The disputed legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel

Sardar Vallabhbhai PatelVallabhbhai Patel with Jawaharlal Nehru

How justified is the BJP in claiming Sardar Patel as their own? And the Congress in contesting the claim?

The Sangh's attempts to 'adopt' Patel are old. M S Golwalkar had tried to play Patel's anti-left instincts, urging him in letters to let the RSS help in battling the communist hold over the youth. The BJP, founded in 1980, seeks a past with a connect to the freedom struggle.

Deendayal Upadhyay and Syama Prasad Mookerjee never really attained iconic status, and the projection of L K Advani as the new Lauh Purush was part of the BJP's continuing attempt to appropriate Patel.

The Congress has always been a coalition, with a huge pantheon and long history. The BJP-RSS-Jana Sangh has tried to imagine an India minus the Nehru family. Setting up Patel and an imagined India had he been PM, is helpful, though not necessarily factual. In February 1949 Patel had said, "Hindu Raj is a mad idea, it will kill the soul of India."

How did the trajectories of Patel and Nehru differ? Where did each come from?

Their origins and personalities were very different, even though both were lawyers and extremely close to Gandhi. Nehru was an erudite Kashmiri Brahmin with very upper class credentials; Patel came from a Gujarati farming community of lesser means. Nehru was the more flamboyant and outward-looking.

How did each see Partition?

Patel, a staunch Hindu, helped both Hindus and Muslims, and saved many lives, a fact that even the Muslim League leader from UP, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman, acknowledged before he left for Pakistan. Patel immediately accepted Partition as an inevitability, and helped Nehru come to terms with it. Patel also thought that the onus was on Muslims to defeat suspicions about the actions of some of their co-religionists in the pre-Partition days. Nehru was a progressive Hindu who firmly believed that India must afford the same rights to all its citizens and, if anything, the minority must be treated with greater care.

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