October and November are anniversary months in India.
The nation marks Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2 as also Lal Bahadur Shastri’s. It observes Sardar Patel’s on October 31 and Jawaharlal Nehru’s on November 14. The Congress celebrates Indira Gandhi’s on November 19.
Recently, however, an anniversary generated more than formulaic courtesies. Sardar Patel’s Jayanti was celebrated with unusual zeal, the prime minister leading the event in Delhi. As an instinctive admirer and adherent of the great man, I could not but feel glad that the Sardar was being remembered by an amnesiac nation.
In the post-Nehru decades when the Congress ruled India, Sardar Patel’s birth and death anniversaries fell off that party’s calendar. It dropped off Bharat sarkar’s almanac as well. The Sardar was commemorated by a non-official ‘peoples’ body comprising non-Congress and anti-Congress groups in New Delhi, catalysed by the Sardar’s son Dahyabhai Patel, then a Swatantra Party MP.
The Sardar became in the non-Congress years an anti-establishment statesman, recalled and commemorated by dissenters, Opposition leaders and ranks, as part-celebration of the man and part-chastisement of the Congress.
Came 1975, Sardar’s centenary year, when the Centre could have done right by Sardar Patel’s memory but that was the year of the Emergency. Indira Gandhi may or may not have wanted to downplay the centenary but her party and her government was not going to suggest to her that it be observed in a fitting way, no way! So the centenary went before it could ‘come’.
Sardar Patel’s memory became, in the Congress years, a great inconvenience, an irritant almost, for those accustomed to seeing the party as a Nehru-Gandhi proprietorship. The coinciding of Patel’s birth anniversary with Indira Gandhi’s assassination complicated matters for the Congress even more.
But the Congress’ de-pedestalling of Patel simplified things for the BJP. It decided to pedestal him and how! Patelites across the party divide were thrilled, including several old timers in the Congress. And all Gujaratis, of course, were elated. The Congress’s political sidelining of Patel was now matched by the BJP’s political highlining of Patel. And with the BJP coming into office at the Centre, the ‘garland’ of negative attention was taken off Patel to be placed on Nehru. The BJP will not expose itself to the charge of diminishing Nehru’s contributions to India. It cannot. But the game of competitive height does not require anyone to be belittled. It is enough that one is made to look taller than the other, bigger, sturdier and, therefore, greater.
Nehru and Patel will always be compared, contrasted. But just as the obfuscation of Patel did not work, the obscuring of Nehru will not either.
In the days that intervene between Patel’s and Nehru’s birth anniversaries, those who find history diverting, would do well to look at those two towering patriots. And by so doing see that those two contrary and conflicted men worked together, though did not think alike.
Exactly 70 years ago – in 1946 – the 63-year-old Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell presided over something of a miracle. The Congress having won about 70% of the seats in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, Wavell transformed the Executive Council of which he was President, into a Cabinet, inviting 57-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru to be its vice-president with the powers of a PM and Sardar Patel, 71, to be Number Two, as home minister and, for all intents and purposes, deputy prime minister.
The Muslim League, having got the overwhelming support of the Muslim electorate and its goal being an independent Pakistan, rebuffed Wavell’s initial appeals to join the interim cabinet. Mohammed Ali Jinnah could not, in any case, see himself serving ‘under’ Nehru in a rank equal to that of Patel. Wavell persevered. Seeing that Jinnah would just not come in, he asked Jinnah’s number two, Liaquat Ali Khan, and a couple of others, to join. The League dissembled at first and then said it would want the home portfolio. Would Patel give it up? He would do no such thing. He would leave the Cabinet rather than oblige petty bargaining by the League on portfolios.
What is even more significant is that Nehru would have none of this. He would not have Patel give home up. Nehru made it clear to Wavell that Congress cannot be in office without Patel. And so, no Patel in the government, no Congress in the government and no Congress in the government – no government. Wavell was not going to jeopardise the carefully drawn scheme of transition. Letting Jinnah stay out, he gave Liaquat finance and II Chundrigar, commerce.
The Iron Man had won his point, with Nehru backing him to the hilt. Nehru and Patel were meant to build India together, with Nehru, in Rajaji’s words, ‘enjoying universal love’ and Patel, ‘universal confidence’.
Those who neglected Patel then and those who want to neglect Nehru now should realise that those two statesmen with all their strong differences, worked together. Distorting history works only up to a point. In the end history – truth’s unceasing winnow – blows all chaff out.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University.
The views expressed by the author are personal.