A perusal of Congress party documents shows that despite Gandhiji having made his choice known, 12 of 15 state committees nominated Patel for party president.
It has been repeatedly said that Jawaharlal Nehru was unanimously elected as the first Prime Minister of India and was the darling of the country. The documents and facts speak completely opposite.
Maulana Azad was elected Congress president in the Ramgarh Session in 1940. Because of various factors like World War II, Quit India Movement and most of the Congress leaders being in jails, Azad continued to be the Congress president until April 1946.
As the war was coming to an end, it was becoming clear that India’s freedom is not very far. It was also very clear that the Congress president, shall be invited to form the interim government at the Centre — due to the number of seats in the Central Assembly the Congress had won in 1946 elections.
Once the election for the post of the Congress president was announced, Maulana Azad expressed his desire for the re-election. Maulana writes in his autobiography,
“The question normally arose that there should be the fresh Congress elections and a new President chosen. As soon as this was mooted in the Press, a general demand arose that I should be selected President for another term….”
This “agonised Azad’s close friend and colleague Jawaharlal who had his own expectations.” However, on 20 April 1946, Gandhiji made his choice known in the favour of Nehru. Despite Gandhiji’s open support for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress party overwhelmingly wanted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the president and consequently the first Prime Minister of India, because Patel was considered “a great executive, organizer and leader” with his feet firmly on the ground.
At that time only the Pradesh Congress Committees could nominate and elect the Congress president. And April 29, 1946 was the last date for the nominations for the post of the Congress president, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India. A perusal of the Congress party documents shows that despite Gandhiji having made his choice known, 12 out of 15 Pradesh Congress Committees nominated Sardar Patel. The remaining three abstained from nomination process. Thus, no Pradesh Congress Committee, the only legitimate body to nominate and elect the President, nominated Jawaharlal Nehru.
However, Nehru was proposed by a few working committee members who had no authority to do so. After this, efforts began to persuade Sardar Patel to withdraw in favour of Jawaharlal. To resolve the issue, Gandhiji said to Nehru:
“No PCC has put forward your name…only [a few members of] the working committee has.”
This remark of Gandhiji was met by Jawaharlal with “complete silence”. Once Gandhiji was informed that “Jawaharlal will not take the second place”, he asked Patel to withdraw. Rajendra Prasad lamented that Gandhiji “had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the “glamorous Nehru” and further feared that “Nehru would follow the British ways”.
When Rajendra Prasad was using the phrase “once again”, he indeed was referring to the denial of Congress president-ship to Patel in 1929, 1937 and 1946 in preference to Nehru; and always at the last moment.
Patel accepted to take the second position because of two reasons: firstly, for Patel, post or position was immaterial; and secondly, Nehru was keen that “either he would take the number one spot in the government or stay out. Vallabhbhai also reckoned that whereas office was likely to moderate Nehru, rejection would drive him into opposition. Patel shrank from precipitating such an outcome, which would bitterly divide India.”
Maulana Azad, who had issued a statement on 26 April 1946, three days before the last date of nomination, to elect Nehru as Congress president, wrote in his autobiography, published posthumously in 1959:
“After weighing the pros and cons I came to the conclusion that the election of Sardar Patel would not be desirable in the existing circumstances. Taking all facts into consideration it seemed to me that Jawaharlal should be the new President….
“I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made to realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. …(It was a great mistake that) I did not support Sardar Patel. … He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal… 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.”
Michael Brecher, one of the most sympathetic biographers of Nehru, writes:
“In accordance with the time-honoured practice of rotating the Presidency, Patel was in line for the post. Fifteen years had elapsed since he presided over the Karachi session whereas Nehru had presided at Lucknow and Ferozpur in 1936 and 1937. Moreover, Patel was the overwhelming choice of the Provincial Congress Committees…. Nehru’s ‘election’ was due to Gandhi’s intervention. Patel was persuaded to step down….
“If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first de facto Premier of India, in 1946-7…. The Sardar was ‘robbed of the prize’ and it rankled deeply.”
Looking back at all those tumultuous years C. Rajagopalachari, who had all the reasons to be angry, and uncharitable to Sardar Patel because it was Patel who deprived Rajaji the first Presidentship of India, wrote in Bhawan’s Journal in 1972 (almost 22 years after Patel’s death):
“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… This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.”
Prof. Makkhan Lal is Founder Director of Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management and currently Distinguished Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, 1959, India Wins Freedom
Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991, Patel: A Life
Durga Das, 1969, India From Curzon to Nehru and After
Brecher, 1959, Nehru: A Political Biography
C. Rajagopalachari, in Swarajya