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Iron man’s mettle

Sardar Patel’s absence in Left and Centrist discourse is as deplorable as his co-option in Hindutva narratives. It is time for a reappraisal of the leader, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:40 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

As time shrinks, dates multi-task. October 2 is not just the Mahatma’s birthday but also Lal Bahadur Shastri’s. It is the date on which K. Kamaraj died, suddenly, in 1975. October 31 used to be known as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s birthday. It is now also observed with a pang of pain as the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

This coming 31st will mark the 135th anniversary of the Sardar’s birth while 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of his death.

Not many are around now who remember having seen Patel. Those that do, like Karan Singh, have to be in their late seventies.

Never one to let centenaries slip past, our country permitted the Sardar’s, in 1975, to go virtually unnoticed. Intellectual inertia continues to draw a veil of amnesia over the man. Cronyism seeks to edge him out of the arc-lights of gratitude.

In 1947-1950, self-appointed partisans saw the Nehru-Patel duumvirate in terms of a duel. They positioned themselves, cheer-ready, jeer-ready, behind their chosen leaders. Politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, businessmen, intellectuals were classed in terms of their loyalties to either of them.

C. Rajagopalachari, Abul Kalam Azad, G.B. Pant, K.P.S. Menon, K.M. Panikkar, J.R.D. Tata, P.C. Mahalanobis were seen as ‘close to Nehru’, while Rajendra Prasad, Purushottamdas Tandon, C.B. Gupta, S.K. Patil, N.V. Gadgil, V.P. Menon, H.M. Patel and G.D. Birla were termed ‘Patelite’.

Today, though the two greats belong to history, their magnetic mantles remain in the public arena. One can still hear ‘socialist-rightist’, ‘secular-sectarian’, ‘modern-traditionalist’, ‘international-insular’ dialectics being employed to settle political scores. These typifications, erroneous as they are, distort current debates, many of which are important to our collective future. If the amnesia about Patel in Left and Centrist discourse is deplorable, the co-opting of Patel in right-wing Hindutva narratives is appalling.

Patel’s statesmanship spanned at least four decades, but his ‘firm administration’ was a four-year affair. And yet, more was done in that narrow slip of time, cartographically and psychologically, than in any four years thereafter.

Let us take the last year of Patel’s life, 1950. He holds two portfolios: home and information and broadcasting, the affairs of the princely states more or less finished with the integration of 554 principalities. He is also deputy prime minister.

In his political differences with Nehru, the Sardar has prevailed. His candidate for the Congress presidentship, Purushottamdas Tandon has defeated Nehru’s preferred candidate, Acharya Kripalani.

And it is the person he has backed for the office of first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, who has ascended to it. Rajagopalachari , whom Nehru wanted, has withdrawn from the proceedings to Madras.

Politically, the integrator of India is a national hero. Administratively, he is the beloved of the services. They like him for his decisiveness, his readiness to delegate, being spare with words and being a good listener. Mountbatten’s press secretary Alan Campbell Johnson quotes the secretary in the information department, G.S. Bozman, saying of the Sardar: “He (is) essentially a practical man with whom business can be done, but if he is left out he is in a position to invoke a veto just as crippling as anything known at UNO.”

Personally, he is respected for a single-mindedness of purpose. Consequently, he can take the prospect of imprisonment, of being side-lined and of dying with total unconcern. The deputy prime minister’s going down with an aircraft whose engines had failed without a trace of tension or even relief at being unharmed, has become the stuff of legend.

Whether entering Parliament, ascending a podium, arriving at an airport or railway station, he exudes and inspires the confidence of a man of whom one might say ‘The nation is safe in his keeping’.

The home minister has brought into operation a preventive detention law in the wake of nearly 2,000 communists released across the country under orders of various high courts. Patel has told Parliament what we can imagine our home minister saying today in the context of Naxalism: “Our fight is not with Communism or with those who believe in the theory of Communism… The criminal liberties of a few have to be curtailed to preserve the civil liberties of many.”

If the prime minister (PM) has a rare sense of history, the deputy PM has a sharp sense of geography. After China’s action in Tibet unfolds in the late autumn of 1950, he writes to the PM: “For the first time after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously…” He calls for, among other things, “… political and administrative steps… to strengthen our northern and north-eastern frontiers; measures of internal security in the border areas and with the frontier outposts; and (a strengthening of the) policing and intelligence of frontier posts…”. The call sounds startlingly contemporary.

The two leaders have made no secret of their differing viewpoints. In letters to each other, both have offered to quit. Both have withdrawn their impulsive offers. Both have walked out of crucial cabinet meetings, only to meet up again and resolve the precipitating difference.

Nehru’s earlier induction of Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a former dewan of Kashmir, into the cabinet as minister without portfolio to help the PM in Kashmir affairs is done without Patel’s prior knowledge. It irks the home minister’s sense of propriety. The irking irks the PM’s sense of prerogative. Both offer to leave, both stay on. As does Ayyangar.

But there is a certain writing on the wall. The Sardar is getting on to 75. He has already been through a heart attack. At the Nashik session of the All India Congress Committee, Patel tells delegates from Gujarat to “do what Jawaharlal says”.

On October 2, 1950, in Indore, laying the foundation stone for Kasturbagram, the deputy PM says: “Jawaharlal is our leader. Bapu appointed him as his successor and had even proclaimed him as such…It is the duty of all Bapu’s soldiers to carry out his bequest.”

November 14, 1950 is the PM’s 61st birthday. Patel sends him a handwritten greeting. On November 23, the PM comes calling. Patel says, “I have a feeling that you are losing confidence in me.” Nehru replies, “I have been losing confidence in myself”.

On December 5, his daughter Maniben hears him repeating Nazir’s line Zindagi ka yah tamasha chand roz… A few days later, doctors tell him he should shift to Bombay where the cold is less severe. His loyal colleague in the cabinet, N.V. Gadgil comes to say goodbye. Taking Gadgil’s hand into his own, Patel says, “Whatever your difference with Panditji, do not leave him.”

Prasad, who would not have been President but for Patel, Nehru who may well have left the prime ministership but for Patel’s offering to vacate office himself, Rajaji who was denied the presidentship due to Patel’s preference for Prasad but retained Patel’s affectionate esteem, are all there,sobbing, as the Iron Man’s pyre is lit on December 15, 1950.

Those who imagine Nehru and Patel as representing an eternal combat should correct their shallow misimpression. And those co-opting him into plenaries where he does not belong should remember what Bozman said. Sardar Patel is capable of inflicting a crippling veto. Who knows, when, where and through what agency that may be cast?

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal