As Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveils Sardar Patel's Statue of Unity on Wednesday, we will see a return of the Nehru vs Patel debate that would also be a Congress vs BJP, one right up to the general elections. With Mahatma Gandhi choosing Nehru as his political heir, freedom generation never had the choice to have this debate. Nehru outliving Sardar Patel by 14 years also contributed in some ways to the lack of need to get into the question.
But a section of populace always did. Whether Sardar Patel as first Prime Minister of free India would have meant a very different India from what we have now? An India minus the Kashmir problem? An India possibly more comfortable with hard power projection and hence better placed to tackle Pakistan and China?
The numbers kept increasing with each failure of Nehru, and post his death, with the overall withering of Indian State. A great mass of this belonged to the Indian right, or gravitated towards them, which explains why a resurrection of Patel is happening under Modi. Him being a Gujarati is also a reflection of how Patel having been wronged is a strong sentiment in Gujarat.
For the BJP, Patel provides a palimpsest on which to build its anti-Nehru, or more specifically anti Nehru-dynasty counter narrative. For Modi, Patel's appeal is even more potent as a symbol of what a strong leader should be. Patel is sometimes called the Bismarck of India and hence the epithet Iron-man. While Bismarck had united Germany with blood and Iron, Patel did so solely with an Iron fist and determination, thus making him when more relevant for Modi's Sabka-Sath-Sabka-Vikas slogan.
The discomfiture of the Congress is visible. In the grip of Nehru dynasty, the party has never admitted that it reduced the stature of leaders like Patel and Ambedkar by design. Congress response was framed by Manmohan Singh on October 29, 2013, when as UPA Prime Minister he said Patel was a Congressman first. Singh was inaugurating Patel memorial in Ahmedabad in the presence of Modi as the then Gujarat CM.
Subsequently, Congress leaders keep underscoring the fact of Patel banning RSS after Gandhi's assassination, which was repealed in his lifetime itself. But the party has no answers to why for example a Bharat Ratna could be awarded to Nehru in his lifetime, but Patel had to wait for a non-Congress government in 1991 for the same honour posthumously.
For the detractors of the Statue of Unity, it is the old hospitals versus guns, or schools versus tanks argument. They fail to understand that apart from being an engineering marvel, the Statue is also a marker of a nation's resolve to achieve targets. Meanwhile, in dedicating the Statue of Unity to the nation, Modi would most likely take complete ownership of Patel legacy.