Five lessons from Sardar Patel's life for the BJP and the Congress

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 31, 2013 18:42 hrs

First, a mild confession. I have learned largely from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and haven't thus far spent much time on Vallabhbhai Patel. So why am I thinking of the Sardar now? I developed deeper interest after news came that the Iron Man of India might have the tallest statue erected by man on the planet. Size matters.

The Great Wall of China wouldn't be so if it were a normal wall. The Statue of Liberty wouldn't be what it is if it were in a park. And so on. Patel the Tall commands attention in a manner that Patel the Sardar didn't. Not exemplary, but that's how it is.

The current reason for thoughts on Sardar Patel is the everyday squabbling between the BJP and the Congress over the Sardar's work and legacy. The daily sniping between India's two principal parties is not in any way heartwarming.

The BJP and the Congress diminish in stature each time they use Sardar Patel to wound the other. They haven't let go even on the Sardar's birth anniversary today [31 October]. There are enough lessons from the Sardar's life that the BJP and the Congress can jointly take to the people of India. Here are five.
1. Sacrifice strengthens character
From early teens, perhaps pre-teens, Sardar Patel began to fast two days a month. He might have begun this as a religious ritual – in Hinduism as in other religions there are days when people abstain from food and water. But he soon figured out that fasting helped him get tough – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Some of this strength may have helped him later when a clerical error created a situation with his elder brother. Both brothers were keen on law and both had made plans to study in England. The documents meant for the Sardar arrived at the house of the Sardar's elder brother [both apparently used the same initials VJ].
The elder brother was upset and Sardar Patel let him go in his place. The BJP and the Congress today operate largely by a sort of me-first culture. Perhaps a study of the Sardar might help. 
2. Age does not define
Sardar Patel passed his matriculation at the age of 22, seven years later than most people. It made him look like he lacked ambition. Apparently the elders in the Sardar's family thought he would end up as nobody – struggling with the everyday problems of a common man.
But the Sardar kept at it. He may have had a private to do list and he quietly went about ticking the boxes. He became a lawyer, organised mass action, joined politics, became an important figure in the Congress party, and did a great job as India's first home minister.
Teenagers rush to kill themselves in today's world if they don't make the grade by, say, 15. The BJP and the Congress could conduct a campaign among youngsters that they have all the time in the world to make it. The Sardar would approve, if they did so. 
3. Self-made is best made
Sardar Patel, from all accounts, did not rely on his family of birth to get by. He spent long years away from home. He saved from what he earned, bought books from his savings and on occasion borrowed books from friends. Two years of this and the Sardar passed the law exams.
He took his wife with him and set up home on Godhra [now infamous after the 2002 train burning incident]. He started practice as a lawyer and provided for his family. This is a world away from the current culture in the BJP, the Congress, and several other parties where children cling to parents for a career.
The BJP and the Congress could incorporate in their respective constitutions that they would limit posts to one member from a family. They could conduct a joint campaign to cleanse Indian politics of nepotism. It would be true celebration of the Sardar.
4. Above all, wisdom
Wisdom may simply be understood as knowing what to do next. The Sardar seemed to possess this in bulk and he had the skill to do what he knew he had to. For instance, his wife was taken to Bombay [now Mumbai] in 1909 for cancer treatment.
She didn't recover; she died one day when Sardar Patel was at work in court. It is said that a note on his wife's death was passed to the Sardar when he was in the midst of questioning a witness. The story goes that he read the note, put it in his pocket and continued his grilling.
When his work was done for the day, Patel told a few friends that his wife had died. It is said that the Sardar won the case he was fighting the day his wife died. We don't hear of such stories about today's politicians. It might help the BJP and the Congress to learn from the Sardar.
5. Stay grateful
Until the end, the Sardar stayed true to Mahatma Gandhi. He had chosen Gandhi as his mentor and he abided by everything the Mahatma asked him to do. Sardar Patel, as is well documented, did not stake claim to the Congress presidency around the time of Independence although he had majority support in the party.
Jawaharlal Nehru took the post instead and became India's first prime minister. Gandhi wanted it this way and the Sardar agreed. Sardar Patel was the last man to meet Gandhi before the Mahatma was assassinated. Sardar wanted to quit the Nehru government; Gandhi said no. The Sardar stayed on.
Weeks after Gandhi was assassinated, the Sardar had a huge heart attack. Rajmohan Gandhi's book says the Sardar said the attack was caused by the grief he had repressed at Gandhi's death. The Sardar never discussed private matters in public, however angry the quarrel.
Seniors in the BJP and the Congress demean the Sardar when they fight over him. It might make more sense to read about the Sardar. Learn from his life. Stay calm. Be generous. Avoid trying to master India. 
Let India be the master. 
For then, the Sardar would genuinely stand tall. No statue can match the stature of a man who lives on in the hearts of his people. If he didn't, even a statue reaching for the sky would make no difference.

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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.Vijay Simha blogs here and may be contacted at

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