Worth the debate?

Trivial debates on potential feuds between historical personalities detract from substantial discussions of deep-rooted issues concerning nation-building

When some past, historic to be precise, revelation comes to the fore in today's debate there must be something earthshaking in it. The exchanges over the reported omission of Sardar Patel from the first draft list of Jawaharlal Nehru leads one to believe that it is of great significance. Since both the great leaders are no more and have little significance in today's Indian and global context, is it an important issue that should bother any thinking individual? The other point of interest is to know how did this supposedly kept secret came to light now? And last but perhaps most critical, is to understand why is it assuming prominence in public discourse now?

First, let's look into the context. The earthshaking information is revealed in the recently released biography of Late VP Menon (The Unsung Architect of Modern India), a bureaucrat who had played a not-so-insignificant role at the time of India's independence. Authored by Menon's great-granddaughter, Narayani Basu, the book mentions how Menon had lobbied with the then Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, to persuade Nehru to include Sardar Patel in the first Indian cabinet. Apparently, Lord Mountbatten had revealed to HV Hodson who wrote in his book The Great Divide published in 1969. K Natwar Singh recalls, "My reaction is that Jawaharlal Nehru not including Sardar Patel's name in the list of those whom he wanted to be members of his Cabinet is old hat. I first read about it in HV Hodson's book. Hodson wrote, "Pandit Nehru's first list for his post-independence Cabinet omitted the name of Sardar Patel" (in a footnote he says, 'Possibly on the advice of Mr Gandhi')."

True or false, the fact remains that Sardar Patel was not only in the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister but had controlled the Home Ministry independently so much so that 'the police action' in erstwhile Nizam's state Hyderabad took place without referring the same to Prime Minister Nehru. Also, documents point out a strong difference of opinion between Nehru and Sardar which Gandhi was supposed to mediate when he was assassinated. Clearly authenticity of what Hodson wrote that it was on 'Gandhi's advice' name of Sardar was dropped in the first list of cabinet prepared by Nehru is suspicious. In recording historical events, several rumours of the day find mention. Hodson wrote, what subsequent events post-Independence indicate was perhaps wild rumour only.

Similarly what VP Menon's biography has recorded is a repetition of the same with doubtful veracity. Menon said to have reached Mountbatten to persuade Nehru not to drop Sardar from the cabinet. Perhaps he did but this does not indicate, for want of any documentary evidence, that Nehru indeed had omitted Sardar from his first list of the cabinet. In fact, VP Menon wrote a book on the transfer of power where such incidence found no mention. Also, Mountbatten's response to Hodson on this question was more evasive than pointed.

What is surprising is how such unverified nugget assumes importance in today's discourse. It seems the difference between Nehru and Patel, that was perhaps there at the time of independence, has become relevant after a lapse of 73 years. Both supporters and detractors of Nehru are agile over any new revelation (or serving of old wine in a new bottle) that can paint the historical personalities in a good or bad light. Point missed in such acrimonious exchanges is that no character is a pure shade of black or white. Blemishes are human. Leaders are nothing but human. If Nehru had a reservation on some of his colleagues, one cannot dismiss the role played by India's first Prime Minister for that. It is a fact that in the first national election, Nehru's Congress worked against Babasaheb Ambedkar and got him defeated. It is also a fact that Nehru did not share any cordial relation with Dr Syma Prasad Mukherjee. What is more, after passing away of Sardar Patel, the then Congress President Purushottam Das Tandon was replaced with Nehru assuming the charge. Tandon was appointed when Sardar Patel used to call the shots. But the fact remains that Nehru carried with him all members of Congress even if many of them were not exactly supportive of his views. Dr Rajendra Prasad, our first President, was one such person. It is said that Nehru wanted Dr Radhakrishnan to replace Rajendra Prasad after the first term was over. It was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who played a role in the second term of Dr Prasad. Such differences can happen in life, more so in politics. These do not take away from the contributions to the nation made by these personalities.

The current fascination to argue over certain unsubstantiated gossips on historical personalities illustrates the absence of deep-rooted issues concerning nation-building in public life, not that the nation has overcome all possible difficulties. There are several pending issues which need the attention of those trusted with the task of nation-building. Instead, if they indulge in trivial debates over great personalities of the nation one may feel that there is something seriously wrong with the leadership. Books may contain many unsubstantiated pieces of information which are good for raising storm over teacups but not worth for mention from erudite persons at the helm.

An important point to remember is that both Nehru and Patel were in the business of politics. And in politics, people who are together are also working against each other. Greatness lies in the fact that despite inter-personal rivalry such leaders do not deviate from their broader goal – in case of Nehru and Patel it was building up a new independent and divided nation. The fact that we can safely debate over such mundane issues today illustrates that both of them had carried their assigned task faithfully to a large extent.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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