Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is almost completely a BJP icon now. Patel was president of the Congress party in 1931, was India’s first Home minister, and played a crucial role in the freedom struggle and in stitching together the modern nation-state. But the Congress relegated him to the footnotes of its history, while the Nehru-Gandhi family became the dominant historical narrative of the Congress.
On Sardar Patel’s birthday, the Talk Point question is: Was the Congress party unfair to leaders like Sardar Patel who had a right-of-centre ideology? We bring sharp perspectives.
The Congress was not a political party to begin with, it was a grand coalition of unbelievably diverse ideological constituents
Makarand R. Paranjape
Professor of English, JNU
The Congress, we must remember, was not a political party to begin with. It was a mighty movement, which not only led India’s national awakening and freedom movement, but was also a grand coalition of unbelievably diverse ideological constituents.
There were classical liberals like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, fiery nationalists like Lokmanya Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai, revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh and Subhas Chandra Bose — all leaders of the Congress. There were Hindu leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya and avowed advocates of democratic socialism such as Acharya Narendra Dev. Prominent Congress leaders included Christians, Parsees, Hindus, and, of course, Muslims. Among the latter, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Maulana Azad stood tall.
The Congress also had outstanding women as presidents, including the Irish radical-turned-theosophist, Annie Besant, and the world-famous poet, Sarojini Naidu. Rabindranath Tagore, though not an active Congressman, was a supporter. Prominent “centrist” leaders such Motilal Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari broke away to form their own parties, with the former re-joining. Even “anti-Congressmen” like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, M. N. Roy, Ram Manohar Lohia, and Jayaprakash Narayan were once members of the Congress, while Dr B.R. Ambedkar joined the first Congress-led cabinet of independent India. In the middle of it all was the greatest Congressman, possibly Indian of that time, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who managed to keep them all together, even if not in perfect harmony.
Today’s Congress is quite another creature, a mere political party, rather than a national movement, identified almost entirely with one family, a dynasty founded by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. In that sense, the question needs to be reframed.
It’s not just that the Congress side-lined leaders who were “right of centre”. It marginalised all leaders not belonging to the ruling family. Most unfortunate for a party as great with this distinguished history, isn’t it?
By making Nehru the leader, Gandhi practically defanged the Left and avoided India from becoming Tito’s Yugoslavia
Entrepreneur and writer
In 1947, the major concern among the Congress party leaders was the growing strength of the Leftist movements. The extreme Leftist ideological values exemplified by Subhas Chandra Bose had a lot of resonance in India. The Bombay Central seat remained a communist stronghold till 1962. Even after Bose’s disappearance/death, there was brewing Leftism – there was a communist-style peasant revolt in what is now Telangana.
Communist thinking was strong within the Congress, as were socialists like Jayaprakash Narayan. If Gandhi had chosen Patel as its leader, the party would have split. So, Gandhi went about this in a wily manner, co-opted the Left, and made the party more attractive to Leftist fellow-travellers while ensuring that it followed a less rigid and doctrinaire version of socialism.
It was a masterstroke by Gandhi when he made Jawaharlal Nehru the leader — anointing the less-aggressive, English-speaking, Cambridge-educated Left-leaning princeling. By making Nehru the leader, Gandhi practically defanged the Left, and avoided India from becoming Tito’s Yugoslavia. Nehru was a fairly democratic Leftist.
For Gandhi, the bigger threat was the Left, not the Right — the latter wouldn’t have deserted the party then. He had to urgently contain, divert, and pre-empt the Left. The best way to do that was to give a Leftist aura to the Congress.
Patel was older. Making him the leader would have definitely led JP (who left later anyway) to co-operate with, if not join, the communists. Gandhi was eager to prevent this.
C. Rajagopalachari had no grassroots support in his state. He never won an election. He was what is called “old-fashioned conservative”. In 1942, he opposed the Quit India movement. By 1945, support for the Quit India movement had become a litmus test for patriotism and loyalty within the Congress party. That ensured Rajaji was out of the reckoning. Rajendra Prasad, who was also a conservative, did not quite make it as a charismatic Bose or Nehru.
The Mahatma’s choice represented supreme realpolitik, not wooly-headedness.
Stories that Nehru sidelined Patel are popular among the politically semi-educated middle-classes, whose source of information is cozy drawing room gossip
Senior journalist and political commentator
There is a huge growing industry of revisionist history which wants to retrospectively prove that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru hated the Right wing of politics, and never let it flourish. This assessment is neither innocent nor historically correct. However, it is always made, without ever analysing facts or proper context. Therefore, the stories that Nehru sidelined Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, and even Chintamanrao Deshmukh, are popular among the politically half-educated middle-classes, whose only source of information is cozy drawing room gossip masquerading as intellectual discussion.
Most of them are unaware or do not know that the communists called Nehru a “running dog of capitalism” and a “cunning apologist of British imperialism”. Socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia to Jayaprakash Narayan called him a leader who betrayed socialism. Indeed, they accused him of hypocrisy because he talked about a “socialistic pattern”, and not socialism.
Yet the Right condemned him for being a socialist, and worse, even a Soviet apologist (if not an agent)! The language of the Right and the Left was different back then. In Nehru’s era, the context was that of the Cold War. There was the pro-American lobby led by the Swatantra Party and there was the pro-Soviet one led by the CPI.
The political discourse in India has never understood the difference between the conservative Right and the reactionary Right. The Jana Sangh was the conservative Right and the Swatantra was the reactionary Right (to use the definitions of the era). The Swatantra Right was secular, even liberal – including the likes of Minoo Masani, Nani Palkhiwala, C.D. Deshmukh, and even J.R.D. Tata himself. The conservative Right was not secular and was represented by people like Balraj Madhok, Jagannathrao Joshi, and today, L.K. Advani.
Nehru always tried to accommodate the political Right and the political Left. His antagonism was only against the conservative Right. He had the greatest respect for Rajaji and Rajendra Prasad, just as he was fond of Krishna Menon.
However, his contempt for the religious Right and the RSS has been effectively used as subtle propaganda to establish that he was anti-Right wing and attempted to finish or sideline it. In fact, he deliberated and worked with it, despite differences, with respect to the Five-Year Plans.
But unfortunately, his liberal politics has been misunderstood by the so-called defenders of Right as well as the Left.
The Nehru dynasty insulted Patel, Shastri, Rajaji, Rao, and their ideas, and an educated India will electorally punish it again
Investor, who writes about policy and politics
After the deaths of Gandhi and Patel, the large-tent pre-independence Indian National Congress gradually veered towards the Left (as Nehru became preeminent). It then accelerated towards crony socialism, illiberal authoritarianism, and pseudo-secularism under Indira Gandhi, post the 1969 Congress split.
Nehru admired Soviet-style industrialisation, deftly ignoring its totalitarian reality. He saw the American for-profit system as too philistine and decentralised for his noblesse oblige instincts. C. Rajagopalachari, who like Patel was another centre-Right Congressman, broke off to oppose Nehru and later Indira; his Swatantra platform warned against excessive government control leading to corruption and slowdown. Our economic worldview spilled over to our foreign policy – even today, the world’s largest democracy is still not a Permanent Member of the UNSC.
Nehru focussed on “Hindu communalism” instead of the obscurantism that had demanded and won the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, bloodily carved out of the ancient lands of the Vedas. While Nehru reformed Hindu personal laws, Muslim personal laws remained untouched – religion-based laws distorting the very meaning of secularism. Nehru knowingly kept Indian Muslim women in a patriarchal, ashraf straitjacket — a desi Orientalism, or “the soft bigotry of low expectations” if you will.
As Indira Gandhi nationalised banks, threatened democracy, made our education captive to tenured Leftists, and then Rajiv Gandhi banned “Satanic Verses” as well as overturned the Supreme Court order on Shah Bano, a Hindu consolidation plus liberal economics-driven political reaction was inevitable. The BJP gave India strong national leaders such as Vajpayee/Advani, and now Modi. The Leftists masquerading as liberals have only themselves to blame – even now, most oppose secular personal laws, and cravenly demand “autonomy” for the Kashmir Jihad, whereas “Hindutva” has co-opted Ambedkar.
The Nehru dynasty insulted not just Patel, Shastri, Rajaji and Rao, but also their ideas – and an ever-more educated India will electorally punish it again.
Could Patel have checked the unfortunate march towards the wrong side of history on both economy and national security?
Business executive, has studied international affairs
One of the parlour games much favoured by historians all over the world is conjecturing on the great what-ifs of history. What if winter had come two days late in Moscow in November 1941? What if Lord Cornwallis’s men had detected Washington’s approach towards Princeton?
In a similar vein, we often wonder — what if Sardar Patel had lived longer? Would India have been spared the debacle of 1962? Patel wrote a long letter to Nehru on the 7 November 1950 to urge “a military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India”, and warned that, “unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and north-west and north and north-east” (Arpi, 2015).
Unfortunately, Patel was himself gone within six weeks of writing that letter. Patel, perhaps, was one of the few Indian leaders who believed in a forgotten strand of the Indic view of geostrategy that started with Kautilya — a strand that has since been lost in the newer as well as ongoing quests for the chimerical. Patel seemed to have intuitively understood Kautilya’s view that a state is a fragile organism – a state’s moral imperatives indeed should bend towards the moral arc of Dharma, but that does not imply affection towards the treacherous, not does it imply unwillingness to apply force for the just cause. Unfortunately, after Patel’s departure, that strand was almost forgotten.
The Avadi session of the Congress in 1955 endorsed a socialist state as an end goal, but it also endorsed Nehruvian foreign policy. Could Patel have checked the unfortunate march towards the wrong side of history on both economy and national security?
The views expressed are solely his personal views.
To propagate Nehru’s greatness, it became essential to besmirch Patel
Hindi columnist and professor, political science, NCERT
Leftist leaders proudly accept and flaunt their political stance. However, dubbing a great leader ‘Rightist’ is not proper, unless he accepts it. ‘Rightist’ as a term of abuse is used by many people, and often unjustly repeated by the media for various leaders. Sardar Patel is a case in point. His life and work show him a selfless, intelligent, hard working and forthright leader. His candid views on issues such as Kashmir, Tibet-China, Hyderabad and Hindu-Muslim problems differed from Nehru’s stand. Hence, the abusive epithet was used mainly to undermine Patel’s legacy and exalt Nehru.
However, reading closely Patel’s speeches (e.g. the collection ‘For a United India’, during 1947-50, published by the Publication Division), one gets the impression that he was a no-nonsense leader and gentleman. In Gujarat, and as the first Home Minister of independent India, he served as a leader of Congress. A realistic minister, he was courteous to his differing colleagues. His warnings to the Prime Minister on various issues handled by him all proved prophetic.
Patel passed away just three years after independence, while Nehru continued for fourteen more years. Meanwhile, the proceedings in Kashmir, Tibet, and China displayed the lacunae in Nehru’s understanding and decision-making abilities.
It became customary for fawning Congressmen to relegate Patel either to deep oblivion or to cast aspersions on his politics. To conceal his follies, Nehru encouraged this by distorting facts about the developments in Kashmir in Parliament after Patel passed away. But the trend followed and was strengthened by the Leftist writers/leaders with the silent support of the Nehru dynasty. To propagate Nehru’s greatness, it became essential to besmirch Patel. So, yes, the Congress has denied Patel the greatness he deserved so blamelessly.
Right-wing dominance in the Congress party continued throughout the 1960s, till Indira flirted with socialism and secularism, albeit briefly
Author of the book “24, Akbar Road”
The Congress has never been unfair to its in-house leaders who subscribed to a right-of-centre ideology. Rather it successfully used leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel to bring results in its favour.
The first Nehru cabinet had 14 non-Congress ministers. Except for Dr B.R. Ambedkar, all of them had a capitalist outlook and strong Rightist leanings. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad were openly opposed to socialism. Still, Nehru sided with Patel on the partition of India, despite Gandhi’s strong opposition to it. When Pakistan entered Kashmir in 1948, Nehru was quick to give charge to Patel to send a hundred aircraft to Kashmir. Minutes after Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru and Patel and embraced each other, recognising the need to defuse tension at the time of a national crisis.
Cow slaughter remained a pivotal issue due to the political priority given by a section of Congress leaders. Nehru’s secularism suffered a setback when the Patel-Prasad-backed Purushottam Tandon was elected Congress president in 1950, forcing Nehru to lament the rise of “communal and reactionary forces”. Nehru also failed to make C. Rajagopalachari the successor to Lord Mountbatten, and had to accept Prasad, who was backed by Patel.
Right-wing dominance continued throughout the 1960s, till Indira Gandhi flirted with socialism and secularism, albeit briefly. Indira returned to power in 1980 and sought to cultivate the majority community, accepting the invitation to launch the VHP’s Ganga jal yatra’. This was the nascent VHP’s first mass programme demonstrating that Hindu rituals and symbols could be effectively utilised for political mobilisation.
By 1982-83, Indira lacked social solicitude towards Muslims. A clear indication came from her loyalist C.M. Stephen who declared in 1983: “The wavelength of Hindu culture and the Congress culture is the same.” Even the entire Narasimha Rao era had Right-wing dominance, and Sonia Gandhi’s working committee declared that “Hinduism is the sole guarantor of secularism in India”.
A list of politicians who moved away from the Congress-tent because of their ideology
Madan Mohan Malaviya served as the president of Congress four times, the last being in 1933. On the issue of Communal Award in 1932, which made the provision for separate electorate on the basis of caste and religion and which congress party agreed to, Malaviya resigned from the party.
Morarji Desai has the distinction of presenting the maximum number of union budgets while serving in the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. But the battle lines were drawn when Indira Gandhi announced her plan to nationalise 14 banks in 1969. He took the ideological battle outside the party.
Minoo Masani started as a sympathiser of the socialist economy. But the close observation of Communism in eastern Europe changed his mind. He became a champion of free-market economy. Together with Rajagopalachari, he left the congress party.
Rajaji, as Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was known popularly, took interest in the freedom struggle from an early childhood. He was also the home minister in Nehru’s cabinet but because of differences on major issues, he resigned from the cabinet. While Nehru was suspicious of the intentions of Hindu Mahasabha, Rajgopalachari did not consider it much of a threat. On the contrary, he firmly believed that communists were a danger to country.
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