The present attempt to pretend Nehru and Patel were on the same page, and that any differences between them were marginal, is an essay in politeness rather than an acknowledgement of the hard reality
By Amulya Ganguli
The BJP’s “mentor”, Lal Krishna Advani, can be credited with having taken the initiative to blow away the cobwebs which have surrounded the debate on Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel by recalling an episode which claims that the then prime minister had called Patel “a true communalist”.
For all the attempts by commentators to downplay the perception of India’s first deputy prime minister as anti-Muslim, the belief down the decades has been that he tilted more towards the Hindus than Muslims as when he said that the former had had the better of “them” during the pre-Partition Calcutta riots.
It stands to reason that if Patel had not been a “true communalist”, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not have touched him with a bargepole. Nor would the party’s current he-man mourned, on behalf of Indians, the loss which the country has purportedly suffered because Mahatma Gandhi chose the “wrong” person to be the prime minister.
It also stands to reason that Gandhi would not have made his critical selection if he knew that the Sardar, the title he chose for Patel, was the right man.
For the Mahatma, however, who embodied the pluralist heritage of Asoka and Akbar, the choice of Patel would have carried the risk of India’s disintegration on the lines of religious nationalism. As it is, Gandhi was mortified by his own failure to prevent Partition, which he had vowed to allow only over his dead body.
His failure, however, was not only due to the fact that he had become a “back number”, as he sadly acknowledged, but also because even his most ardent disciple like Nehru thought that the Mahatma had lost touch with reality when he proposed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s name for the post of prime minister to Mountbatten.
Moreover, as Nehru later admitted, he himself had pushed for Partition along with Patel because it provided the only chance to politicians of his generation to attain power before they became too old.
It is in the context of the crashing of Gandhi’s dreams that his rejection of Patel in favor of Nehru can be understood with greater clarity. The Partition made the Mahatma all the more aware that in the atmosphere of communal animosity, only a genuinely secular person could keep India united.
That Patel did not belong unambiguously to this category was not unusual in a party which had a strong pro-Hindu lobby, including stalwarts like Madan Mohan Malaviya, who had campaigned in a local election in UP against Motilal Nehru on the grounds that the latter ate beef.
This lobby would have been strengthened if Patel’s move in 1949 to incorporate the RSS in the Congress had succeeded. The obscurantist, communal and a pro-Hindi zealot, in Jawaharhal Nehru’s words, Purushottam Das Tandon was a leading member of this group, but he nevertheless became the Congress president in 1950 with Patel’s backing, defeating Nehru’s preferred candidate, Acharya Kripalani.
Nehru had vowed at the time to rid the Congress of the views which Tandon advocated. It is for history to judge whether he succeeded, but a major reason why the Congress of today is known more for corruption than communalism is that Patel’s outlook has been appropriated by the BJP while the Congress has adhered to secularism, though of a warped variety because of its emphasis on preferential treatment of minorities.
It is a measure of the Congress’s catholicism, however, that it once had under its aegis characters as divergent as Nehru, Patel and EMS Namboodiripad. While Patel died, Namboodiripad went his own way.
As did another major figure, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. However, if the Sardar had lived, he might not have been able to cohabit for long with Nehru, the “nationalist Muslim” as he called the prime minister, notwithstanding the Mahatma’s efforts to resolve the differences between them in the last few hours before his assassination by a Hindu zealot.
It is possible, therefore, that Patel’s right-wing views would have ultimately prevailed over Nehru’s leftist ones, as Tandon’s victory in the presidential contest showed. As a result, Nehru might not have succeeded in evicting Tandon from the Congress president’s post, as he did after Patel’s death.
To carry on with such conjectures, the Congress might have split as it did in 1907 between another hardliner and moderate — Tilak and Gokhale.
The present attempt, therefore, to pretend that Nehru and Patel were basically on the same page, and that any differences between them were marginal, is an essay in politeness rather than an acknowledgement of the hard reality.
The Hindutva camp is aware that the idea of the left-right, secular-communal divide between the two towering personalities of the independence movement is a part of the Indian mindset and that it will be unrealistic to try to ignore it. The absurdity of closing one’s eyes to the reality will be evident from the impossibility of presenting Nehru as communal while it is much easier to see Patel as communal.