Does Sardar Patel deserve respect for his role in unifying India? If Narendra Modi had not taken the initiative to build the statue at such a huge cost, one suspects the popular discourse would have been different. That the Prime Minister chose to pay tribute to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had banned the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse in 1948, should, therefore, be regarded as yet another instance of his tendency to accord greater value to symbolism rather than substance.

If the charge of misappropriating Patel is levelled against Modi, or if it is argued that the entire purpose of building this statute is to win the game of one-upmanship over the Congress prior to the general elections due next year, equally valid is the counter-argument that the Congress, engrossed in its single-minded worship of the Nehru dynasty, has been rather parsimonious in acknowledging the role of Sardar Patel.

Sardar Patel was the neglected icon of the Congress iconography, a fact fully exploited and plugged by Mr Modi. It is curious to see how the Congress has treated with varying degrees of veneration the perfect troika in its fold ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, highly complementary to one another despite their dissimilar origins, upbringing, temperaments and even beliefs. The BJP finds it quite hard to sift the grain from the chaff, as it were, in seeking to dissociate itself from anything remotely related to the Nehruvian legacy.

Territory is an important factor. It is due to Sardar Patel that we get to see a vast tract of unified India, which without Patel and Menon taking charge might well have led to many pockets of Pakistan within a truncated India, the glaring example of which is one part of Kashmir going under the occupation of Pakistan.

Kashmir, in fact, set Patel and Nehru apart in terms of the outcome because the first Prime Minister wanted to handle it himself through his friend Sheikh Abdullah, whose sincerity and integrity was not trusted by Patel. That the disastrous fate of Kashmir would have been completely reversed had Patel been given the charge to handle the issue is the most wishful counterfactual still doing the rounds.

“When the British left India,” wrote Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon, “the unity even of divided India was in danger. Some 560 princely states had been left in the air. It was open to them to adhere to India, to accede to Pakistan, or to remain independent… It almost looked as if India was going to be Balkanised. But this danger was averted by the firm handling of the Princes by a man of iron, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.”

When Clement Attlee announced in 1946 that in view of the Dominion Status being granted to India, paramountcy would lapse and it would become incumbent upon the princely states either to join one of the Dominions or choose to be independent, Sardar Patel played a leading role to ensure that over 550 such states join the Indian Union.

This could not have been possible without the brilliant civil servant V.P. Menon taking charge of the States Department on 5 July 1946. In a little over a year all the states ~ but for Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagarh ~ had acceded to India before 15 August 1947. By achieving integration of over 560 princely states in a matter of 18 months, Patel thus outdid Bismarck.

The integration of the 550- odd States (561 of 562 with Kashmir finally remaining outside the loop) in a whirlwind is surely the crowning achievement of Sardar Patel, a job which, without being accomplished might easily have divided the subcontinent into a third major segment of the smaller princely states banding together round the more powerful rulers in independent blocs.

This would have led to the balkanisation of a large part of what remained as unified India. This was a feat Sardar Patel achieved which established him as a true statesman. The exercise was based, according to BK Ahluwalia, one of his biographers, on his astute skill of persuasion.

“He did not cut the knots, he unravelled them. He did not destroy, he disarmed. He did not coerce, he induced. He did not pressurise, he appealed. In difficult cases, he did not threaten, he forewarned.” Besides Menon, the other player who played an important role was, of course, Lord Mountbatten.

Menon, under the advice of Patel, drafted two documents, one of which was called an Instrument of Accession and another a Standstill Agreement. The Instrument of Accession was a mechanism with which the states could accede to the Dominion of India on the three subjects of defence, external affairs and communications. The Standstill Agreement laid down that all pre-existing agreements and administrative arrangements between the Crown and the States would continue until new arrangements were made and it was meant for only those rulers who opposed the policy of accession.

And the job was not easy. On the one hand, there were the Maharajas of Baroda, Gwalior, Patiala and Bikaner who took a leading role. On the other, there were recalcitrant ones like the rulers of Bhopal, Travancore and Hyderabad who were causing great anxiety to the Government of India.

Some like the Maharaja of Jodhpur, almost about to be ‘trapped’ by Jinnah, were salvaged at the last minute. The Nawab of Junagadh, the place which boasts Somnath and many other famous Hindu and Jain temples, caused a lot of trouble, leading eventually to a referendum held by the Government of India on February 20, 1948. The people decidedly and overwhelmingly voted in favour of accession to India. In the instance of Hyderabad, Sardar Patel showed his true mettle that could rightly qualify him for the sobriquet “Iron Man”.

If Narendra Modi is to be blamed for seeking to raise a statue at great cost to the nation, and equating the size of his respect for the leader with the size of the statue, blame it instead on the power of symbolism in general and the culture of idolatry in particular, of which there is a time-honoured tradition in India. Often imbued with life as a fetish, statues are subject as much to veneration as to iconoclasm.

And there had been no dearth of white elephants in our country. The cash-strapped Maharashtra government is determined to erect a mid-sea statue of Shivaji at a cost of Rs.3,600 crore. The estimated project expenditure to build a Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train link has come to a whopping Rs 98,000 crore, to run between two cities already well connected by road, rail and air.

A legitimate point to reflect upon is why Patel was picked up to the exclusion of Gandhiji and Netaji. Why cannot Ashoka find a pride of place alongside Shivaji? Ashoka expanded his empire by conquest and alliances. It eventually covered the entire subcontinent except for the southernmost tip, and incorporated present-day Pakistan, Kashmir, south-eastern Iran, much of Afghanistan and probably Nepal ~ an area of 13 million sq. km.

It was the largest empire in the world at the time and the largest in Indian history, surpassed by neither the Mughals nor the British. Since the death of Emperor Asoka in 232 BC, large parts of the subcontinent had been conquered by the Turks, Afghans, Persians and Tocharians, as well as by Mongols. The answer probably is a statue built in their names could not have fetched political dividends.

The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.