A biography of Sardar Patel drives home the point that the towering personality never got his due
The statue of Unity showcasing Sardar Patel’s stature has triggered much debate that is likely to continue for long. Was this needed, could the money have been spent for the betterment of farmers, poor and downtrodden, whether Patel would have approved of such a grotesque show in his name…
It is very difficult to make sense of such debates. Should India have focused on bringing colour televisions in the mid-80s when people were fine watching black-and-white TV? Should we not have spent the same money for the uplift of farmers and the poor? We are prone to debate such issues in our deeply divided and polarised polity. So to cut the clutter, let’s ask the question whether Patel has got his due, something which the nation and history owe him? The short answer is no, and Hindol Sengupta explains this very well in this lucidly written biography of Sardar.
Since any discussion on Patel gets into the Left-Right wrangle, let us quote historian Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and an earlier biographer of Patel (whom no Rightist loves): “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.”
Since the bulk of historians and scholars tend to deny that they have been niggardly towards Patel, Sengupta has brought some quantitative analysis to the table. He writes that Sunil Khilnani in his Idea of India has mentioned Patel eight times, while Nehru has been mentioned 65 times. Similarly, Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi has 48 references to Patel, while there are 185 references to Nehru.
The story is simple and Sengupta has kept it straight, because Patel was a man of few words but immense action. However, biographies tend to be loftier if the subject happens to be heavy on words and lighter on action. Nehru won the race not because he and his ideas were great or they have stood the test of time. He won because he could write and speak brilliantly, much better than any of his peers. Perhaps this, coupled with his aristocratic background, endeared him to Gandhi so much that he took a filial liking to Nehru.
Nehru could articulate brilliantly and his writings are par excellence, though he never excelled as a student. Patel was a man who never wrote or spoke with the same flair as Nehru, but was definitely a far better administrator, a realist, a pragmatist who understood people and personalities, and knew how to deal with them. This is the reason Patel’s initiatives have stood the test of time, whereas Nehru’s have not. But Nehru had another great advantage over Patel. He had Leftist/socialist inclinations and this made the Left—a powerful bloc both before and after independence—root for Nehru. Patel, a no-nonsense person who had no time or inclination to indulge in rhetorical ideologies, unjustly got labelled as a Rightist with pro-Hindu leanings.
Patel had far greater support in the Congress party than Nehru at all points and was the first choice of partymen to be party president several times, but each time he was asked by Gandhi to make way for Nehru, and Patel did so without ever questioning Gandhi. In fact, Sengupta has pointed out that just as Patel made way for Nehru, much earlier he postponed his plan to study law in London to make way for his elder brother Vithalbhai Patel. In short, Sardar was the quintessential nice guy who finished second.
Patel served only once as Congress president, while Nehru served three terms. In fact, the first time Nehru took over as party president, it was from his father Motilal. The flamboyant and dynamic Nehru, who detested titles and was fired by socialistic ideas, never ever thought that succeeding his father was tantamount to endorsing dynastic succession.
But why did Gandhi endorse Nehru over Patel, be it for the position of party president and later to lead free India? The answer is long, but Sengupta provides a succinct answer by quoting journalist Durga Das, who asked Gandhi the question in 1946. Gandhi’s reply: “Jawahar will not take second place. He is better known abroad than Sardar and will make India play a role in international affairs. Sardar will look after the country’s affairs. They will be like two oxen yoked to the government cart. One will need the other and both will pull together.”
Since Patel was no less known than Nehru internationally and so was the case with his knowledge on international affairs, the implication is that Gandhi knew that Nehru would not settle for the number two position and if accorded the same, may revolt or break away. He had no such fear regarding Patel.
Much is made by historians and columnists to play down the differences between Nehru and Patel by citing letters by the duo to each other after Gandhi’s death, speaking affectionately about one another and how they needed to cooperate. They forget that a swallow does not make a summer. The differences between the two persisted even after those letters were exchanged and continued after Patel’s death, as Nehru instructed his ministers and officials not to attend Patel’s funeral in Mumbai. It is another matter that the instruction was disobeyed.
Nehru comes across as a small man in the book. Years after Patel’s death, when Verghese Kurien, the first organiser of dairy cooperatives in Gujarat, met Sardar’s daughter Maniben Patel, she told him that she had gone to meet Nehru after her father’s death to hand him a bag of money that people had donated for the Congress. Nehru did not bother to even ask about her welfare.
It’s not that Nehru was a devil and Patel a saint, and Sengupta has been fair to both without playing favourites. History needs to be told as it is without trying to put a happy ending where there is none. Nehru and Patel were comrades, but were as different as chalk and cheese, and if they worked together it was largely because Gandhi wanted it that way and the larger credit for maintaining the relationship goes to Patel. Nehru had a sense of entitlement, but for Patel, service to nation came first.