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A Sardar Patel Primer For Clueless Indians: The Man Who Saved India – And The Idea Of India

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. (Wikimedia Commons)
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  • Why Hindol Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel And His Idea of India is a must-read for today’s generation.

Sengupta, Hindol. The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and His Idea Of India. Penguin Viking. Hard Cover. 437 pp. Rs 799.

Political biographies of great leaders ought to be written, or rewritten, at least once in each generation. Not because the stories and anecdotes have not been told before, but because people tend to forget, and the stories need to be told in the idiom most relevant to the current generation.

The ironic fact about the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is that too few books about him have been written. While some would like to believe that this was due to the political domination of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has through its progeny ruled India directly for 36 years (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi), and indirectly for another 10 years, during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period, the truth lies in shades of grey: the Sardar did not leave much of a written record of his thoughts and ideas, except through his letters and the works of those close to him. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and B R Ambedkar – the titans of that age – left behind copious notes and writings that scholars are yet to sift through completely even today.

Perhaps the most accessible among recent works on Patel was one by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma (Patel: A Life), but Rajmohan Gandhi is from another generation, and his book dates back to 1991. This was followed by Pran Chopra’s The Sardar of India in 1995, followed 10 years later by Balraj Krishna’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But after Narendra Modi made the Sardar his mascot, and promised to build the “tallest statue in the world” for this diminutive five-foot-five-inch man, we needed a book that spoke to this generation, which may want to know what made the Sardar so compelling a historical figure for someone to want to bask in his legacy in 2014.

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Hindol Sengupta’s book, titled The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel And His Idea of India, fills this knowledge gap. Sengupta has had a long history in writing books, including two memorable ones (Being Hindu, and The Modern Monk, the latter on Swami Vivekananda), but I would argue that this is his best book.

The 437-page tome is not just well-researched and well-written, but also breaks away from the tendency to assert that the Sardar would have made a better prime minister than Nehru, had the fates decreed in his favour. Unlike many books on Nehru, which tend to be either hagiographies or hypercritical of him, this book, despite the generous title, tries to delve into the man and the circumstances in which he became India’s deputy prime minister rather than the prime minister, and how his own predilections and willingness to subsume his ambitions in the larger goal of nation-building denied him the top job. Patel was a man who understood his limitations – and that is a hallmark of true greatness.

We can never know how two men – radically different in how they saw the world – would have impacted India had they ruled it. We only know what Nehru did, and Sengupta does take a stab at suggesting the Sardar would have been different, and India would not have begun its independent life under the watch of “the last Englishman”. But beyond that we can predict little about how the Sardar would have ruled differently from Nehru.

More probably, one can presume that India needed both Nehru and Patel to run it, so that one made up for the shortcomings of the other. India needed the heady idealism and international vision of Nehru as well as the grounded realism of Patel. After Patel’s early demise, Nehru lost the one balancing factor that would have steered India towards a greater measure of Indianness and sensible geopolitics. It is unlikely that Nehru would have been allowed to conduct his disastrous policy towards China without backing it with military might, nor is it likely that Patel would have allowed the Congress to careen towards the licence-permit raj – the cause of much of India’s slow growth between the 1960s and 1980s.

The cover of Hindol Sengupta’s <i>The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel And His Idea of India.</i> The cover of Hindol Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel And His Idea of India.

The big question the book tries to answer, among many other things, is why Patel let Nehru become Congress president in 1946, which would have automatically made him prime minister in 1947, and acquiesce instead in Gandhi’s anointment of Nehru as his successor despite having the backing of the bulk of his party. This enigma can only be explained by his relationship with Gandhi. Though Patel initially started out as a Gandhi-sceptic (He is reported to have said about Gandhi: “Honestly, I think he’s a crank and, as you know, I have no use for such people.”), over time he became his foremost disciple. Trained by upbringing to respect elders, Patel may have been additionally bowled over by Gandhi’s ascetic bearing, which could have made the former think of him as a guru, and hence worthy of unquestioning obedience and respect despite his misgivings over Gandhi’s political missteps. But Gandhi’s innate ability to stir the masses out of passivity, as was evident in his successful Champaran campaign and the Dandi salt march, would have registered as a definite plus with the Sardar.

One point that would surely have gone against the Sardar was his age. Past 70 at the time of Independence, time was not on his side. A young nation needed a young leader, and the Sardar was in Gandhi’s age-group, who himself was 20 years older than Nehru. That, and the possibility that Gandhi saw Nehru more like a son and Patel more as a brother, may have nipped Patel’s chances. One tends to pass on one’s legacy to a son, and not a brother.

But, the author also suggests that Nehru may well have split the party if denied the top job, and this could have been a key reason why Patel went along with Gandhi’s choice. The last thing one needed in a newly-independent country with so many challenges, including the challenge of calming communal tensions, was a deep fissure at the top. The book goes a long way in explaining how the Gandhi-Nehru, Gandhi-Patel and Nehru-Patel personal equations contributed to India’s freedom, and its immediate aftermath, including Partition and related violence.

This book will take you from Patel’s original claims to national attention and fame, starting with the Kheda and Bardoli agitations, to his role in the 1920s and 1930s as Gandhi’s key follower and implementer of the civil disobedience and satyagraha campaigns. Despite not being able to see eye-to-eye with the unrealistic – even loony – Gandhian visions of a completely non-violent satyagraha, Patel did everything to preserve Gandhi’s reputation when it was in tatters. Whenever the national mood turned against Gandhi, when the latter failed to do everything to save Bhagat Singh from the gallows, or when his acceptance of the Gandhi-Irwin pact fell well short of what Congress was agitating for, Patel not only defended Gandhi but also got the party to accept the compromise. Patel not only saved India, but its Mahatma also from ignominy.

Patel covered up for the mistakes of not just Gandhi, but also Nehru. When there was a tenuous agreement between the Congress and the Muslim League on the Cabinet Mission Plan that would have kept India as one country, but with a weak Centre, Nehru sabotaged it by denying Congress had agreed to the compromise. This gave Muhammad Ali Jinnah the perfect opportunity to repudiate a pact he himself was uncomfortable with, leading up to the Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946. This call to communal violence led to the Great Calcutta Killings enabled by Huseyn Suhrawardy, the Muslim League’s Premier in Bengal.

Later, against the advice of Patel, Nehru backed Sheikh Abdullah’s Muslim Conference (later to become National Conference) in its fight against the Dogra ruler in Kashmir, Hari Singh. Patel would have preferred the battle for democratisation to begin after Kashmir was safely in the Indian camp, but Nehru’s impetuosity created fissures between the Hindu king and his Muslim subjects, setting up communal tensions that could have been avoided at that stage.

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Even later, when Pathan tribesmen, mainly Afridis and Mahsuds, launched their invasion of Kashmir, and there was a clear possibility of Pakistan winning by stealth what it could not do by getting the Maharaja to sign up with Pakistan, it was Patel who facilitated Indian military support at a stage when Nehru was vacillating and trying to find geopolitical reasons for discussing Kashmir’s importance to India.

Alex von Tunzelman, whose book Indian Summer leans towards the Pakistani side of the story on Kashmir, and against Patel’s and Nehru’s role in the accession, notes how Patel enabled the Indian Army to move in when Nehru was still trying to convince himself about it. She quotes Sam Manekshaw, India’s Director of Military Ops at that time and later to be Field Marshal, at a meeting in Delhi where Nehru was holding forth on the Kashmir situation (after the tribal incursions) with reference to Russia, the US and UN. Patel cut him short and asked him a simple question: “Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away?” To which Nehru replied, “of course, I want Kashmir,” and before he could add any caveat to the statement, Patel ordered Manekshaw to start the fightback. And it was Patel who went on air to commandeer private aircraft to fly in Indian troops to Kashmir.

The big takeaway is that Patel’s realism scored over Nehru’s intellectual obsessions, and this was how he saved not just Kashmir, but also India. The title of Sengupta’s book may be understood largely from the fact that it was Patel who, along with V P Menon, got all the 550-and-odd princely states to sign up with India, but one cannot fully discuss his role in saving India without a reference to Partition.

While Maulana Azad, in his book Indian Wins Freedom, has written that had Patel been Congress president in 1946, he might well have implemented the Cabinet Mission Plan, which Nehru scuttled, and kept India one. But it is more than likely, that Patel, the realist, would ultimately have done what Nehru had done. Patel realised early enough, and especially after Jinnah ordered a Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946, a call for street violence by Muslims, that a united India would have been impossible to govern with the kind of powers left with the Central government.

The Muslim League would have had an effective veto on almost everything. Azad speculates that the Sardar may have decided to accept Partition after Liaquat Ali, Finance Minister in the Interim government led by Nehru, vetoed most of his plans as home minister. The last thing the Sardar wanted was a country that would have been hamstrung with two forces, Congress and League, pulling in opposite directions. In this, Patel, like Ambedkar and C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), was prescient. While one can have a rose-tined view of a united India, it was Partition that ultimately saved India, including the Idea of India as a plural, democratic country in the geographical part that was not called Pakistan.

Hindol Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India is a must-read for today’s generation.

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