What the great-grandson didn’t learn

Should Rahul Gandhi read the correspondence between Nehru and Patel, he would know that differences can be expressed with greater finesse than what he has shown us

October 04, 2013 12:24 am | Updated 12:24 am IST

AGREEMENT WITHIN DIFFERENCES: Nehru (right) and Patel differed with the utmost respect for each other, and concurred and united with the utmost respect. Photo: Gandhi Smriti

AGREEMENT WITHIN DIFFERENCES: Nehru (right) and Patel differed with the utmost respect for each other, and concurred and united with the utmost respect. Photo: Gandhi Smriti

The walloping Rahul Gandhi gave the Manmohan Singh government on the ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers has expectedly led to shock-and-awe in Congress and government circles.

Rahul has a way of springing surprises but the angry-young man-act executed in full public view crossed the boundaries not just of decency but the rules by which the Cabinet system of government runs.

Mercifully, the United Progressive Alliance government did not treat Rahul’s “nonsense” diktat as an announcement in itself. It undid the ordinance by due process — by having the Union Cabinet reconsider and withdraw a decision taken by the Union Cabinet.

The most striking thing about Rahul’s theatrics was his vocabulary which did not go beyond “rubbish” and “nonsense.” Of course, anyone hearing him at the Press Club of India, which was the chosen venue for the mutiny, would have got the drift — that he was lamenting the loss of principles in current-day politics. Noble thought, but can principles be restored by disobeying the principles of governance?


If Rahul had gone to his own library, he might have chanced upon a volume containing letters exchanged between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. If he read the correspondence, he might know from whom he has inherited his temper and a somewhat irksome tendency to be self-righteous: his great-grandfather. But he is also likely to know he has missed out on many of Nehru’s great qualities. His towering intellect and the scholarship he brought to any discussion. The elegance and beauty of his writing. And the most relevant attribute in the current context: the civility with which he treated his colleagues. Nehru differed strongly with Patel but held him in deep affection and respect, and when needed, readily admitted that he was in the wrong.

Nehru and Patel clashed rather fiercely on the functions of the Prime Minister and his position within the Cabinet ( Nehru-Patel ; edited by Neerja Singh, 2010). Nehru argued that the Prime Minister should “have full freedom to act when and how he chooses” and if he was restrained from doing so, he would be reduced to a “figurehead.” Patel’s counterview was that a Prime Minister acting this way would be a “virtual dictator.”

The differences arose following Nehru’s decision to send his emissary, H.V.R. Iyengar, to Ajmer with the brief to report back to him on the adverse situation faced by Muslims in the disturbed aftermath of Partition. The time was December 1947-January 1948 and Nehru and Patel furiously corresponded on the propriety of Iyengar intervening in a matter that Patel said fell in his domain. Exception to Iyengar’s visit was also taken by Ajmer’s Chief Commissioner, Shankar Prasad, who in a letter to Patel’s private secretary, V. Shankar, argued that the visit had “weakened my position, bred public distrust and aroused bitter partisan comment.”

Nehru saw no wrong in Iyengar visiting Ajmer on his behalf. Writing to Patel on December 29, 1947, Nehru said Iyengar was only deputing for him, and besides there was an immediate need to “calm down the apprehensions of Muslims” who were “terrified and leaving in large numbers.” Nehru and Patel thereafter decided to take the matter to Mahatma. Each wrote a note to Gandhiji, and importantly, with a copy to each other in order that there was no mistrust between them.

In his note to Gandhiji, Nehru argued that the Union Cabinet was the final authority, “…but in the type of democratic set-up we have adopted, the Prime Minister is supposed to play an outstanding role. This I think is important, as otherwise there will be no cohesion in the Cabinet and the Government and disruptive tendencies will be at work…” Nehru said if a difficulty arose in this way of functioning it could be easily resolved by “personal contact and discussion between the parties concerned.” He himself, he said, had endeavoured “in almost every matter of importance to confer with Sardar Patel.”

For his part, Patel wrote to Gandhiji conceding that he and Nehru had “temperamental differences and different outlook on economic matters and those affecting Hindu-Muslim relations.” But he also noted that they placed the country above everything else and cooperated in their common endeavours aided by “mutual regard, respect and love for each other.” Patel’s case was that if Nehru’s concept of Prime Ministerial supremacy was accepted, “(that) conception would raise the Prime Minister to the position of a virtual dictator… (which) in my opinion is wholly opposed to democratic and Cabinet system of Government.” Patel said while the Prime Minister’s position was “certainly pre-eminent,” he had “no overriding powers over his colleagues; if he had any, a Cabinet and Cabinet responsibility would be superfluous.”

Gandhiji’s assassination

Interestingly, Nehru and Patel both offered to resign from their respective positions, while insisting at the same time that the other should stay. In the end, the differences were not resolved because of the assassination of the Mahatma on January 30, 1948.

The murder devastated the two leaders. They were stricken that they were quarrelling while the country badly needed them to stay united.

On February 3, 1948, Nehru wrote to Patel emphasising their close bond over a quarter century: “… in the crisis that we have to (face) now after Bapu’s death, I think it is my duty, and if I may venture to say, yours also for us to face it together as friends and colleagues. Not merely superficially, but in full loyalty to one another and with confidence in each other. I can assure you that you will have that from me …”

Patel responded two days later with equal grace and affection: “The paramount interests of our country and our mutual love and regard, transcending such differences of outlook and temperament as existed, have held us together… His (the Mahatma’s) death changes everything and the crisis that has overtaken us must awaken in us a fresh realization of how much we have achieved together and the need for further joint efforts in our grief-stricken country’s interests.”

Nehru and Patel differed with each other with utmost respect, and concurred and united with utmost respect. Later on too, there were serious differences between the stalwarts but these were acknowledged in a language that was unfailingly civil and polite.

There is much Rahul can learn from this. Differences have to be intellectually argued out and not by calling a decision “nonsense.” There can be no excuse for incivility in the language used, especially when it is directed at the head of government. Rahul undermined and insulted the office of the Prime Minister, whose occupant, the great-grandfather insisted “must have full freedom to act when and how he chooses.” Finally, no matter whose side Rahul takes in the discussion between Nehru and Patel on the power and position of the Prime Minister, he should know that neither would have liked a partyperson to publicly disparage a Cabinet decision. More so a partyperson with a vaguely defined role but with seemingly unlimited authority.

> vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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