Why Gandhi opted for Nehru, not Patel, for PM

History is written by the victors – Machiavelli

Dr A Jagadeesh

Dr A Jagadeesh

The official history of independent India was written and overseen by a coterie of Congress men which emerged victorious in  the leadership tussle on the eve of independence with the tacit but partisan support of none other than the all powerful and venerable Mahatma Gandhi.

According to the official history, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as the first prime minister of India and Sardar Patel became his deputy and it was all done purely on merit.

The official history has always downplayed the grave injustice done to the ‘Iron Man of India’ Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It’s not that  the official history does not mention the emergence of Patel  and not Nehru as the overwhelming choice of the Congress party to lead India after independence. It has been reduced to no more than footnotes.

Let’s revisit the entire intra-party power struggle within Congress on the eve of independence and let’s figure out what really went in favour of Nehru and what was it that deprived Patel of his moment of glory despite the overwhelming support he enjoyed among the Congressmen. To find out  the answer, we need to rewind back to 1946.

By 1946, it had become quite clear that India’s independence was only a matter of time. The Second World War had come to an end and the British rulers had started thinking in terms of transferring  power to Indians.

[box type=”note”]The nation is celebrating the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel with a week-long programmes such as Vigilance Week, National Integrity, Unity Pledge, etc. from October 31 to November 6. The events, some of them organized by the Central government, States and private organizations, have focused on what Patel had stood for in his lifetime. The occasion has also raked up the old question, if Sardar Patel had become the first prime minister of India how he would have shaped the country. Here is an inside story that changed the course of India. [/box]

An interim government was to be formed which was to be headed by the Congress president as Congress had won the maximum number of seats in the 1946 elections. All of a sudden, the post of Congress president became very crucial as it was this very person  who was going to become the first prime minister of independent India.

At that time, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was the president of Congress party. In fact, he had been the president for six years as elections could not be held for the post since 1940 due to Quit India movement, the Second World War and the fact that most of the leaders were behind bars.

Azad was also interested in fighting and winning election for  the Congress president’s post  as he, too, had ambitions to become the PM.  But he was told in no uncertain terms by Mahatma Gandhi that he would not approve of a second term for a sitting Congress president and Azad had to fall in

line, albeit reluctantly. To top it all, Gandhi made it clear to everybody that Nehru was his preferred choice for the Congress president’s position.

The last date for filing nominations for the Congress chief’s post (thereby the first prime minister of India), was April 29, 1946. The nominations were to be made by 15 state/regional Congress committees. Despite Gandhi’s well-known preference for Nehru, not a single Congress committee nominated Nehru’s name.

On the contrary, 12 out of 15 Congress committees nominated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel while the remaining three did not propose anybody’s name. It was a challenge to Mahatma Gandhi. He instructed Acharya J B Kripalani to get some proposers for Nehru from the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members despite knowing fully well that only Pradesh Congress Committees were authorized to nominate the president.

In deference to Gandhi’s wish, Kripalani convinced a few CWC members to propose Nehru’s name for party president. It’s not that Gandhi was not aware of the immorality  of this exercise. He had fully realized  that what he was trying to bring about was wrong and totally unfair.

In fact, he tried to make Nehru understand the reality. He conveyed to Nehru that no PCC had nominated his name and that only a few CWC members had propposed him. A shell-shocked Nehru was defiant and made it clear that he would not play second fiddle to anybody.

A disappointed Gandhi gave in to Nehru’s obduracy and asked Sardar Patel to withdraw his name. He had immense respect for Gandhi and he promptly fulfilled Gandhi’s wish. Patel’s withdrawal paved the way for the  coronation of Nehru as India’s first prime minister.

But why did Gandhi overlook the overwhelming support for Patel? Why was he so enamoured with Nehru?

When Dr Rajendra Prasad heard of Sardar Patel’s withdrawal of nomination, he was disappointed and remarked that Gandhi had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant in favour of the ‘glamorous Nehru’.

Was it the ‘glamour’ and ‘sophistication’ of Nehru that floored Gandhi so much that he did not hesitate in doing grave injustice to Patel? The answer to this question is not that simple. But a closer analysis of Gandhi’s approach towards Patel and Nehru throws light over a few facts that can unravel the mystery.

There is no denying the fact that Gandhi had a ‘soft corner’ for Nehru since beginning and he had preferred Nehru to Sardar Patel at least twice before 1946 for the post of Congress president. It happened in 1929 and 1937.

Gandhi was always impressed with the modern outlook of Nehru. In comparison, Patel was a little orthodox. Gandhi thought India needed a person who was modern in his approach.

But more than anything else, Gandhi always knew that Patel would  never defy him.  He was not so convinced about Nehru. Gandhi’s apprehensions came true when Nehru made it clear to him that he was not willing to play second fiddle to anybody.

Perhaps, Gandhi wanted both Nehru and Patel to provide leadership to the country. He used his veto power in favour of Nehru because he feared Nehru could cause problems in the way of India’s independence if he was not given the chance to become prime minister.

Some analysts have also claimed that Nehru threatened to split the Congress in case he was not made prime Minister. According to them, Nehru coerced Gandhi into supporting him by saying that if he split the Congress, the entire independence plan would go awry as the British would get an excuse in delaying independence by raising the question as to who should be handed over the reins of power, Congress with Nehru or Congress minus Nehru.

Gandhi must have thought that it would  be safe to ask Patel to give way to a power-smitten Nehru. In fact, Gandhi had commented that Nehru had gone power-mad. Still, he gave reins of power to Nehru, a decision that proved costly for India.

First of all, Gandhi introduced the concept of forced decisions by the so-called ‘high-commands’ that usually means overruling state units. This practice, now being followed across the political spectrum, has negated the very concept of innner party democracy. Nehru’s follies on Kashmir and China proved beyond doubt the fact that Gandhi committed a  mistake in backing Nehru by showing utter disregard for overwhelming support  from the majority of PCCs for Sardar Patel.

Even two known critics of Sardar Patel conceded the point that Gandhi’s decision to choose Nehru over Patel was erroneous.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad confessed in his autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1959, “It was a mistake on my part that I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr. Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”

Similarly, C Rajgopalachary who blamed Sardar Patel for depriving him  of the first presidentship of independent India,  wrote,  “Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru had been asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell into the error of believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two… A myth had grown about Patel that he would be harsh towards Muslims. This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.”

But questions can be raised over Sardar Patel’s surrender as well.

Who was he more loyal to? To an individual, to an organization or to his motherland? When he was convinced that Nehru was not fit enough to give the much-needed guidance that a nascent country so desperately wanted,  why did he not object even once to the foisting of Nehru as India’s first prime minister?

History has proved it beyond doubt that had Patel been the PM in place of Nehru, the country would not have faced the humiliation of 1962 war.

Days before his death, Patel had written a letter to Nehru warning him about China’s nefarious designs but Nehru didn’t pay any attention to that letter. Even Kashmir would not have become a thorn in the flesh for India, had Patel and not Nehru  been the first prime minister of India.

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