India’s Historical Hijacker

NEW DELHI – As the political temperature heats up in India, with five state assembly elections this month and a general election due to be held by April, one might expect Indian leaders to be dueling over visions of the future. Instead, they have been engaged for weeks in an unseemly brawl about the past.

The main opposition leader, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has moved aggressively to lay claim to the legacy of one of India’s most respected founders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Like Modi, Patel was from Gujarat, where Modi is now Chief Minister. He was a determined nationalist, a key leader of the independence struggle, and a lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi.

As independent India’s first deputy prime minister and home minister, Patel is credited with the integration of roughly 600 princely states, sometimes by persuasion and sometimes by force. A firm, tough, and effective administrator, Patel, who died in 1950 at the age of 75, is revered as the “Iron Man” of India.

In the normal course of events, Patel’s illustrious life might have been left to the history books. But Modi, seeking to wrap himself in a more distinguished lineage than the BJP can claim, has called on farmers across India to donate iron from their plows to construct a giant 550-foot statue of the Iron Man in Gujarat. When finished, it will be by far the world’s largest statue, dwarfing New York City’s Statue of Liberty and Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. But it will be a monument less to the modest Gandhian it ostensibly honors than to its builder’s overweening ambitions.