Over the past month, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have laid competing claims to the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Independent India’s first government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru.
The slugfest has not just led to the appropriation of Patel by both sides; it has brought under scrutiny the relationship between Nehru and Patel. The BJP’s charge has been that Patel was denied his due under Nehru, and indeed that the Nehru-Patel relationship was an uneasy one, marked by deep differences and distrust. The presumed historic injustice to Patel is one of the reasons Narendra Modi has undertaken to build the ‘statue of unity’ on the river Narmada — a statue of Patel intended to be the tallest in the world. Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the Sardar’s 138th birth anniversary, Mr. Modi remarked that India would have been a different and better country had Patel been the first Prime Minister in place of Nehru.
For his part, Lal Krishna Advani has quoted from different books to make the claim that there were irreconcilable differences between Nehru and Patel on sending troops into Hyderabad in 1948 and that, at one point, Nehru called Patel a “communalist.” There have also been veiled suggestions from the BJP that Nehru did not pay proper homage to Patel on the latter’s death on December 15, 1950.
The BJP has relied on one set of documents to paint Nehru as something of a villain vis-à-vis Patel. The insinuation is that Nehru constantly quarrelled with Patel and usurped the latter’s rightful place in history. The unstated sub-text is that perhaps Patel himself resented Nehru’s dominance of India and its history.
What is the truth? Nehru and Patel often disagreed, and furiously so. But such was the beauty of the relationship that they rarely kept a secret from each other. They wrote to each other almost every other day, expressing their doubts and differences honestly and openly, and concluding in the end that their mutual affection and regard outweighed any difference they felt with regard to state policy. In their letters, the two great men agonised over the rumours surrounding their relationship and the constant attempts to create a divide between them.
The regard and affection Patel felt for Nehru are best captured in the tribute he paid Nehru on the latter’s 60th birthday which fell on November 14, 1949. This forms part of a volume, Nehru: Abhinandan Granth , put together by an editorial board consisting of such men of eminence as Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Purushottamdas Tandon.
In the tribute, Patel talks of “our mutual affection that has increased as years have advanced.” Further, “ ... it is difficult for people to imagine how much we miss each other when we are apart and unable to take counsel together in order to resolve our problems and difficulties. This familiarity, nearness, intimacy and brotherly affection make it difficult for me to sum him up for public appreciation, but, then the idol of the nation, the leader of the people, the Prime Minister of the country, and the hero of the masses, whose noble record and great achievements are an open book, hardly needs any commendation from me ...”
On Nehru being chosen Prime Minister, Patel says: “… it was in the fitness of things that in the twilight preceding the dawn of independence he should have been our leading light, and that when India was faced with crisis after crisis, following the achievement of our freedom, he should have been the upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions. No one knows better than myself how much he has laboured for his country in the last two years of our difficult existence …. As one older in years, it has been my privilege to tender advice to him on the manifold problems with which we have been faced in both administrative and organisational fields. I have always found him willing to seek and ready to take it ...”
Patel then emphatically dismisses all suggestions of a great divide between the two: “Contrary to impressions created by some interested persons and eagerly accepted in credulous circles, we have worked together as lifelong friends and colleagues, adjusting ourselves to each other’s point of view as the occasion demanded and valuing each other’s advice as only those who have confidence in each other can ...”
“Idol of the nation;” “hero of the masses;” “upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions” — these are Patel’s own words for Nehru, and he said all this in November 1949 — well after the crisis of Hyderabad which Mr. Advani quoted to underscore their differences.
Within an hour of Patel’s death on December 15, 1950, Nehru made a statement to Parliament which said: “… [E]arly this morning, he had a relapse and the story of his great life ended. It is a great story, as all of us know, as the whole country knows, and history will record it in many pages. But perhaps to many of us here he will be remembered as a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom and as one who gave us sound advice in times of trouble as well as in moments of victory, as a friend and colleague on whom one could invariably rely, as a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts when were in trouble … I who have sat here on this bench side by side with him for these several years will feel rather forlorn and a certain emptiness will steal upon me when I look to his empty bench ...”
As the country begins to commemorate Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, surely there is a need to clear the air regarding his relationship with Patel, his lifelong friend and guide.
Any Nehru-Patel differences have been deliberately exaggerated by partisan interests. In truth, they shared a close bond that overrode the differences