As Machiavelli wrote -“History is written by the victors”. The official history of independent India was written and overseen by that faction of the Congress party which emerged victorious in the
leadership tussle on the eve of Independence with the tacit but partisan support of none other than the all powerful and universally venerable Mahatma Gandhi.
According to this official history, Jawahar Lal Nehru was elected as the first Prime Minister of India and Sardar Patel became his deputy and it was all done purely on merit.
The official history has always downplayed the grave injustice that was done to the ‘Iron Man of India’ – Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. It’s not that the official history does not mention the emergence of Sardar Patel and not Jawahar Lal Nehru as the overwhelming choice of the Congress party to lead India after independence but it has been reduced to mere footnotes and nothing more.
Let’s revisit the entire intra-party power struggle within Congress on the eve of independence and let’s figure out what really went in favour of Jawahar Lal Nehru and what was it that deprived Sardar Patel his moment of glory despite the overwhelming support he enjoyed amongst the Congressmen.
The entire rank and file of the Congress looked at Sardar Patel as the most deserving candidate to be sworn in as independent India’s first Prime Minister, given his proven track record of being an able administrator and a no-nonsense politician. Then what really went wrong? To find out the answer, we need to rewind back to 1946.
By 1946, it had become quite clear that India’s independence was only a matter of time now. The Second World War had come to an end and the British rulers had started thinking in terms of transferring power to Indians.
An interim government was to be formed which was to be headed by the Congress president as Congress had won the maximum number of seats in the 1946 elections. All of a sudden, the post of Congress president became very crucial as it was this very person who was going to become the first Prime Minister of independent India.
At that time, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was the president of Congress party. In fact, he was the president for the last six years as elections could not be held for the Congress president’s post since
1940 due to Quit India movement, the Second World War and the fact that most of the leaders were behind bars.
Azad was also interested in fighting and winning election for the Congress president’s post as he, too, had ambitions to become the PM, but he was told in no uncertain terms by Mahatma Gandhi that he does not approve of a second term for a sitting Congress president and Azad
had to fall in line ,albeit reluctantly. Not only this, Gandhi made it very clear to everybody that Nehru was his preferred choice for the Congress president’s position.
The last date for the nominations for the post of the President of Congress, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India, was April 29, 1946.
And the nominations were to be made by 15 state/regional Congress committees. Despite Gandhi’s well-known preference for Nehru as Congress president, not a single Congress committee nominated Nehru’s name.
On the contrary, 12 out of 15 Congress committees nominated Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. The remaining three Congress committees did not nominate any body’s name. Obviously, the overwhelming majority was in favour of Sardar Patel.
It was a challenge to Mahatma Gandhi as well. He instructed Acharya J B kriplani to get some proposers for Nehru from the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members despite knowing fully well that only Pradesh Congress Committees were authorized to nominate the president.
In deference to Gandhi’s wish, Kripalani convinced a few CWC members to propose Nehru’s name for party president.
It’s not that Gandhi was not aware of the immorality of this exercise. He had fully realized that what he was trying to bring about was wrong and totally unfair.
In fact, he tried to make Nehru understand the reality. He conveyed to Nehru that no PCC has nominated his name and that only a few CWC members have nominated him. A shell-shocked Nehru was defiant and made it clear that he will not play second fiddle to any body.
A disappointed Gandhi gave into Nehru’s obduracy and asked Sardar Patel to withdraw his name. Sardar Patel had immense respect for Gandhi and he withdrew his candidature without wasting any time. And it paved the way for the coronation of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru as India’s first Prime Minister.
But why did Gandhi overlook the overwhelming support for Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel? Why was he so enamoured with Nehru?
When Dr Rajendra Prasad heard of Sardar Patel’s withdrawal of nomination, he was disappointed and remarked that Gandhi had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant in favour of the ‘glamorous Nehru’.
Was it the ‘glamour’ and ‘sophistication’ of Nehru that floored Gandhi so much that he did not hesitate in doing a grave injustice to Patel?
The answer to this question is not that simple. But a closer analysis of Gandhi’s approach towards Patel and Nehru throws light over a few facts that can decipher the mystery.
There is no denying the fact that Gandhi had a ‘soft corner’ for Nehru since the beginning and he had preferred Nehru over Sardar Patel at least twice before 1946 for the post of Congress president. It
happened in 1929 as well as in 1937.
Gandhi was always impressed with the modern outlook of Nehru. In comparison to Nehru, Sardar Patel was a little orthodox and Gandhi thought India needed a person who was modern in his approach.
But more than anything, Gandhi always knew that Sardar Patel would never defy him. He was not so convinced about Nehru. Gandhi’s apprehensions came true when Nehru made it clear to him that he was not willing to play second fiddle to anybody.
Perhaps, Gandhi wanted both Nehru and Patel to provide leadership to the country. He used his veto power in favour of Nehru because he feared Nehru could cause problems in the way of India’s independence if he was not given the chance to become Prime Minister.
Some analysts have also claimed that Nehru threatened to split the Congress in case he was not made Prime Minister.
According to these analysts, Nehru coerced Gandhi into supporting him by saying that if he split the Congress, the entire independence plan would go awry as the British would get an excuse in delaying
independence by raising the question as to who should be handed over the reins of power, Congress with Nehru or Congress minus Nehru.
Gandhi must have thought that it would be safe to ask Sardar Patel for making the sacrifice than to reason with a power-smitten Nehru. In fact, he had commented that Nehru had gone power-mad.
So, we can conclude that Gandhi chose Nehru over Patel because of two main reasons:
Gandhi believed a foreign educated Nehru with modern thoughts had an edge over Patel who, according to him, was orthodox in his thoughts.
Gandhi feared Nehru would revolt in case he was denied PM’s post and that would give the British an excuse to delay transfer of power. On the other hand, he was fully convinced of Sardar Patel’s loyalty. He knew Sardar Patel was a true patriot and would never play a spoilsport.
But Gandhi’s decision proved too costly for the nation.
First of all, Gandhi introduced the concept of forced decisions by the so-called ‘high-commands’ that usually means overruling state units. This practice, now being followed across the political spectrum, has negated the very concept of inner party democracy. Nehru’s follies on Kashmir and China proved beyond doubt the fact that Gandhi committed a mistake in backing Nehru by showing utter disregard to overwhelming support from the majority of PCCs for Sardar Patel.
Even two known critics of Sardar Patel conceded the point that Gandhi’s decision to chose Nehru over Patel was erroneous.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad confessed in his autobiography that was published posthumously in 1959, “It was a mistake on my part that I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am
convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr. Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive
myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”
Similarly, C Rajgopalachary who blamed Sardar Patel for depriving him of the first presidentship of independent India, wrote, “Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru had been asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell into the error of believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two… A myth had grown about Patel that he would be harsh towards Muslims. This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.”
But questions can be raised over Sardar Patel’s surrender as well.
Who was he more loyal to? To an individual, to an organization or to his motherland? When he was convinced that Nehru was not fit enough to give the much-needed guidance that a nascent country so desperately wanted, why did he not object even once to the foisting of Nehru as India’s first Prime Minister?
History has proved it beyond doubt that had Patel been the PM in place of Nehru, the country would not have faced the humiliation of 1962 war.
Days before his death, Patel had written a letter to Nehru warning him about China’s nefarious designs but Nehru didn’t pay any attention to that letter. Even Kashmir would not have become a thorn in the flesh for India, had Patel and not Nehru been the first prime minister of India.
Rajesh K. Pradhan