The Bharatiya Janata Party certainly has an obsession so far as the front ranking functionaries of the Congress are concerned. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks during his speech in Parliament, on the “motion of thanks” address by the President, to highlight differences in the approach between Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel were pointedly aimed at putting down the first Indian head of the government in order to showcase his deputy as the more able leader.
It is another point that Nehru and Patel, despite their sharp differences on several issues, took joint decisions on crucial matters, a fact that has been endorsed by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and eminent historian Rajmohan Gandhi. Significantly, Patel who was senior in age to Nehru was not a contender for the coveted office, and gave his full support till the very end to the government of which he was an integral part as a key and pivotal member.
Patel indeed was a patriot and true nationalist who was wedded to the Congress ideology. It can be argued that post his demise in December, 1950, his family members did not receive the due prominence that should have come their way, given his contribution both to the party and the freedom struggle. This, however, does not imply that he was a supporter of the Hindutva brand of politics. Modi must be lauded for lavishly praising Patel, who in his estimation, appears to be more noteworthy than leaders and functionaries graduating to national politics after doing their apprenticeship in the Sangh Parivar.
Historically speaking, there have been several top BJP leaders who have been captivated by Congress legends; Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani for instance, appeared to be greatly enamoured by Congress stalwarts and attempted to shape themselves in their mould. For Vajpayee, Nehru was a role model. Even though, he was the most iconic BJP leader of his time, Vajpayee never concealed his admiration for Nehru. His actions were inspired by his ideals, and as External Affairs Minister in the Morarji Desai Government, he subscribed to the Nehruvian doctrine. It is a well-known fact that for Vajpayee, Nehru was an extremely tall national figure. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when Bharatiya Jan Sangh’s former president Mauli Chandra Sharma publicly criticised Nehru, it was Vajpayee who rose in his defence, and subsequently ensured that he did not hold on to that position for too long. Sharma ultimately joined the Congress, after severing his links with the Jana Sangh.
The Jana Sangh co-founder, the late Balraj Madhok had once recounted an anecdote dating to the early sixties when he had lashed out at Nehru. Vajpayee accosted him in the Central Hall and rebuked him for being harsh on the Prime Minister while advising him to refrain from making such comments in the future. Acharya Kripalani who was present at that moment, told Madhok that Vajpayee’s defence was on account of the patronage he received from the then Prime Minister. It is on record that Madhok and Vajpayee never shared good chemistry, and the former accused the latter and Nanaji Deshmukh, another senior leader, of being responsible for the assassination of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya on 11 February 1968 at Mughal Sarai. The accusations held no water for Vajpayee who throughout his life continued to be inspired by Nehru.
So far as Advani is concerned, he was the first top-ranking BJP leader who attempted to model himself around Patel. It will always remain a secret on whether it was politics that drove him to publicly acclaim Patel since he was an elected Lok Sabha member from Gujarat or whether it was his way of conveying to the RSS supremos that there was nobody from the Sangh stable who was tall enough to be emulated including both Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.
Advani during his stint as the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister was likened by his supporters to the Sardar for his decisiveness and iron-clad resolve as against Vajpayee’s more humane and softer approach. It was not without reason that Advani was also referred to as, “Loh Purush”, a term used earlier to describe Patel in his hey days. Ironically, Vajpayee and Advani shared a rapport which bears close resemblance to the affinity between Nehru and Patel. Both were at peace with each other, and their glad consent at being addressed by the titles used for the two Congress leaders in the early years of Independence was to appropriate primary positions in the hierarchy of the Sangh Parivar. By doing so, they inadvertently or deliberately, relegated other Jana Sangh leaders, some perhaps senior and more eminent than both of them, to the background. It is not a surprise that the majority of supporters of the BJP do not have either any recollection or historical narrative pertaining to prominent Jana Sangh leaders other than Vajpayee and Advani.
The curious twist in the tale is that the current BJP leadership is using similar tactics, and by focussing more on the Congress and rarely on contributions of past party icons, is letting the top two to fade away. Vajpayee is unwell, and Advani is in the Marg Darshak Mandal. Nehru and Patel dominate the political discourse in the era where Modi is the supreme leader and Amit Shah his deputy. History, indeed, has strange ways of repeating itself. Between us.