In his last week’s National Interest column analysing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seeming obsession with India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru, Shekhar Gupta noted that a new biography of V.P. Menon — a senior civil servant who worked closely with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — by Narayani Basu asserts with much documentation that Nehru had indeed excluded Patel from the list of his first Cabinet members. Referring to this claim, Karan Thapar wrote on 2 February that the book “more or less confirms something about which there has been a lot of speculation”.
At a time when pitting Patel against Nehru has become the stock-in-trade of the Narendra Modi government, it is not surprising that this particular point in Basu’s important book has attracted attention.
This claim was first made by H.V. Hodson in his 1969 book The Great Divide: Britain, India, Pakistan , drawing on an interview with Menon that the latter’s biographer cites. Menon had told Hodson that he had learnt that Nehru had dropped Patel and had warned India’s last Viceroy Louis Mountbatten of the dire consequences that would ensue.
At his urging, Mountbatten had met Gandhi and “as a sop, Sardar’s name was finally included”. Basu also quotes a letter from Mountbatten to Hodson in March 1970: “this story does ring a faint bell with me … I have a feeling this was such a hot potato that I probably just mentioned it quickly to Nehru at teatime and made a point of not recording it anywhere and probably not even of passing on the story.”
The letters that spill the truth
We have been reminded in recent times of the need to grasp the chronology. So, let’s get that straight. Basu writes: “In the first week of August, Nehru submitted his official list of the people he wanted to serve in independent India’s first Cabinet. The list should have been headed by Sardar Patel. It wasn’t”. We know for a fact that Nehru submitted this list to Mountbatten on 4 August 1947. But in reality, the list was indeed headed by Patel. We can now step back and trace the chain of events.
First, Basu quotes a report on Mountbatten’s staff meeting on 28 July, where V.P. Menon notes that he hoped “this would be a Ministry of Talents, possibly including a number of younger men. However, it appeared that Pandit Nehru was having great difficulty forgetting his loyalties”. Menon’s concerns about inducting younger ministers and Nehru’s loyalties to his old colleagues was relayed by Mountbatten to Nehru when they met on 1 August (Mountbatten was in Calcutta on 30-31 July 1947).
The details of their discussion are worth noting. Mountbatten bluntly told Nehru that “unless he [Nehru] got rid of a lot of top-weight like Rajagopalachari and Maulana Azad, he would find himself greatly hampered”. Patel was not discussed at all. On the contrary, Mountbatten reported on 1 August that Patel was directly involved in the formation of the cabinet: “Patel came down heavily on ‘my’ side and they are now sitting night and day trying to produce a better cabinet”.
Indeed, Nehru had been working closely with Patel in drawing up the new cabinet. On 30 July, he wrote to Patel that he had met and persuaded Ambedkar to join the cabinet as law minister. He had also spoken to Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, senior congressman from UP. Nehru requested Patel to approach Syama Prasad Mookerjee and R.K. Shanmukham Chetty (neither was from the Congress) as well as talk to Rajaji (about becoming the governor of West Bengal). On 1 August, Nehru wrote to John Matthai: “As you know, all existing Members of the Cabinet (minus the Pakistanis) will continue with the exception of Rajaji who will become a governor”.
The same day, 1 August 1947, Nehru wrote a brief letter to Patel: “As formalities have to be observed to some extent, I am writing to invite you to join the new Cabinet. This writing is somewhat superfluous because you are the strongest pillar of the Cabinet ”. Patel’s reply to Nehru on 3 August also deserves to be quoted in full: “Our attachment and affection for each other and our comradeship for an unbroken period of nearly 30 years admit of no formalities. My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength”.
Mountbatten’s unreliability & Menon’s error
This was the bedrock of mutual regard and willing partnership that sustained Nehru and Patel’s relationship despite their differences. Only after Nehru received Patel’s assent did he send the list of cabinet members to Mountbatten on 4 August. Patel was not only at the top of the list, but would be deputy prime minister.
But, what to make of V.P. Menon’s claims to Hodson? The most defensible interpretation is that Menon picked up an unfounded rumour about Patel’s exclusion and relayed it to Mountbatten. There is not a shred of archival evidence that Mountbatten broached the matter with either Gandhi or Nehru. Megalomania was central to Mountbatten’s character. He never passed up an opportunity to claim that he was the principal orchestrator of developments around him. For instance, in the same note of 1 August 1947, Mountbatten claimed that he had dissuaded Nehru from travelling to Kashmir and that Patel had told a friend that in so doing “I [Mountbatten] had probably saved Nehru’s political career”. As for the effect of his own discussion with Nehru on bringing younger talents into the cabinet, Mountbatten boasted: “Sensation!!!” So, it is inconceivable that Mountbatten would have kept to himself such an important thing as Patel being inducted into the cabinet at his behest.
Mountbatten’s unreliability in this matter is evident from another source. Even as he wrote to Hodson on 16 March 1970 about his “faint” recollection of this episode, he told Nehru’s biographer Sarvepalli Gopal on 28 May 1970 that while he had heard this rumour, he did not even mention it to Nehru. The transcript of this interview is available in Gopal’s private papers.
It is equally inconceivable that a Congress member would have swallowed this rumour as did a bureaucrat like V.P. Menon. Patel was the strongest pillar not just of the cabinet but also of the party over which Nehru presided. There was no question of Nehru leaving him out. And, as Patel assured him, their partnership proved unbreakable.
The author is Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India. Views are personal.