Modi getting a reputation for gaffes and historical errors

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Modi has a peculiar habit of mispronouncing the name of the most famous Indian who ever lived. File photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attracted further criticism for his historical bloopers.

On Tuesday, in Bihar state’s Champaran district, the PM attended the centenary celebrations of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s non-violent Satyagraha [insistence for the truth] movement, launched in that same district against the British empire on the same day in 1917. In a speech at the event, he referred to the Great Mahatma as “Mohanlal” Karamchand Gandhi.

Curiously, this appears to be a mistake Modi has made repeatedly: he said the same faux pas at a campaign rally in Rajasthan in 2013 and again while speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York in September 2014.

On Thursday, Modi reached Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, to inaugurate a military exhibition. The trip was hardly a career highlight, as scores of protesters jeered him with chants of ‘Go Back Modi’ – a trend that went viral on Twitter.

While speaking at the event, Modi called Kancheepuram district, where the exhibition was being held, ‘the land of the Cholas’, prompting a barrage of criticism from people, who said it actually belonged to the Pallava dynasty. Modi, yet again, got history wrong, they said.

Speaking to Asia Times, historian Sriram Venkatakrishnan clarified that though “Kancheepuram is popularly known more as a Pallava stronghold and not so much as the Cholas’, Modi wasn’t technically wrong, as the Cholas initially ruled the region.”

Old tales

Modi’s habit of making errors in his speeches precedes his election as prime minister in 2014. Some of his most memorable gaffes are from a key rally in Bihar in October 2013.

Modi began the campaign speech by highlighting Bihar’s relevance in India’s history and mythology. “When we remember the era of higher learning, Nalanda and Taxila come to mind,” he said. While Nalanda was established in present-day Bihar, Taxila was a thousand miles away in modern-day Pakistan.

Later in the speech he said, “Sikandar [Alexander the Great] won the entire world, but when he came to conquer Bihar… our soldiers defeated him and sent him back dead.” Only thing is, Alexander’s armies mutinied at River Beas (known as Hyphasis River in Greek accounts), and the famous conqueror never got to Bihar.

Then, two weeks later, Modi criticized India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for “not bringing back the ashes of Syama Prasad Mukherjee.” Mukherjee was the founder of Jana Sangh, the party that later became Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. “In 2003, I went to Geneva and brought back Dr Mukherjee’s ashes,” Modi said.

Mukherjee died in India, in Kashmir in 1953. Modi appears to have mixed him up with Gujarati freedom fighter Shyamji Krishna Varma who died in Switzerland in 1930, and whose ashes Modi brought back when he was chief minister of Gujarat. BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi explained the mix-up as “a slip-of-the-tongue”.

Playing with history

Modi and several BJP leaders have often portrayed Nehru’s relationship with India’s first Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai ‘Sardar’ Patel as strained.

In 2013, Modi told a Gujarat daily that Nehru did not attend Patel’s funeral in 1950. Within hours of the report’s release, Congress released a video showing otherwise. Soon after, Modi announced he was misquoted and the daily withdrew the quote and issued an apology.

Despite the Congress video, and the daily’s clarification, senior BJP minister Ravi Shankar Prasad made the same claim two days later. He said “reliable sources” confirmed to him that Nehru was not at the funeral.

In February this year, during a speech at India’s Parliament, Modi blamed Nehru for the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, saying, “all of Kashmir would have been India’s if Patel had been allowed to become the first prime minister.”

Historian Srinath Raghavan told Asia Times, “to suggest the Congress party, which ultimately had to accept Partition reluctantly, is to be blamed for it, is an extraordinary statement. It absolves the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha of all responsibility. It is like saying the course of history was changed by the size of Cleopatra’s nose,” he said.

During Independence, Muslim League chief Muhammad Ali Jinnah was adamant about the creation of Pakistan. The Hindu Mahasabha supported him. Patel, meanwhile, was ready to give Kashmir to Pakistan as long as Hyderabad remained a part of independent India.

As for Nehru’s appointment as prime minister, several BJP leaders, like Modi, believe it happened due to his appointment as the Congress President in 1946. According to them, Patel recused himself from the election at Mahatma Gandhi’s behest.

But, according to Raghavan, “it is exceedingly misleading to suggest that the election of the Congress President in 1946 was the election of the future prime minister of India.”

Meanwhile, Mahatma Gandhi’s view of the Nehru-Patel partnership can be summarized from his quote in his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi’s book ‘The Good Boatman’: “They will be like two oxen yoked to the governmental cart. One will need the other and both will pull together.”

Interestingly, Patel was never a fan of BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and called it a “threat to the existence of the Government and the State.” He banned the organization in 1948 and held it responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

He lifted the ban only in 1949, after making RSS write in its constitution that it will stay clear of politics.

According to historian Ramachandra Guha, the BJP’s fascination with Patel, despite this history, has a simple explanation: “since the Nehru-Gandhis would not praise Patel, the BJP chose to do so instead.”

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