A contemporary view of Nehru and Patel
My home town, Bengaluru, has the country’s best second-hand bookstores. For decades now, they have sustained me in a personal and professional sense, providing materials for my bed-time reading as well as rare documents for my research.
In one of these stores I recently picked up an old book that served both purposes. This was AS Iyengar’s All Through the Gandhian Era, published in 1950. As a journalist, Iyengar interviewed every viceroy from Chelmsford onwards, and knew, often intimately, the major leaders of the national movement. His book contains vivid portraits of his fellow journalists, as well as chapters on the non-co-operation movement, the communal politics of the 1930s and 1940s, and the impact of the Second World War on India.
One chapter of All Through the Gandhian Era carries the title ‘Nehru and Patel’. Having watched the two at work during the freedom struggle, and more recently as prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively, Iyengar remarked: “It is to the good fortune of the country that we have in Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel two personalities who have characteristics each complementary to the other.” Then he added: “For never has there been a combination of humanism and realism so complete as in Jawaharlal and Vallabhbhai.”
Iyengar used a metaphor from what, in 1950, was already India’s most popular sport, to describe the work of these two nation-builders. “Both are clean fighters,” he remarked, “and while Nehru likes to play sixers, Patel is a good batsman who tires out the bowlers and achieves an excellent score”. The next metaphor came from the world of precious minerals. So “they are like great diamonds, with this difference, that if Sardar Patel is rough-hewn, valued intrinsically high, Nehru is the finished product, cut with many facets and therefore shining in many directions”.
In recent years, ideologues have converted these differences in personality into an intense political rivalry. Nehru-ites have insinuated that Patel was a closet communalist; Patel-ites have blamed Nehru for a variety of foreign policy mistakes. These partisans have also claimed that the two men actually distrusted one another.
As Gopalkrishna Gandhi has pointed out, in this pernicious misrepresentation of the Nehru-Patel jugalbandhi, India’s two major parties have been collaborators. The Congress first “disowned” Patel, whereupon the Bharatiya Janata Party “misowned” him. Unfortunately, Patel’s birth anniversary falls on the same day as Indira Gandhi’s assassination. From 1985 onwards, the Congress, when in power in New Delhi, vigorously commemorated 31st October for being the day that Indira Gandhi died, while forgetting to alert the public that this was also the day that Patel was born.
Since the Nehru-Gandhis would not praise Patel, the BJP chose to do so instead. This was strange, because Patel was himself a lifelong Congressman. What added to the strangeness was the presentation of Nehru and Patel as implacable rivals. During the last general election campaign, it was even falsely insinuated that Nehru did not attend Patel’s funeral in December 1950.
Iyengar’s account, based on his close study of the relationship between the two men as it unfolded, gives the lie to this alleged rivalry. He focused on those crucial years 1947-50, when, working in tandem, Nehru and Patel united a torn and fragmented country. So he wrote: “With [their] mutually complementary, but in no way contradictory, characteristics, both Nehru and Patel are not only able to grasp and solve the problems facing the country in their entirety, but to face whatever forces of reaction that may manifest themselves. Pandit Nehru has stated publicly that not a day passes without his seeing Sardar Patel and being in the closest consultation with him on all matters of policy and administration. Similarly, Sardar Patel does not take any major decision without consulting the Prime Minister. This combination, so useful to the country’s progress, has perhaps disappointed a certain section of politicians.”
It still does. Thus Indira Gandhi and her descendants have suppressed Patel’s contributions, while Narendra Modi and the BJP have set up a tendentious opposition between two Indians who worked together to build this country.
Iyengar presented Nehru as a visionary and idealist, Patel as a pragmatist and realist. A newly born India needed both kinds of men, in fact, needed this particular idealist working with this particular realist. India needed Nehru to assure women and minorities that they would enjoy equal rights, and to eloquently make the case for universal adult franchise (which was opposed not just by communists and the RSS but also by many Congressmen). And it needed Patel to integrate the princely states, to consolidate and modernise the administrative system, and to get the Congress Party to back the nomination of BR Ambedkar as chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution.
In temperament and character Nehru and Patel were undoubtedly very different. But in those defining years, what united them was far more important. Nehru and Patel shared a deep love of their country, an abiding commitment to its unity, and, not least, a sense that they owed it to the memory of their common Master, Mahatma Gandhi, to work together, and to work ferociously hard too. For, as AS Iyengar remarked: “Both are untiring workers, allowing themselves practically no rest, either physical or mental.”
Like Iyengar, I am also a cricket fan. Back in the 1970s, I found it tiresome when some friends praised Gavaskar while disparaging Vishwanath, or vice versa. I sought to admire them both. Later, I refused to choose between Dravid and Tendulkar. The partnership between Nehru and Patel was infinitely more important than any forged on the cricket field. To elevate one to downgrade the other dishonours the memory of both men. And it diminishes India itself.