Until Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister of India, October 31, 2020 was usually remembered as the day of the martyrdom of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Gunned down by her own bodyguards on this day in 1984, it was marked by solemn ceremonies and floral tributes at ‘Shakti Sthal,’ her memorial, by Gandhi family members and the Congress Party. It was as if another great Congress leader, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose birthday it also was, was entirely overlooked and forgotten by his own party.
With Modi, all this changed definitively. He rechristened October 31 as ‘Rashtriya Ekta Diwas’ or National Unity Day. Modi hailed Patel as India’s great unifier, who had amalgamated, largely through peaceful persuasion, some 555 princely states from the huge Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir, more than 200,000 sq km each, to tiny principalities, consisting of just a handful of villages, into the Indian Union.
Modi thus revived and re-appropriated for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and for himself the prestige of a leader that Congress had neglected. So important was Patel in his vision of new India that Modi built the world’s tallest statue in his likeness at Kevadia, Gujarat, on the banks of the Narmada. The Statue of Unity stands 182 metres tall, a good 30 metres taller than its nearest competitor, the Spring Temple Buddha in China. The monument has already attracted millions of visitors.
It was raining heavily when I visited the Statue of Unity last year on October 31. As we drove up the curvaceous, immaculately macadamised road to the gigantic Statue of Unity, I knew that I was approaching not just a statue, but a dream: big, ambitious, visionary. Modi had a singular mission to make India ‘future ready.’ Writing about my visit, I had observed that in the hushed, rain-soaked darkness, the road signs, like gleaming cyphers, seemed to summon the visitor to the promise of the future, freed from a smudged and soiled past.
This year, Modi was back at the Statue of Unity to celebrate National Unity Day. He paid floral tributes to Patel on the latter’s 145th birth anniversary, then administered the ‘national unity pledge’ at the parade ground, inspecting the march past and tableaus by various state police and central paramilitary organisations. Witnessing the parade and its impressive theatrics, I thought the National Unity Day had become a unique complement to Republic Day. After all, how could the republic survive without unity?
This time Modi inaugurated 17 new projects. Of these, Arogya Van (health park), Ekta Mall (unity mall), Children’s Nutrition Park, Sardar Patel Zoological Park, Jungle Safari, aviary, butterfly garden, and so on, were designed to turn Kevadia into an international tourist destination. One of the most interesting of these new schemes was to link Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad with Patel’s Statue of Unity via a seaplane service. To that end, he also opened a water aerodrome.
Last year, Modi had reorganised and initiated “Aarambh,” the Common Foundation Course (CFC) for combined Civil Services officer cadets. This year, too, he addressed them via video conference. It was a riveting speech: “The next twenty-five years, from India@75 to India@100, will be crucial for the development and progress of our country. Your careers will coincide with this quarter of a century. We will not be present to witness the fruits of your sincerity and service, but you can make India great.” Civil servants, like karma yogis, would facilitate India’s rise without themselves seeking the limelight, he said.
Two days before she was assassinated, Indira Gandhi delivered a speech in Bhubaneswar. In his just published memoirs, My Years With Rajiv Gandhi –Triumph and Tragedy, Wajahat Habibullah, a senior civil servant accompanying her, remembers how in that speech she almost recorded the legacy of her life’s work, the ‘ceaseless striving at integrating the nation, the cleaving to her view of national interest that underwrote her foreign policies.’ In his commemoration of National Unity Day, Modi manages to merge both these legacies of Patel, overt and stated, and Indira Gandhi, implicit and unstated, into a powerful narrative of new India.
I knew this with an uncanny certainty when on the eve of National Unity Day this year, I found myself crossing the Atal Tunnel at 10,000 ft. Inaugurated on October 3 by Modi, it has become a tourist destination. As we crossed the longest tunnel in the world at this height, it began to snow. Surrounded by jagged, snow-sprinkled mountains, people got out of their cars to take photographs. One group in a tempo traveller, broke into a spontaneous dance. The ladies were in the inner circle, clapping their hands, as if in slow motion, and swaying in the ethereal light, while the gents, on the outside, encouraged them with gestures and exclamations of appreciation, joining in.
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A part of India, closed to the outside world for nearly six months of the year, had now become easily accessible from Manali.