The usually loyal Patels are furious with Narendra Modi for disrespecting their chieftain
Indians cycle past the main entrance of the Narendra Modi Stadium, a venue for India's popular game of cricket, near Ahmedabad city in Gujarat state on May 4, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
June appears to be the cruelest month for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), although the former seems unfazed if his silence is any indicator.
The Islamic world is furious with a BJP spokesperson's remarks on the Prophet Muhammad while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also called out India for rising attacks on religious minorities.
What the world and the nation aren’t aware of is the challenge facing the Indian prime minister on his home turf.
The Patidars or Patels, who form the backbone of the BJP’s political support base in Modi’s home state of Gujarat in western India, are furious with him.
The members of this financially and politically influential agrarian caste who claim to have descended from Lord Ram are also staunch followers of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a former federal home minister credited with securing India’s unity in the aftermath of independence preceded by a bloody partition.
The sardar or chieftain of the Patel peasants thus came to be known as India’s “Iron Man” and his name was given to a cricket stadium originally built on the outskirts of Gujarat’s principal city of Ahmadabad in 1982.
Why would the prime minister want to replace Gujarat’s arguably greatest leader after Mahatma Gandhi at the risk of irking the Patels?
What has irked the Patels is the decision to replace the sardar’s name with the prime minister’s in February 2021 on the grounds that it was Modi who in 2015 conceptualized and transformed the Sardar Patel Stadium into one of the world’s biggest sporting complexes with a capacity of 132,000 spectators.
But a majority of Patels are peeved and even allege a “fraud” behind the renaming. Some have even pledged to restore the “lost prestige and honor” of the community’s sardar.
To set the record straight, Modi has himself been a staunch follower of Sardar Patel. What has puzzled even his devotees and admirers is the brazen manner in which he agreed to the idea of renaming.
Why would the prime minister want to replace Gujarat’s arguably greatest leader after Mahatma Gandhi at the risk of irking the Patels? After all, Gujarat and the Patels have played a vital role in propelling him and the BJP into India’s political center stage.
The western state is known as the original laboratory of Hindutva or Hindu religious nationalism, where extremist Hindu groups began testing political waters by unleashing targeted violence against Muslims and Christians soon after the BJP came to power for the first time in 1998 with Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister.
Clearly, this is a politically awkward situation for the prime minister, who thought he had already earned the stamp of Patel devotion by raising the world’s tallest statue in memory of Sardar Patel in the backwaters of the mighty Narmada Dam.
By this singular act, Modi and his BJP meant to inherit the Iron Man’s legacy from the Congress, which is often accused of ignoring him, in life and death, for the more charismatic first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
This play with the nation’s imagination stands exposed now, at least in Gujarat. The Congress and other opposition parties haven’t tired of reminding the Patels and Gujaratis how it was an “insult” to their sardar.
“Modi is a creation of social media. We can and should also use this lethal weapon to demolish him to achieve our goal"
And the Patidar community is openly threatening to dislodge the BJP from Gujarat at the forthcoming provincial elections scheduled for November.
Dhanjibhai Patidar, a firebrand leader who is spearheading the movement to restore the honor of the community icon, told UCA News that they will not rest until the original name — Sardar Patel Stadium — is restored.
The community, he said, has floated an 11-member committee aptly named the Sardar Sanman Sankalp Andolan Samiti (SSSAS) and comprising non-political persons, mostly youth, to push its demand.
Dhanjibhi is optimistic about countering Modi and his BJP through the effective use of social media. “Modi is a creation of social media. We can and should also use this lethal weapon to demolish him to achieve our goal,” he said.
Yet prominent Patidar leaders like SSSAS convener Atul Patel and former union minister Dinsha Patel aren’t able to decode Modi’s political plans and actions.
They concede that when the idea of renovating the old stadium complex was conceived, around 1000 top businessmen and industrialists from the Patidar community had fully backed Modi. “But even these top-notch Patidars will desert the ruling party and switch political sides now,” Dhanjibhai predicted.
Leaders of the movement trust Sardar Patel will continue to play the great unifier even though he died several decades ago. Already, it had brought together, if not united, the two main sub-sects of Patidars — the Leuvas and Kadva Patels — who do not usually see eye to eye.
The sub-sect of Kadva Patidars affiliated with Umiya Mata, the community goddess, remain strongly aligned with the BJP. The temple trust’s president Babulal Jamunadas is a sitting BJP legislator.
“Perhaps he’s too much in love with himself to allow such a sycophantic ploy to dent his image"
It is the Patidars affiliated to the Khodal Dham temple, a patron deity of the Leuva sub-sect, who have kept aloof. Its head Naresh Patel is likely to take the plunge into electoral politics and is speculated to be the opposition Congress’ chief ministerial face.
If this happens, the renaming controversy could snowball into a major political issue in the upcoming state assembly elections.
The issue continues to rankle a section of Gujarati civil society. Prabhakar Khamar, who was personal secretary to Sardar Patel’s late daughter, Maniben, said if Modi claims to be a genuine follower of the sardar, he shouldn’t have allowed the stadium to be renamed after him.
“Even now he should voluntarily ask the Gujarat Cricket Association to drop his name,” Khamar opined.
There are many like Khamar who believe the renaming was a ploy by Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s confidant and fellow Gujarati.
Modi characteristically has chosen to remain silent, making journalist Hari Desai wonder why he would allow such a contentious issue to simmer.
“Perhaps he’s too much in love with himself to allow such a sycophantic ploy to dent his image,” Desai said.
But Rizwan Quadri, a historian who is also a self-confessed Modi fan, said the controversy was uncalled for because the larger complex still carries Sardar Patel’s name while only the cricketing arena was named after the prime minister.
“In fact, PM Modi deserves praise for building the world’s largest stadium complex,” he told UCA News.
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