The “highly educated” and “learned” people who rule the country today are teaching us a new history of India. I am not merely referring to the assertions that in ancient India, we had all the scientific and technological inventions of today like airplanes, rockets, TVs, spacecrafts and artificial intelligence but to their fulminations about the more recent events surrounding our Independence, the integration of the princely states and the roles played by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Their version is that whatever the Sardar handled was a great success and whatever was handled by Nehru turned out to be a great blunder. Thus, while they are trying to co-opt the Sardar as one of their own (what an irony), Nehru is being projected as a villain.
I recall the angry reaction of the home minister in the Lok Sabha during the debate on J&K when Manish Tewari of the Congress tried to assert that it was Nehru who was responsible for the accession to India of the princely states of Junagadh, J&K and Hyderabad. The moment Tewari mentioned Hyderabad, the home minster sprang to his feet to assert angrily that it was Patel who was responsible for the accession of Hyderabad, not Nehru. Tewari did not respond. I wish he had and said that the home minister was absolutely right because by the same logic the “credit” for doing what was being done in J&K must go to him rather than the prime minister.
Sardar Patel was 14 years older than Nehru and was a leader of the masses in his own right. Though Nehru had become the prime minister, the Sardar, as deputy prime minister and home minister was almost, if not truly, his equal. The recent comparison which comes to mind is that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani during the 1998-2004 period when they were both in government. Like Vajpayee and Advani, Nehru and Patel had their differences, sometimes very sharp ones. But the beauty of their relationship was, like in the relationship between Vajpayee and Advani, these differences were always resolved through discussions, or, in the case of Nehru and Patel, through the Mahatma’s intervention. At times the differences became so sharp that they led to Patel offering his resignation from the government, to be followed by Nehru making a similar offer. They also played politics with each other, especially when it came to party affairs or, for instance, the choice of the first president of India. Patel, who had a better grip over the party, invariably won these contests. Do you recall the Loh Purush and Vikas Purush episode when the then BJP President Venkaiah Naidu made a comparison between Advani and Vajpayee and described Advani as Loh Purush and Vajpayee as Vikas Purush? Vajpayee told Naidu that the party could march forward under the leadership of the Loh Purush and left the meeting.
Yet, despite their differences, Patel continued in government until his death and even accepted Nehru as his leader after the death of Gandhi.
The Constitution of India was still being drafted and the country had decided to adopt the Westminster type of democracy with a prime minister and his cabinet, which was supposed to be collectively responsible to Parliament. The Constitution was still a work in progress and so was the system of collective responsibility and the authority of the PM in the cabinet. Nehru was obviously keen to establish his position as primus inter pares in the cabinet and wanted his view to prevail. This often led to differences between Nehru and Patel as indeed between them and the other ministers. But is this not natural? In every cabinet there are differences among the ministers and between them and the prime minister on issues which are finally resolved and a joint front presented in Parliament and outside.
There is enough material on record to support those who are interested in only highlighting the differences between these two great men just as there is enough material to support that they got along very well. But both these views represent the two extremes. The truth lies in the middle: Nehru and Patel jointly played a decisive role in the making of Independent India. Those who contend otherwise do not understand the working of the cabinet system. So whether it was the accession of J&K to India or that of Hyderabad after the “police action”, there were many rounds of negotiations, ups and downs, harrowing moments and differences of opinion among the decision-makers. Both Nehru and Patel played a vital role in the decision-making process. Governor General Lord Mountbatten also played a key role.
Patel was also party to the idea of plebiscite wherever there was dispute — Junagadh, J&K and Hyderabad. This was the clear position of the government of India then. It was Pakistan which was constantly running away from it. Patel did not resign from the cabinet when it was decided to refer the J&K issue to the UN or when ceasefire was accepted by India. He might have had his reservations, but went along with the decisions.
It is equally clear from contemporary accounts that Patel would not have objected if J&K had acceded to Pakistan but he was absolutely clear that Hyderabad should accede to India.
All the decisions in those tumultuous days were taken either in the defence committee of the cabinet headed by Mountbatten or in the cabinet. Patel was a member of both. He expressed his views freely, frankly and at times, even bluntly. But always went along with the final decision taken, as did Nehru and the others.
It is easy for us to sit in judgement today after 73 years over the great men who fought for India’s independence and then ruled the country. Judgement based on hindsight is a dangerous game played by especially those who are in a hurry to use history selectively to prove their prejudiced view of it.
Let us leave history to the historians.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 7, 2019 under the title “Misunderstanding Nehru-Patel.” The writer is a former Union external affairs and finance minister