That Nehru versus Patel debate again


Modi using Patel’s image to polarize India

India’s interests would have been served better if Sardar Patel, in place of Jawaharlal Nehru, had been the country’s first prime minister. This hypothetical possibility had been voiced by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a poll campaign for the Bhartiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 parliament elections.

Of all the leaders, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Nehru’s friend, guide and philosopher, came to the same conclusion after watching Nehru as an administrator. Azad was in Nehru’s cabinet and saw him from close quarters. Azad told his secretary, Humayun Kabir, that they should have made Nehru the country’s president and Patel its prime minister. Kabir and I were close friends. He recalled Azad’s observation when Kabir was the education minister in the Nehru cabinet.

By no stretch of imagination, Azad can be linked with Patel or his philosophy. During the national struggle, both ardent participants, were poles apart and made no secret of their stance. Patel was a pro-Hindu but strictly adhered to pluralism. Azad was secular through and through and boldly faced the charge of “Hindu show boy” that the Muslim League made against him. He did not flinch even for a second to say publicly that the formation of Pakistan would be injurious to the interests of Muslims.

He would say before partition that the Muslims could walk proudly in the country with their heads held high that they were equal partners, even though they were fewer in number. Once India was divided on the basis of religion, the Hindus would tell the Muslims that you had taken their share and should, therefore, go to Pakistan.

Patel may not have commented on pluralism in unequivocal terms in which Azad did. But I recall that when after partition I sought shelter in Delhi, journeying from my hometown Sialkot, which became part of Pakistan, I heard Patel warning Pakistan against the exodus of Hindus. He said that India would send out the Muslims in proportion to the Hindus ousted from Pakistan.

It was a strange logic of pushing the innocent Muslims living in India for the sins of Muslims in Pakistan. Even after 67 years of division, this approach has not been disowned either in India or Pakistan. Pakistan has ousted practically all Hindus. But the Muslims in India are around 180 million. When there is tension between the two countries, many Hindus refer to Muslims as Pakistanis. Little purpose will be served in pursuing this point because the wounds of partition are far from healed and the people in both the communities continue to be exploited in the name of religion.

Left to Patel, he would have had an exchange of population before accepting partition. Nehru was different. He did not mix religion with politics or the state. The distance in separation in their approach made Mahatma Gandhi, who led the war of independence, to nominate Nehru as his successor. The Hindu-Muslim unity was a matter of faith with Gandhiji, not part of the policy.

Gandhiji and Patel came from the same state, Gujarat, ate the same food and represented the traditions of the state in many ways. Yet Gandhiji preferred Nehru to Patel. Gandhiji knew that Nehru even dreamt in English and that he was too engrossed in world affairs. But Gandhiji also knew that Nehru would interpret his philosophy of Hindu-Muslim unity more faithfully and employ such methods to implement it that respected scruples and were non-violent and fair.

Patel’s biggest achievement is that he got 540 odd princely states integrated to the Indian Union. Hats off to him for what he did. But he believed in the ends, not the means. Some states volunteered to join the Indian Union. But some of them showed resistance. Patel’s secretary, V.P. Menon, had no compunction in admitting in his memoirs that the show of force brought round even the most recalcitrant.

The typical example is that of Travancore. It announced its independence and initiated the process of seceding. VP had an extra man in khaki when he went to the Travancore maharaja. He signed the instrument of accession. He explained subsequently that he did not want his family to suffer and spend years in jail.

Gandhiji was also confident that his secular ideals would be safer in the hands of Nehru. This was proved when Patel refused to release Rs64 crore to Pakistan. This sum was part of assets which India had agreed to transfer while agreeing to the partition details. Patel argued that how could he release the money when India was engaged in a war over Kashmir with Pakistan. Gandhiji had to go on fast-unto-death to make Patel relent.

The extremist Hindus had vitiated the atmosphere of amity over the sum of Rs64 crore. The society was sought to be polarized. They criticized Gandhiji again and again for being anti-national and anti-Hindu. The RSS, the fallout of Hindu Mahasabha’s philosophy of Hindutva, hatched a conspiracy and assassinated Gandhiji.

Patel was quite right in banning the RSS and blaming it for disturbing the atmosphere of secularism. Once again the slant of Patel towards the RSS made him withdraw the ban once the organization changed its character to become a cultural organization. This was only a smokescreen behind which the RSS used the BJP for its political activities. Modi is its candidate. In fact, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has openly said that the outfit would be participating in politics. Nehru has many a time exposed its duplicity.

When Azad thought Nehru’s suitability for the office of president, he was confident that the communal forces had been crushed. He commended Patel’s quality of being pragmatic and practical. Azad had come to have full faith in Patel’s secular aptitude. That Modi is using Patel’s image for polarizing the society is unfortunate. Practical as Patel was, he would have understood that India’s destiny lay in a democratic, secular polity. He, as prime minister, would have deepened its foundation more firmly than Nehru.

Kuldip Nayar is a veteran Indian journalist, human rights activist and a noted author.


  1. Nehru was trully a great man and today's industrial and educational foundations in india were laid by Mr. Nehru. Patel was really no body in comparison to Mr. Nehru. If it was not for political instability in Pakistan at that time, Nehru would have resolved the Kashmir problem. Finally ,he was badly betrayed by the chinese, when they attacked india .

  2. One thing we Pakistanis must remember that Patel or Nehru; every Indian leader is anti -Pakistan except Ghandiji. Ghandiji deserves our thanks for what he did for the nascent state Pakistan. He was really a great man

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