THE Twitter clash between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and self-styled historian Ramchandra Guha rekindled the Patel vs. Nehru debate last week. Jaishankar had quoted a new book as claiming that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not wish Sardar Patel to be in his cabinet on independence. Attaching a letter from Nehru to Patel of August 1, 1947, inviting the latter to join his cabinet, Guha sought to dismiss Jaishankar’s call for debate as motivated, going on to troll the Minister for “promoting fake news about, and false rivalries between, the builders of modern India,” even chiding him for doing the job of the BJP’s IT cell. Apart from ignoring the little fact that Jaishankar is a BJP member now and promoting the party agenda is fully legit for him, Guha seems to have economised with truth if he is truly a historian. Or seems to have to have got the semantics wrong at the very least.
For, Nehru ‘not wanting’ Patel does not equal Nehru ‘not having’ Patel in his cabinet. With Mahatma Gandhi the arbiter, Patel had lost to Nehru each time a choice had to be made between the two beginning 1929 - most spectacularly in 1946, when Gandhi paved Nehru's way to become free India's first Prime Minister by facilitating him as Congress president, despite none of the state units proposing his name. Guha wants to avoid this inconvenient truth that minus the Mahatma, Nehru vs Patel was never an equal debate.
The rivalry between the two builders of modern India was real and has had both day-to-day and long-term consequences for the destiny of the nation freedom struggle and afterwards. If it has been kept hidden from a great mass of Indian public, it has only to do with a carefully crafted Nehruvian narrative by the post-independence Congress establishment, which, in a happy live-in with the left, painted Patel as the distant second to Nehru. Enough freedom literature exists to show that Nehru was only a poor first among equals, with the Sardar choosing to be second only to satisfy Mahatma Gandhi’s wishes.
We know from the right-wing narrative that Shyama Prasad Mukerjee quit Nehru government on the issue of his handling of Kashmir, but how many know that Sardar Patel also resigned exactly for the same reason: Kashmir! Patel wrote his resignation to Nehru on December 23, 1947, after the latter appointed N Gopalaswami Ayyangar as in-charge of Kashmir desk with cabinet rank. Holding the charge of States, Patel clearly saw this as an attempt at stepping on his toes busy as he was spearheading the integration of hundreds of princely states and territories into the nascent nation. To quote the operative part: “…I must not or at least cannot continue as a member of Government and hence I am hereby tendering my resignation. I am grateful to you for the courtesy and kindness shown to me during the period of office which was a period of considerable pain.”
Ever latent, tension had been building up between the duo for some time. The post Direct Action Day riots of Delhi and Punjab had brought to the fore the difference in style and temperament of the two leaders, resulting in multiple occasions when Mahatma had to intervene to let the arrangement work. Nehru and Patel almost came to parting ways on two more occasions between independence and the December 23 resignation. Both involved Nehru’s overstepping into Patel’s territory as Home Minister. First was the issue of appointment of Delhi’s Commissioner MS Randhawa, a Sikh civil servant whose work with refugees was not being liked by Nehru. Second was Nehru sending his secretary HVR Iyengar to Ajmer to oversee the riots relief work, trespassing on Patel’s direct line with the Ajmer Police Commissioner Shankar Prasad. Like in the case of Gopalaswami appointment, both the actions were taken by Nehru without taking Patel into confidence.
So miffed was Patel at Nehru’s nonstop interference that he reached the Mahatma and offered to let the Prime Minister run the show, and Gandhi actually thought Patel’s departure was indeed a way out, even if a bit hazardous! The Mahatma told Patel in so many words: “Either you should run things or Jawaharlal should.” Patel responded with an equally firm “I do not have the physical strength. He is younger. Let him run the show. I will assist him to the extent possible from outside.” The readiness that the Mahatma showed to let Patel go had a build-up of its own. Patel thought that Nehru and Azad were poisoning Mahatma’s ears, assisted by Mridula Sarabhai, and that it was only a matter of time before the Mahatma asked him to leave the cabinet.
Gandhi’s assassination weeks later – on January 30, 1948 – brought another round of tensions between the two freedom stalwarts. Facing criticism and continuous attack from Nehru acolytes on failing to prevent the killing of the Mahatma, Patel again thought of resigning. This time he was stopped by his secretary Vidya Shankar who counselled that the remaining work of unifying the nation would be a more befitting tribute to the memories of the father of the nation. As his December 23 resignation letter hints, Patel’s failing health and subsequent death in 1950 left Nehru the sole shepherd of India’s tryst with destiny in those early years. But that does not mean Guha should not read one more book, even if he has to borrow from Jaishankar.