An eulogy for Sardar Patel

By P S Ramamohan Rao In the context of the Amrit Mahotsav of India’s Independence, nothing can be more appropriate than a homage to the memory of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the architect of Independent India, as it exists today. Of the close lieutenants of the “Mahatma” during the independence struggle, Patel came from the humblest of circumstances. As his life would progressively reveal, he was a natural leader who combined in him a born rebel, an astute agitator, an organizer par excellence, a tough but shrewd negotiator, an outstanding administrator and above all, a memorable statesman. As a human being, suffice it to say, he hid behind his rough exterior, seeming taciturnity and stern countenance; a tender and caring heart, a stoical temperament,which bore pain and tragedy alike, a keen sense of humour and a ready and unhesitating willingness for sacrifice. Even as a student, Patel displayed glimpses of his future leadership. Never to suffer an insult or injustice, he brought three of his class teachers to account for their delinquencies. On another occasion, he accepted the challenge of a fellow patidar, contesting for a seat on the Nadiad Municipal Committee that he would shave his head if anyone could defeat him,by successfully fielding a teacher against him from his school. “Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed”, wrote Samuel Johnson. Because of his family circumstances, Patel could complete his matriculation only when he was 22 years old. For the same reason, he had to be content with becoming a district pleader, by passing the prescribed examination through self- study. To fulfill his ambition of becoming a barrister, he chose to practise in criminal law which offered quick returns, and made his mark in no time at Godhra and later at Borsad. Part of his interest in going to London was also due to his curiosity to know how a small Nation could rule such a large country as India from 7,000 miles away. Having earned enough to fulfil his ambition, he secured admission to the courts of Inn in London in 1905. However,his older brother, Vithalbhai Patel, wished to go in his place by availing the coincidence that both of them were known by the name VJ Patel. Vallabhbhai not only stood down in favour of his elder brother but supported the brother’s family in his own house for the duration of the brother’s stay in London. Five years later, he sailed to England and emulated his brother by finishing the course six months ahead and standing first in the examination. On his return home, Vallabhbhai moved to Ahmedabad and took no time to rise to the top of the Bar. Living like a western aristocrat, he made his presence felt at the club by his extraordinary skills at the game of bridge and dominated the social discourse. When Gandhiji returned to India from South Africa, Patel was at the peak of his profession and evinced little interest in politics. He pooh-poohed the credentials of Gandhiji to lead India to self rule with sarcastic remarks about his political and other precepts. But Gandhiji’s address to the political conference of the Bombay Presidency, held at Godhra in October,1916 and his success in Champaran, Bihar against the indigo planters made a deep impression on Patel. Also, a barb at him by a friend that the public could not be served from the club stirred his conscience. Therefore, when Gandhiji was elected in 1917, as the president of Gujarat Sabha he was able to persuade Patel to become the Secretary of the Sabha. At the turn of 1920-1921, the Saba was converted into Gujarat Provincial Congress Committee and Patel was elected as its first President, to continue in that position till 1946. Because of his fearless willingness to look the Englishman in the eye, he was prevailed upon to get elected to the Municipal Board of Ahmedabad in 1917. Functioning as the chairman of the sanitary committee, he forced the exit of two British I C S officers as Municipal Commissioner and a white Municipal Engineer, for various acts of commission and omission. Later, during the various agitations he conducted against the colonial government, his frequent and successful confrontations with Frederick Pratt, a top British I. C. S. Officer, would have warmed the cockles of every patriotic Indian’s heart. In 1924 he was elected, as a Congress nominee, to the office of Chairman of the Municipal Board. During his two stints in the Municipality, Patel displayed rare administrative acumen and outstanding leadership in crisis, by the way he twice tackled unprecedented floods in Sabarmati River as also two outbreaks each of famine and plague. In recognition of his good work in vastly improving the civic amenities and services as also finances, the Bombay Government gave a special grant of Rs. 1.25 crore to the Municipality, notwithstanding his discontinuance of water supply at concessional rates to the Cantonment and the Civil Lines where the white population lived. Jawahar Lal Nehru became the Municipal Chairman of Allahabad at around the same time but threw his hands up after one year, with the lament that it was impossible to deal with a recalcitrant provincial government. Patel’s organizational excellence was also on full display during the two annual sessions of the Congress held in Gujarat. The first one held in 1921,on the banks of Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, was draped all over in khadi, thereby benefiting khadi spinners and weavers. For the second annual session in 1938, held on the banks of Tapti River in Haripura village, Patel built a temporary village with every amenity possible, in 500 acres of land, to accommodate over 75,000 delegates and visitors. It was a testimony to his imagination and planning. Between 1917 and 1929, Patel conducted with conspicuous success, as many as six historic mass agitations/ satyagrahas against the colonial government, with or without the guidance of Gandhiji. These related to demands for: (a) discontinuance of the practice of ‘Veth’ i.e., free services from villagers to visiting officials; (b) postponement of collection of land revenue from farmers in Kheda district of Gujarat, on account of the distress caused by failure of the monsoon in the years 1915-16 and excessive rainfall in 1917; (c) freeing municipal schools from government control as a corollary to boycotting government schools which was one of the five planks of the ‘ Non Cooperation’ movement launched by Gandhiji in 1920-21; (d) right to carry the national flag through the Civil Lines of Nagpur (1923); (e) withdrawal of punitive tax imposed on the people of Borsad Taluq in Kheda district, for their alleged failure to cooperate with the authorities in controlling heinous crime like murders and dacoities (1924) and, lastly (f) withdrawal of the increase in land revenue in Bardoli Taluq of Surat district in Gujarat (1927-28). All these campaigns, particularly Bardoli, in their details, provide a classic and comprehensive lesson in planning, preparation, organization, communication, morale building and negotiating tactics- all ingredients of outstanding leadership. No other compatriot of Patel in the Congress hierarchy could claim to have toured as much as Patel did in his home turf of Gujarat. He did so mostly by foot and “ate what and where he could and slept where he could”. In the process, he collected and developed a large band of intrepid and tireless colleagues,who stood by him in whichever task he would undertake, within Gujarat and outside. Out of Bardoli, Mr. Patel emerged as Sardar Patel and a popular candidate for the presidency of the Congress party, at the Calcutta session in December 1928. Motilal Nehru who had earlier conveyed to Gandhiji, his desire to see his son Jawaharlal as the Congress President before he passed away, wrote a letter to the Mahatma in July 1928, endorsing Patel’s preponderant claim but with a proviso that ‘failing him his son Jawaharlal would be the best choice’. Despite such compelling credentials, Gandhiji would choose Motilal Nehru for the presidency in 1928 and his son, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1929. As a result, Patel had to wait for the next chance in March 1931, at Karachi. A month earlier, Motilal would pass away. At Lahore, full Independence and not Dominion Status, was declared as the goal of the Congress. In the ‘Salt Satyagraha’ launched on 6 April 1930, after Gandhiji’s famous ‘Dandimarch’, Gujarat, led by Patel was again in the forefront and extended the defiance to payment of land revenue and picketing of liquor shops, as well as those selling foreign cloth. Their example spread to other parts of the Country. Patel was imprisoned thrice. To secure the participation of the Congress party in the Second Round Table Conference held in late 1931-- the First Conference in 1930 having been boycotted by the Party, Irwin, the Governor General, made a climbdown to release all the prisoners and negotiated the Gandhi-Irwin Pact under which he agreed to restoration of status quo ante. The Second Round Table was a failure too. In the meantime, Willingdon, a high Tory and rank imperialist,succeeded Irwin and virtually repudiated the Pact leading to a threat by Gandhiji to revive the agitation. The Congress leadership was again put behind the bars. Gandhiji and Patel were sent to Yeravda Jail near Pune on February 2, 1932. While Gandhiji was released in August 1933 on a threat to go on an indefinite fast, the third one by him while in prison, Patel was released only in August 1934. The Congress suspended civil disobedience in May 1934 following the issue of a White Paper by the British Government. Based on the White Paper, the Government of India Act was enacted in 1935. After passing the baton as Congress President to Rajendra Prasad in October,1934, Patel plunged into election management. In 1935 he took over from an ailing Ansari, the position of Chairman of the Congress Parliamentary Board, responsible for management of the Party’s affairs in the Provincial and Central Legislatures. Patel ran the electoral machine as effectively as he conducted the agitational movements. In the general election to Central and Provincial Assemblies, conducted in 1935-37, he looked after the selection of candidates; raised funds; guided the selection of legislature party leaders and tendered advice to them as Premiers, as and when it was sought. In spite of the controversies which surrounded him over the denial of premiership to K F Nariman in Bombay and the ouster of N B Khare as the Premier in Central Province, his actions were finally vindicated. Keeping in view the propaganda needs of the general election to provincial assemblies under the new Act, Gandhiji would, for a second time, nominate Nehru in 1936 to succeed Prasad as President.In 1937, Nehru wished to continue as Congress President for yet another term. The Party, however, favoured Patel for the office. Once again, Gandhiji would ask Patel to stand down in favour of Nehru despite the constant friction between the working committee led by Patel and Nehru over his leanings towards socialism and his opposition to acceptance of power in the Provinces. Nevertheless, it was made clear to Nehru in a statement issued by Patel, but drafted by Gandhiji himself, that the Congress President had no dictatorial powers and was bound by the decisions of the majority. Patel and Gandhiji were rarely in disagreement on the strategy and tactics of the Congress in its fight for Independence. Patel implicitly trusted Gandhiji’s instinct. It was said in jest that Patel had locked his mind and handed over the key to his ‘master’. This was not true as Patel had a mind of his own and did differ with Gandhiji in the years before independence. Any occasional difference in point of view would be discussed frankly with Gandhiji, in private, and sorted out. Nehru, however,had fundamental differences with Gandhiji as their correspondence would reveal. Much against the thinking of Gandhiji, Nehru pushed the Congress into jettisoning Dominion Status in favour of full Independence during the years 1927-29. Patel was in favour of Congress contesting the General Election to Provincial Assemblies,held in 1936-37, under the 1935 Act ashe was keen on capturing power in the provinces in preparation for ultimate independence. Nehru opposed him but was overruled by the working committee. When Governor General, Linlithgow dragged India, without consulting Indian opinion, into the Second World War in September, 1939, Gandhiji and Patel were in favour of conditional support to Britain. But Nehru vehemently opposed the idea. In rebound, his proposal for immediate mass action against the government was rejected by Gandhiji, though, on his insistence, Congress pulled out its provincial governments from office, much against the thinking of Patel. This turned out to be a grave mistake. In early 1942, though Gandhiji, supported by Patel and others rejected Cripps’ offer regarding constitutional advance, as a postdated cheque on a crumbling bank, Nehru advocated further negotiation. Later, when Patel fully backed Gandhiji on the ‘Quit India’ movement, Nehru fell in line most reluctantly. Inspite of such basic differences in out look and thinking, Gandhiji,having already declared Nehru as his political heir, more than once, would help him to become Congress President for a third time in 1946, though 15 out of 18 Congress Committees favoured Patel. This step,ipso facto, made him the head of the Interim Government in August 1946 and thereafter, the first Prime Minister of Independent India. At different times, Gandhiji had explained his preference for Nehru over Patel as his political heir, for the following reasons. Nehru had a greater appeal to youth, than Patel. Notwithstanding their differences since they became fellow workers, Nehru would speak Gandhiji’s language after he was gone. He would rein in the socialists in the Congress. He would be more acceptable to Muslims. He might split the Party, if denied the leadership. Better known abroad, he would carve out a role for India in the international arena. Most importantly, ‘as a Harrow boy, a Cambridge graduate and a barrister,’ he was best suited to negotiate with the British on transfer of power. Not one of these assumptions had been vindicated by subsequent events. The crucial agreement for immediate transfer of power based on partition and dominion status was the achievement of Patel, advised and aided by V. P. Menon who was Reforms Commissioner. They were both convinced that the Cabinet Mission Plan for a Federal United India consisting of three groupings of autonomous States on religious lines, would leave India weak and exposed to constant communal clashes without ruling out the emergence of Pakistan at a future date. They did not want to lose time to build a resurgent India. Though, Patel was not very conversant with international affairs unlike Nehru,he read the Chinese tea leaves on Tibet and its border with India with greater foresight than Nehru. Patel might have lacked the charisma, superior education and flowery English of Nehru but he had a stronger record of struggle, service and success. Considering the difference in age between them, Nehru could still have become the Prime Minister after Patel, even if the first chance had been given to the latter. As events turned out, he would not have had to wait for long. If Patel had chosen to contest, he would have won decisively. But he refrained from a showdown because of his unswerving loyalty to Gandhiji and his patriotic disinclination to create a division in the Party at a crucial juncture of negotiations with the British for Independence. It was a testimony to the magnanimity and patriotism of Patel that he bore the same loyalty to Nehru as Prime Minister as he swore to Gandhiji as his supreme leader. He did have serious differences with Nehru in outlook and on policy which he articulated with his characteristic candour and bluntness but had never let him down. To cite two important instances, Nehru-Liaquat Pact on the communal situation in the then East Pakistan and Article 370, according special status to Kashmir,were vehemently opposed by the Congress party rank and file. The former led to a public outcry in Calcutta. In both these matters, it was the intervention and help of Patel that saved the day for Nehru as Prime Minister. Though Nehru was not equally generous towards Patel forcing the latter to contemplate leaving the government, Gandhiji’s death averted that step and he carried on relentlessly till his death, helping Nehru wherever he could. Patel’s success in integrating 562 Princely States with the rest of India in less than 15 months was an unprecedented achievement of monumental proportions in the annals of history. He employed every arrow in his quiver-persuasion, arm-twisting, allurement, generosity, intrigue and force to achieve his objective. It was a demonstration of great statesmanship and consummate display of strategic foresight and tactical wisdom in equal measure. In accomplishing this humongous task, Patel showed great sagacity in leaning on Mountbatten,the Governor General as much as he did on V.P. Menon, without at anytime surrendering his own judgment to that of the former. The credit for framing the Indian Constitution is given to Ambedkar by the laity. What is not known is that, apart from the signal contributions of such legal luminaries like Alladi Krishna Swamy Iyer, K M Munshi,Tej Bahadur Supru, B N Rao and M. R. Jayakar, the brunt of the responsibility to push through the Constituent Assembly, important provisions like minority rights and reservations for SC/ST communities was borne by Patel who had chaired over half a dozen Sub Committees. Also, not many are aware that it was at the instance of Patel that non congressmen like Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee were inducted into the Government. It is also little known that he was the progenitor of “Amul” the brand name which symbolizes “the taste of India”. Patel chose his aides wisely; gave them trust and space and valued their advice. In every endeavor he undertook, he displayed prescience, perspicacity and pragmatism in measures not matched by any of his compatriots. He was candid and impartial in his dealings with colleagues. A vivid example of this was the continued intimacy between him and Rajaji even though he backed Rajendra Prasad and not Rajaji to become the first President of India. He died without the slightest blemish or whisper on his character. He left no property behind. He was a God fearing person who never failed to invoke God’s will and grace in his speeches, conversations and correspondence. There was not a single Indian nor a foreigner who had dealt with Patel and not acknowledged his pre-eminence as a leader, administrator and statesman. Even his worst critics like socialists had to admit after his death that they judged him wrongly. Patel’s intense dislike of cant, double speak and opportunism as also his natural instinct to call a spade a spade did expose him to the criticism of being pro-Hindu. Even if it was valid, he was not anti-Muslim. From times immemorial, the Indian subcontinent was united only culturally and not administratively. Even under the British rule, there was a British India and a congeries called Princely India. Today, these two Indias are one, thanks to Sardar Patel. This makes him, perhaps, the greatest Indian after the ‘Mahatma’ in modern times. Patel was the best ‘Prime Minister’ that India never had. For whatever reason, his role and contributions in the Independence struggle and his unique achievement in unifying India, as we know it today, had not been sufficiently celebrated nor even acknowledged. The ‘Statue of Unity’ erected in his memory,apart from making amends for past neglect, will ever remind Indians of Vallabhbhai Patel as the builder of United India. But the real homage to him lies in the undeniable reality that whenever India is in crisis, every informed Indian wishes that Sardar Patel has been alive to solve it. (The writer is a former Governor of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are his personal.)


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