Interviewed by India Today in December 2007 — shortly after he was re-elected chief minister of Gujarat — Narendra Modi remarked that his “icons are Veer Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi”.
When I read this, the first thing that struck me was that Modi’s four icons would have fiercely argued amongst themselves. The socialist atheist Bhagat Singh had little time for the other three. Savarkar and Gandhi disagreed on the question of violence, and more substantially on the question of whether India should be a Hindu nation (Savarkar’s view) or whether it should not discriminate among citizens on the basis of their religion (Gandhi’s position).
Of Modi’s quartet, only Patel and Gandhi would have been comfortable working with one another — which is of course what they did in practice, from the time Patel left his law career in 1917 to the Mahatma’s death in 1948.
So, on reading that interview in December 2007, I thought — how does Modi reconcile these antipathies in his mind and in his politics? Could one really make a palatable cocktail of policy prescriptions by mixing Savarkar and Bhagat Singh with Patel and Gandhi?
The second thing that struck me was the absence of the man who had once most profoundly influenced Modi. This was MS Golwalkar, the long-serving sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who made the organisation into a major force in Indian politics. Modi was schooled in the RSS, had read Golwalkar extensively, and had even written a paean to him in Gujarati. But to the English press, at any rate, Modi would not acknowledge Golwalkar as a mentor.
Recently, a friend of mine visited the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi. He found that, behind the PM’s desk, there hung three portraits: those of Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Jawaharlal Nehru. So, from that original listing of four, two were still important enough for them to be visually represented. But Savarkar and Bhagat Singh had no place on the walls of the Prime Minister’s Office; nor, indeed, had Golwalkar. Another thinker-activist Modi has often praised, Swami Vivekananda, was also absent.
Even more notable than the omissions was the inclusion of Jawaharlal Nehru. This makes Modi’s new trinity far more coherent than the quartet he offered us in 2007. For Gandhi, Patel and Nehru were comrades in a common cause. Gandhi was the leader of the Congress, which was itself the main vehicle of the freedom struggle; Patel the main organiser of the party and its units; Nehru the charismatic and popular leader whose campaigning was crucial to the Congress in the elections of 1937 and 1946. Then, when independence came, Nehru and Patel served as prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively, in the first government of free India.
Much has been made in recent months of the temperamental differences between Nehru and Patel. But the fact is that they worked closely together, and (as I have previously argued in these columns) complemented one another. On the other hand, one could never imagine Savarkar and Gandhi, or Bhagat Singh and Patel, ever being members of the same party or colleagues in the same government.
During his campaign Modi called for a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’. The election results decimated the Congress — that is to say, the Congress of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Yet the man most responsible for this decimation now displays in his office the photographs of three Congressmen of an earlier (and, for that party at least) far greater age. This is a delicious irony, but one which may arouse negative emotions in Modi’s colleagues in the BJP and, especially, the RSS. I would give anything to be a fly on the wall when Mohan Bhagwat next enters the Prime Minister’s office.
The RSS detested Nehru and were at best ambivalent about Gandhi. Nehru returned the detestation, with interest, referring in December 1947 to the Sangh as “a private army” that was “definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines”. Gandhi was as ambivalent towards the Sangh as they were towards him; speaking to an RSS camp in Delhi in September 1947, he said he had heard the organisation was responsible for violence against Muslims. Noting that the Sangh was “a well-organized, well-disciplined body”, he pointedly added that “its strength could be used in the interest of India or against it”.
The columnist Aakar Patel recently wrote that whatever the prime minister may say in public, his real hero remains Golwalkar. He even predicted that Modi would award Golwalkar a Bharat Ratna before his term ended. Mr Patel is a far closer student of Modi than I, but on this matter I am not sure his prediction will come to pass. For Golwalkar was, by any objective reckoning, a reactionary and a bigot. His writings may have inspired Modi in his early years as a pracharak, and even in his first term as chief minister of Gujarat. Now that he is prime minister, and seeks to shape India and influence the world, Modi perhaps wishes to identify with leaders whose ideas are at once less divisive and more modern.
Whether Modi’s new photo gallery is based on a genuine change of heart or is merely adroit rebranding, I do not know. But it does represent a striking departure from his past. For hatred of Nehru was the raison d’etre of the RSS. Before he became prime minister, Modi made some nasty remarks about Nehru. But now he wears Nehru jackets, displays a photograph of Nehru in his office, and, like Nehru, takes direct control of India’s foreign policy. These are interesting times.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_GuhaThe views expressed by the author are personal