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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was the most powerful man of his time.
The Mahatma was the most respected, Jawaharlal Nehru the most loved and Subhas Bose the most longed-for. But in terms of the iron control he exercised over the largest political apparatus in the country and the grip he had on political currents and cross-currents in virtually every province in India, the power wielded by the Patidar from Karamsad, Gujarat, had no match. No near-match, either. Not by far.
Gandhi loved Jawaharlal, trusted Prasad, admired Rajaji, esteemed Azad. But Patel, he leaned on and laughed with. Patel regarded Gandhi as his mentor, his leader.
And yet he 'owned' an equation with the Mahatma that was special. Everyone laughs differently with different people. What Gandhi and Patel planned together, worked-at together, history has recorded. What they laughed over, only they knew. And Gandhi's secretary, Mahadev Desai.
Here are two samples given by Desai in his diaries:
The year is 1932. They are all three prisoners, at Poona's Yeravada jail.
June 11, 1932.
Gandhi (in a sombre mood, contemplating death): Some day or other one must mount the shoulders of the bearers.
Patel: Bring the ship to shore first and then go where you like.
November 24, 1932.
Gandhi (on reading a hate-letter from a person who says that he, the writer, is unfortunate to be living in the same age as Gandhi): Tell me, what sort of reply should I send him?
Patel: Tell him to poison himself.
The Mahatma could not have guessed then that the man giving him this advice was the future deputy prime minister of India and the Sardar could not have known that he, as deputy prime minister and home minister, would have to answer difficult questions about the assassination of his leader.
Prime Minister Nehru and home minister Patel had different perceptions on the role of the RSS in the Gandhi assassination. But, as Rajmohan Gandhi tells us in his epic biography of Patel, Nehru wrote to Patel on February 3, 1948: "I have been greatly distressed by the persistence of whispers and rumours about you and me… We must put an end to this mischief".
Patel, addressing the Congress in the Constituent Assembly for the first time after Gandhi's departure, called Nehru "my leader". The home minister had no doubt in his mind as to who had conspired to kill Gandhi.
"It was the fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha", Patel wrote to Nehru, on February 27, 1948, "that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through". A ban followed.
The country's leading socialists targeted the home minister for his ministry's failure to protect Gandhi and asked him to resign. They did not know that Patel had already sent in his resignation to Nehru who had refused to countenance it.
Patel heard his critics patiently and then said he had had several arguments with the Mahatma to let police be stationed in the house he was staying in, but Gandhi had turned the idea down outright. And then Patel told his socialist critics not to "exploit the greatest misfortune and calamity of the nation for party ends".
Patel's death stunned the nation, Nehru more than anyone else. He was now all in all but all alone. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is reported to have alleged that Nehru did not attend Patel's funeral.
Only the ignorant will believe this. Prime Minister Nehru went to Bombay to attend the last rites of his comrade and before doing so, told Parliament "…he will be remembered as a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom and as one who gave us sound advice in times of trouble and in moments of victory, as a friend and a colleague on whom one could invariably rely, as a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts".
With all their differences of style and temperament, Nehru and Patel would have given the country a balance of leadership styles, Prasad and Rajaji helping to cement the duumvirate. But the Fates willed otherwise.
Patel's death, Prasad's absorption into constitutional propriety and Rajaji's returning to Madras left the Congress a one-tree hill. And despite Nehru's instinctively democratic temper, a slow but steady mono-culturism took hold over the party which forgot, surprisingly fast, its most powerful "captain".
Does the BJP have any right, political, moral or any other, to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel? None. But it does have an excuse to do so.
The misuse of Patel is the result of the disuse of Patel, the counterfeiting of Patel is the result of the forfeiting of Patel. The BJP would never have thought of gilding the Sardar's legacy if it had not got dust-laden and cob-webbed in its own home.
Party politics in today's India is a child of political power practices from ancient and medieval times. These, to over-simplify them, have traditionally spun around two cults.
First, the hero-worshipping of a figure who is thought to be half-man and half-lion or tiger. This cult may be called lionism. The second, a sycophantic worshipping of descendants thought to be indestructibly self-perpetuating. This cult may be called scionism.
Both cults operate within and across the main political divide of India, especially in the states where the lion and tiger loom large as symbols, and where dynastic arrangements reign in most parties. Lionism and scionism have sought to perpetuate themselves by propitiating their icons. Both are in tragic error, both futile.
Patel would have told both cults off in no uncertain terms. We must not let the misappropriation of Patel go unchallenged. But we must seek his re-appropriation nationally, for we need his aura and Nehru's to work together again.
The hollow 'hunkar' of a lion's paper mask has tried to blow the dust off Patel's legacy. It has coated it, in the process, with the out-breath of a poor joke.
But the dramatics have done us all an unintended favour. They have jogged our memories of the tower of strength that we, in our troubled times, need so urgently to revive our wavering hearts.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal