Modi said this in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress prime minister, who shared the dais with him at the inauguration of a national museum dedicated to the Iron Man.
Manmohan counters Modi
The prime minister indirectly countered Modi's remarks by saying later that he was proud to be a member of a party to which Sardar Patel had once belonged. He also praised Patel as the truly secular character who had played a big role in unifying India. Singh had said earlier this month that secular forces must come together to face onslaught of people like Modi. So one can relate the link between the current Sardar's words on secularists who unite the country and those who need to be countered.
Why Patel is a significant personality for Modi?
But how does this externalisation of the Congress-BJP debate helps? The battle over the legacy of a towering leader of the past is definitely a political tool ahead of the elections. For Modi, Patel offers a number of advantages. First, he is a Gujarati. Secondly, he is known for his administrative quality and third and most importantly for him, he is not a member of the Gandhi dynasty and the Congress has not taken enough care to preserve his legacy as it has done with the Nehrus and Gandhis. All these provide a perfect blend of a leadership that Modi, who is trying hard to mark a transition from the regional to the national, is also seeking. Another Gujarati Mahatma Gandhi is also there but it difficult to identify him with a regional tag for his appeal is too universal.
Congress worried over losing one of its icons?
The Congress, on the other hand, is worried that Modi might hijack its icon like by planning to make a huge statue of Patel with iron pieces gathered from across the nation. It is also worried that through deifying Patel's leadership, the opponent might succeed in belittling its traditional powerhouse, i.e., the Gandhi dynasty.
Hence, when Modi says that Patel should have been India's first prime minister, Manmohan Singh quickly mentioned that Patel had a very good relation with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and that he was a man who had united the country with a strong hand. Through this, the Congress makes a soft effort to juxtapose Patel's unifying role with Modi's polarising role.
As far as the secular character of Sardar Patel is concerned, there could be debates about who was more secular: Nehru or Patel? Yet the Congress doesn't care for an analysis for it believes projecting Patel's secular credentials would negate Modi's claims to conquer him.
Battle over personalities exhibits a trend
But more than the political confrontation, the battle over Patel shows the deep division that the Indian federalism witnesses today, between the central and regional. It is indeed an irony that the man who himself had unified India once, has his identity divided today. Tomorrow, Mamata Banerjee might rake up a Bengali nationalism and say Subhash Chandra Bose would have been a more successful prime minister and not Jawaharlal Nehru, something which is informally heard in the nook and corner of Bengal. Similar sentiments have also been seen growing around Dr B R Ambedkar.The analysis is simple: These leaders had belonged to a Congress that was essentially a social coalition. Today, its base has eroded and the subsequent rise of the regional forces has caused an identity crisis for these past leaders, who had assembled together once from various backgrounds for a common cause.
To conclude, the tug-of-war over Patel's legacy might look more as a narrow political strategy, but in essence, the game is about the deepening democratisation of the Indian polity.