” Sengupta also calls Patel a “Lincolnesque figure” and posits that “this is Modi’s Lincoln Memorial.”

It is said that not many things bind this diverse nation except cricket and Bollywood. India now has a different signifier for unity, one that was long overdue and entirely commensurate with its great power aspiration. Patel, who among other things played a key role in drafting the Indian Constitution, deserves no less an acknowledgement.

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Updated Date: Nov 01, 2018 14:04:57 IST