The disputed legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel

The disputed legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel

The BJP,founded in 1980,seeks a past with a connect to the freedom struggle.

How justified is the BJP in claiming Sardar Patel as their own? And the Congress in contesting the claim?

The Sangh’s attempts to ‘adopt’ Patel are old. M S Golwalkar had tried to play Patel’s anti-left instincts,urging him in letters to let the RSS help in battling the communist hold over the youth. The BJP,founded in 1980,seeks a past with a connect to the freedom struggle.

Deendayal Upadhyay and Syama Prasad Mookerjee never really attained iconic status,and the projection of L K Advani as the new Lauh Purush was part of the BJP’s continuing attempt to appropriate Patel.

The Congress has always been a coalition,with a huge pantheon and long history. The BJP-RSS-Jana Sangh has tried to imagine an India minus the Nehru family. Setting up Patel and an imagined India had he been PM,is helpful,though not necessarily factual. In February 1949 Patel had said,“Hindu Raj is a mad idea,it will kill the soul of India.”


How did the trajectories of Patel and Nehru differ? Where did each come from?

Their origins and personalities were very different,even though both were lawyers and extremely close to Gandhi. Nehru was an erudite Kashmiri Brahmin with very upper class credentials; Patel came from a Gujarati farming community of lesser means. Nehru was the more flamboyant and outward-looking.

How did each see Partition?

Patel,a staunch Hindu,helped both Hindus and Muslims,and saved many lives,a fact that even the Muslim League leader from UP,Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman,acknowledged before he left for Pakistan. Patel immediately accepted Partition as an inevitability,and helped Nehru come to terms with it. Patel also thought that the onus was on Muslims to defeat suspicions about the actions of some of their co-religionists in the pre-Partition days. Nehru was a progressive Hindu who firmly believed that India must afford the same rights to all its citizens and,if anything,the minority must be treated with greater care.

What role did each play after Independence?

Patel was tasked with bringing the princely states around. Patel’s biographer Rajmohan Gandhi wrote,“In the six months between freedom and Gandhi’s death,the Mahatma,Nehru and Patel constituted a crucial triumvirate that agreed that independent India would be not a Hindu Rashtra but one that offered equal rights to all. After Gandhi’s departure and until Patel’s death in December 1950,Patel and Nehru differed on several matters but not on some fundamentals. With the help of others including Ambedkar,Maulana Azad,Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji,they entrenched secularism and equality in the Constitution.”

Where did they differ?

Nehru’s sympathies lay to the left; Patel was seen to nurse a soft spot for business,and perceived to be anti-labour. Nehru believed in India’s place in the world; the moral force of the non-aligned principle gave India a voice on the international podium. Patel was a practising Hindu who,perhaps by his open support for the orthodox Hindu stream in the Congress,Rajendra Prasad and Purshottam Das Tandon,raised Nehru’s hackles — until Gandhi intervened and requested Patel to sink his differences with Nehru. Patel demurred,and his early death in 1950 left the field clear for Nehru to steer the Congress and India to the left.

There were crucial things Patel agreed with Nehru on,such as the place of Urdu in AIR programmes; the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950,over which Syama Prasad Mookerjee resigned; and on the granting of the right to propagate one’s religion being a part of religious freedoms.

How did each see Gandhi’s assassination and the RSS’s role?

Gandhi’s assassination and the involvement of Hindu militant groups in it brought Patel and Nehru the closest they ever came. Patel banned the RSS and jailed Golwalkar. After his release that August,Golwalkar made a series of pleas to Patel,hoping to win him over. Patel finally answered in a letter dated September 11,1948,telling him what he thought of the RSS “attacking Musalmans”,and that all RSS speeches were “full of communal poison… as a result of the poison,the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji.” Nehru’s antipathy to the RSS was well known,and Patel backed it fully.

How did Patel see Kashmir?

Patel’s big project was stitching more than 600 princely states into India,using a variety of tools and techniques. He viewed Kashmir as a “severe headache”,and the case was steered by Nehru,due to the latter’s ancestry and personal affection for Sheikh Abdullah. Patel was with Nehru in all his decisions,but Hindu nationalists feel Kashmir should have been managed in the more muscular style of Hyderabad or Junagadh.