When you live outside India, you know it as Halloween. However, when you are also an Indian who grew up in Punjab, you remember 31st October as the day your college was abruptly closed and you were ordered to scoot home, pronto. The Sikh bodyguards of Mrs Gandhi had assassinated the Prime Minister and Punjab, indeed entire India, was teetering on a precipice wondering what would unleash. And, when you are, additionally, a writer researching her next book, which is set around India’s independence, then it is the day when Sardar Patel was born.
This year, for me, 31st October comes with a certain poignancy because Vallabhbhai Patel, revered in a token fashion in India but otherwise relegated to the dusty annals of yore, has been in acrimonious focus in India. With general elections a few months away, a Gujarati aspirant to Prime Ministership has begun posthumously allocating Patel’s political affiliations to saffron.
Perhaps he is emboldened by the fact that Patel came from Gujarat, which, in turn, allows for a certain casual camaraderie that permits a blurring of details - Patel bhai bhai chhe.
Or he is trying to get some of the sheen of Sardar Patel, Loh Purush, or the Iron Man of India, to reflect off him? What else explains Narendra Modi’s planned building of the world’s tallest statue at a cost of $340 million in honour of the Sardar? The fact that that money would serve a majority of India - he is aiming for PMship, right? - better if deployed for providing essential services, pales in the game of one-upmanship.
Two things are clear.
One, the casual abrogation of all freedom fighters except for Pandit Nehru and Bapu by dynastic Congress has created a vacuum for the appropriation of those very leaders.
Two, the animosity between the two main political parties - BJP and Congress - is queering the historical pitch, falsely representing the freedom fighters, who were members of Congress, as divided along a progressively fundamentalist Hindu faith. A bit like pitching Patel as a tea party activist amongst the Republicans.
The problem with this scenario is the blatant lies at the heart of it. Mr Modi, in his fervour to be seen as a xerox copy of the Sardar - The fool doth know he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool - has stated that Pandit Nehru, as the Indian PM, did not even attend the funeral of Vallabhbhai Patel.
Digvijay Singh of the Congress promptly refuted him and uploaded a video which shows a solemn Pandit Nehru at the funeral. In turn, the PR-savvy Mr Modi damage-controlled his folly by tweeting the blame on a Gujarati newspaper for allegedly misquoting him.
Well, all’s well that ends well, eh? Hopefully, now that his poor knowledge of history has been brought publicly to his attention, Mr Modi will pick up some history textbooks and pore over them? I have another suggestion - this indeed applies to both NaMo and RaGa equally.
Use the spare time during your campaign trail to read the letters between Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. One, it will shore up your historical knowledge, always an advantage in a land with a blessed five millennia of that subject under its belt. Two, it will demonstrate that it is possible to work with those who think differently, as long as “the paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together ...”
Mr Modi, the biggest honour you could pay Sardar Patel would be to attempt, sincerely, to fill his very big shoes. Do that, and you will realize what a tall man he was, and how the world's tallest statue ain't gonna do no justice to him.