Modi’s Game Plan:Cashing on Mahatma Gandhi & Sardar Patel’s Images?

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by Nilofar Suhrawardy 26 September, 2019

The importance accorded by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to several values and symbols attached with life of Mahatma Gandhi, also known as Father of the Nation in India, cannot be de-linked from his communication strategy, politically as well as diplomatically. The irony of Mahatma Gandhi being linked strongly with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s key rival party, that is the Congress, cannot be ignored. In addition to Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhai Patel is another Congress-stalwart being given a great importance by Modi and his supporters. Clearly, they would not have indulged in these moves if they did not spell any gain for Modi and BJP.

Instantly, one is prompted to deliberate on whether regional affiliation of the two historical figures has anything to do with Modi showering praises on both. Mahatma Gandhi is elevated by him in India and abroad while his praise for Patel is primarily confined to Indian circles. Both Gandhi and Patel belonged to Gujarat, the home state of Modi. It is possible that regional affinity has led Modi to eulogize both but it is difficult to say the same about his having gone a little overboard regarding the two. This is all the more difficult to accept as both were strongly associated with the Congress. Were they members of any other party, the situation would have been different.

The hard reality that Nathuram Godse, assassin of Mahatma Gandhi was a member Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)- of which BJP is the political wing- cannot also be ignored. Quite a number of BJP members, who are linked with RSS, hold Godse in great esteem. A controversy was raised during the campaign for recently held parliamentary elections when a BJP candidate described Godse as a “patriot.” 

Modi is certainly not oblivious of these facts. However, he has, apparently, chosen to plan his communication strategy from a different angle. Let us accept it, new generation of people and majority of common Indians are most likely not familiar with political background of both Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Not many, in all probability, are aware of their political association with Congress. Both have even led Congress for a particular period. But Modi is apparently not at all concerned about this aspect. What bears greater relevance for him, apparently, is that most Indians are not too familiar with political affiliation of both Gandhi and Patel.

Ironically, Congress party has also not given much importance to its historical figures being given so much importance by Modi, that too in a positive light. Of course, Modi and his saffron brigade associates have paid attention to other Congress leaders also, during their electoral campaigning, but they have been largely targeted along negative lines. Of this, most popular jargons are blaming Gandhi family (Sonia, Rahul and others) for confining hold of Congress to one family; projecting Rahul as a weak leader; foreign origin of Sonia and so forth.  

Let us first analyze the probable factor responsible for elevation of Sardar Patel by Modi and his party. As mentioned earlier, the issue would have been different if Patel was not a member of Congress. Considering that BJP views Congress as its key rival and has not spared the party and most of its leaders in virtually verbally lashing out at them particularly during its campaigns, importance accorded to Sardar Patel does spring a surprise. This includes construction of a 790 ft tall statue of  Sardar Patel in Kevadiya colony, Narmada district, Gujarat. Begun on October 13, 2013, when Modi was the state chief minister, the statue was completed on October 30, 2018. It was open for public on October 31, 2018.  Named the “Statue of Unity,” the project is called “Gujarat’s Tribute to the Nation.”

In all probability, if Sardar Patel was not a Gujarati and/or if held some other name, Modi may not have taken so many steps to display the “reverence” he and his party have for him. Patel is a common Gujarati name and represents a community whose votes have great significance. Clearly, Modi has gone overboard to win electoral support of Patels by displaying the respect he has for Sardar Patel. Modi’s political strategy on this front has been primarily confined to India.

Modi has chosen not to be bothered by Sardar Patel’s political association. Patel was the 49th President of Indian National Congress in 1931. He served as the first Deputy Prime Minister of India. During the same period, from August 15, 1947 till his death, December 15, 1950 he was also the Minister of Home Affairs and the first Commander-in-Chief of Indian Armed Forces. During this period, Dr Rajendra Prasad was the President and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the Prime Minister, both of whom were Congress stalwarts. While Prasad headed the Congress in 1934 and 1935, Nehru led it in 1936 and 1937.

Sardar Patel was certainly a strong Congress leader. Also, Congress cannot be blamed from not recognizing his political credentials. The situation would have been different if Sardar Patel had not been accorded any ministerial portfolio and not been made the deputy prime minister, after the country secured freedom from British colonialism.

With respect to Mahatma Gandhi, there is no denying that he enjoys great respect across the world. A statue or some other symbolic tribute to him is visible in a number of countries. As is well-known, he played a great role in helping India achieving freedom through a non-violent movement. His life-style and other symbols associated with him, from his dhoti, foot-wear, spectacles and others bear their own distinct importance. He served as 43rd President of Congress in 1924. As indicated earlier, Gandhi’s linkage with Congress probably bears little importance for Modi. What certainly carries great significance for him is diplomatic image of Gandhi.

Modi launched Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission on October 2, 2014, saying, “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th anniversary in 2019.” Modi’s strategy has succeeded diplomatically. This is partly marked by his being conferred Global Gatekeepers Award from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Swachh Bharat Mission, this September, during his visit to US. However, a lot more needs to be done to assure basic facilities as a part of Modi’s cleanliness drive, including construction of toilets in rural areas, along roadways and so forth.

Interestingly, opposition has been voiced to Modi being conferred this award on account of minorities still being targeted in India, sufferings being faced by Kashmiris, his own political background tainted by Gujarat-carnage (2002) when he was the state chief minister and several other reasons. Modi is hopeful that lauding praises on Mahatma Gandhi’s values, including his cleanliness drive, will distract people’s attention- at home and abroad- from the negative impact of some of his policies as well as communal activities of right-winged elements linked with his party.  In other words, Modi’s communication strategy directed towards associating his cleanliness drive with Mahatma Gandhi aims to enhance his own diplomatic image.

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