Modi, Manmohan cross swords over Sardar Patel

In a rare instance of public debate between India's top political leaders, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi – officially endorsed by the Bharatiya Janata Party as its potential prime minister - crossed swords on Tuesday at a function in Ahmedabad.

Sharing the dais at the inauguration of the Sardar Patel Museum in Gujarat's leading city, Modi made an indirect attack on Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and unwitting founder of the ruling Gandhi political family.

Modi said the ''fate" and "face" of India would have been different if Patel had been the prime minister.

'Sardar' Vallabhai Patel was India's first home minister (a post then second only to the PM). He is considered to be an advocate of Hindu-leaning nationalism.

Prime Minister Singh hit back by saying Patel was secular and ''liberal to the core'', and had respect for those with a different ideology.

Modi, who spoke first, credited Patel with uniting the country after Independence; and said this unity was now under threat from terrorism and Maoism.

Responding to Modi's barbs, Singh said, Sardar Patel was a fierce opponent of RSS's communalism. "Sardar Patel was secular to the core. He had a deep faith in the integrity of India. He believed that the whole country was a village and people of all communities were his relatives and friends.

"Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad had a strong faith in the country's unity. They had a secular and liberal approach, sympathetic towards the poor. They were tolerant and respected different ideologies," he said.

"All those present here will agree that those ideals are lacking in the country today," he added.

The Sardar Patel Memorial Trust is headed by union minister Dinsha Patel, who also organised the event.

Both Singh and Modi agreed that Sardar Patel was instrumental in uniting India after Independence, bringing together 500 provinces to build the country.

Modi gave himself a pat on the back, stating that during his term as chief minister Gujarat on 90 awards for good governance from the central government.