The best biography of Vallabhbhai Patel has been written by Rajmohan Gandhi. Based on full access to Patel’s own papers, it is a rich account of his life and struggles, set against the context of the historical forces which shaped them.
Rajmohan Gandhi’s Patel: A Life was first published in March 1991. The preface, written in April 1990, begins thus: “The establishment of independent India derived legitimacy and power, broadly speaking, from the exertions of three men, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. But while its acknowledgements are fulsome in the case of Nehru and dutiful in the case of Gandhi, they are niggardly in the case of Patel.”
To underline the point that Jawaharlal Nehru loomed large in the public imagination, Rajmohan mentioned the recent celebration (in 1989) of his birth centenary, which “found expression in a thousand billboards, in commemorative TV serials, in festivals and on numerous other platforms”. Then he continued: “Occurring on October 31, 1975 — four months after Emergency had been declared — the Patel centenary was, by contrast, wholly neglected by official India and by the rest of the Establishment, and since then the curtain drawn on the life of one of modern India’s most remarkable sons has been only occasionally and partially lifted”.
In 1991, and for several decades before that, it was certainly true that Nehru was celebrated and Patel neglected. One reason was that Patel died a mere two and a half years after independence. On the other hand, Nehru served three full terms as prime minister. The India of the 1970s and 1980s was the India that Nehru shaped politically, socially, economically.
A second reason why Nehru’s name was high in the public imagination was that his daughter and grandson too had served as prime minister. In her own long tenure, Indira Gandhi sought to keep her father’s memory and legacy alive. The Nehru centenary occurred when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, so he threw the full weight of the government machinery behind it.
Rajmohan’s own book was researched in the 1980s, when Indira and Rajiv were in power. In the 1989 elections, Rajmohan was chosen by the Janata Dal to contest against Rajiv Gandhi in the parliamentary constituency of Amethi. This was billed in the media as a battle between the ‘asli Gandhi’ and the ‘nakli Gandhi’, since Rajmohan was a direct descendant of the Mahatma, whereas Rajiv got the ‘Gandhi’ name only because his Zoroastrian father changed it from ‘Ghandy’ (the standard Parsi spelling).
Rajmohan lost the election, but was soon afterwards sent by his party to the Rajya Sabha. The preface to his Patel biography was therefore written while he was an MP of a party opposed to the Congress and to the politics of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in particular.
Rajmohan’s book played its part in making Patel and his contributions better known.
But they still remained under-appreciated, not least because between 2004 and 2014 the Nehru-Gandhis were once again in power, and they, of course, promoted only their own.
In his election campaign, Narendra Modi seized on Patel as one of his heroes. Accusing the ruling dynasty in Delhi of deliberately suppressing Patel’s memory, he vowed to build a massive statue in his honour. Patel, he went on to say, would have made a better prime minister than Nehru.
Because of such partisanship, many Indians have come to believe that Nehru and Patel were personal rivals and political adversaries. This is because Nehru is now affirmed and avowed by the Congress (and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in particular), and Patel by the Bharatiya Janata Party (and Narendra Modi in particular).
There are two ironies in Modi’s invocation of Patel. First, Patel was himself a lifelong Congressman; indeed, as home minister, it fell to him to ban the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh after the Mahatma’s murder. Second, Nehru and Patel were in fact not rivals but comrades and co-workers. They worked closely together in the Congress from the 1920s to 1947; and even more closely together thereafter, as prime minister and deputy prime minister in the first government of free India.
In April 1948, Robert Trumbull of the New York Times wrote a long essay on the Nehru-Patel jugalbandhi. The men had different temperaments, but wrote Trumbull, “their differences are too easily overdramatized”. Both Patel and Nehru recognised that after Gandhi’s death, they had to work together to unite a fragmented nation. In the partnership between the two men, wrote Trumbull, “lies a great deal of the Government’s strength, for they complement each other”.
In a recent election speech in Haryana, Narendra Modi praised Nehru for the first time. Let us hope it is not the last. Patel’s treatment by the post-Nehru Congress was a travesty. Influential elements in the RSS and the BJP would now like to answer that by consigning Nehru to oblivion. That would be a tragedy, not just because Nehru was a real maker of modern India, but because in those crucial years after
Independence and Partition, Nehru and Patel worked shoulder-to-shoulder in building a united and democratic nation.
In his book, Rajmohan Gandhi meticulously documents how, in the aftermath of the Mahatma’s death, Nehru and Patel set aside their differences. Nehru focused on maintaining religious harmony, forging an independent foreign policy, and building a technological and industrial base. Patel focused on getting the princely states to join the Indian Union, modernising the administrative services, and building a cross-party consensus on the major elements of the Constitution.
Nehru does not belong to Sonia Gandhi’s Congress; nor Patel to Modi’s BJP. Indians of all parties (or none) should have the grace and understanding to celebrate both individuals, for having contributed jointly and separately to the nation we call our own.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal