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Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Remembered
|by H.N. Bali|
Remembrance of October 31 - Part I
The evil that politicians do lives on and on....
Experts in their fields tell me that a woman (before marriage) is judged by the suitors she hobnobs with, a man by the company he keeps and a politician by the number of times he can get his photograph appear in newspaper columns. This rough and ready guide is in no way invalidated by the invasion of 24x7 TV. The electronic media, don’t forget, is (very fortunately) extremely ephemeral. (Do you remember the first picture you saw on the TV news this morning or the name and face of yesterday’s anchor? In fact, the only thing I pay attention to, are the attractive faces of TV news anchors, which are rare indeed, and practically nothing else.)
Getting up on Wednesday, October 31, and sipping my tea I picked up Indian Express, usually the first paper I look through. Thumbing through its pages I chanced upon one picture of Indira Gandhi after another till I recalled that it was the day, in 1984, when she was gunned down by her own guards. The Congress Party has declared it as the day of her martyrdom. Page after page carried a photograph of her. I counted six of them. These were almost half page ads. (Newspapers would love to have each day of the year named after some national martyr. That would assure them handsome advertising revenue.) The pictures I’m referring to, was Indira Gandhi with her familiar trademark of a white streak of hair amidst a bumper crop of jet black on a face which must have been centre of attention when she was young.
Suddenly, I chanced upon another half page ad on the same day. That was to remember Vallabhai Patel - a now-forgotten man whom India owes an enormous debt of gratitude. That was to remember the Iron Man’s birthday. Thank God someone had spared a thought for him too.
Let me deal, first, with the lesser mortal: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel whose greatest contribution to India was the integration of all Indian States into the Indian Union. This feat of his is often compared to Chancellor Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire in 1871. This comparison - as most comparisons are - is fatuous indeed. Patel's handiwork has no parallel in world history for several reasons. Bismarck had just about a dozen states to be welded into the German body politic. Patel had 564 to handle - a few of them together larger than the size of whole of Germany. Patel, moreover, had to reckon with not only the forbidding odds within but also daunting obstacles from without. The departing devious British spared no effort to egg the rulers of Bhopal, Hyderabad and Travancore on mischief's course. Nothing indeed would have gladdened Whitehall more than to see the Indian subcontinent parceled into at least half a dozen dominions, tied to the apron strings of the so-called Commonwealth of Nations. The German Iron Chancellor had no such obstacles to reckon with.
Iron Fist in Velvet Glove
Despite their common goal, namely, unification of their respective countries, the means adopted by the two men were as different as chalk is from cheese. The German Chancellor, as brought out by historian A J P Taylor "was a political conspirator... by nature and by experience". Patel behaved throughout his handling of the Indian princes, as a thorough-bred Gandhian. He was not the man to resort to conspiratorial stratagems to achieve his end - howsoever necessary in the country's larger interests. While Bismarck's gift was, in Taylor's words, "in packing the cards, not in playing the hand", Patel dealt his hand fair and straight. If the Iron Man of India had a model to emulate, it was the homespun diplomacy practiced and preached - some two thousand years ago - by Chanakya which enunciated the fourfold techniques of sama (persuasion), daam (money), dand (punishment) and bhed (division). So he cajoled, he flattered and he threatened the former rulers to pay heed to the call of times.
The most eloquent tribute to Patel's Gandhian approach of achieving a great goal by equally lofty means came (most unexpectedly) from Nikita Khrushchev who, in 1956, in his historic visit to India said (as recorded by KPS Menon): "You Indians are an amazing people! How on earth did you manage to liquidate the Princely Rule without liquidating the Princes"? Khrushchev, of course, as a died-in-the-wool Communist was thinking of the Soviet experience of liquidating Kulaks while confiscating their land holdings. What price Soviet Russia paid for this ruthlessness, Khrushchev, fortunately, didn't live to see. The means deployed by the ruthless Soviet leaders ultimately caught up with them.
Against Forbidding Odds
Unification of the 564 princely states in the Dominion of India was almost entirely Patel's achievement. On the eve of his departure from India - having done all the conceivable mischief he could - Lord Mountbatten wrote to Patel on June 19, 1948.
Mountbatten's above-mentioned tongue-in-cheek tribute almost gives away the British anguish at Patel's success. Had he failed in this exercise, instead of the India of today, we would have had a cluster of warring Dominions in the subcontinent. If at the spiritual level the message of Vedanta has kept India united from the north to the south and from the east to the west, it is Patel's far-sighted unification exercise that knit Indian society in one enduring political entity.
Administrator Par Excellence
Vallabhbhai Patel was, above all, a great administrator - a gift that Nehru was almost completely devoid of. He believed in implementing - in doing things - and not merely dreaming about them. He, more than anyone else in post-independence India, realized the crucial role that civil services play in administering a country, in not merely maintaining law and order, but running the institutions that provide the binding cement to a society. He, more than any other contemporary of his, was aware of the needs of a sound, stable administrative structure as the lynchpin of a functioning polity. The present-day all-India administrative services owe their origin to the man's sagacity. In a letter addressed to Nehru he wrote on April 27, 1948:
Breathtaking indeed was the man's vision and his grasp of the ground realities and also the foreboding of the possible abuses that could - as they indeed have - set in. His emphasis on efficiency and discipline instead of the much-abused seniority and pliability to political needs should be the guiding principles for sound administration of the polity. The prescience that Patel displayed in emphasizing that the civil services "must be above party" is remarkable. Look at the mess we made in departing from this sage advice.
Master of Realpolitik
Jawaharlal Nehru always thought himself to be endowed with a world vision and that most (if not all) of his colleagues in the Government were parochial in their perspectives. No wonder, he reserved for himself the portfolio of external affairs both in the interim Government and in all the Governments that he headed after independence till his death. After all, as the author of Glimpses of World History he had reasons to believe that he alone, in his Government, could grasp the historical forces at work when Western imperialism was on the retreat and new nation states were emerging in Asia. It is a pity, however, that despite all his so-called progressive instincts, Nehru completely misjudged the implications of the rise of Communist China in world affairs. Patel's grasp of international events, on the other hand, was imbued with a down-to-earth orientation rooted in realpolitik. He had been informed by India's Political Officer in Sikkim how the Chinese had distributed thousands of copies of a map where Tibet and China were shown as the palm of a human hand, and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (the present Arunachal Pradesh) as its five fingers. His stand was unequivocal: "We shall not fail to arm ourselves with the requisite armed force whatever it may cost for the protection of our land."
There was another opportunity when Nehru could take his blinkers off. In a Cabinet meeting in November 1950 to discuss India's policy towards Tibet, Nehru's colleagues tried to dent his perception that the Himalayas weren't the impregnable fortress as the popular folklore had it. KM Munshi reminded Nehru how in the seventh century Tibetan invaders had attacked Kanauj from across the borders. Nehru was, as usual, dismissive about any view that ran counter to his thinking. After that fateful meeting Patel wrote to Nehru that famous letter on November 7, 1950, in which he penned the prophetic warning about China's intentions. Had the self-opinionated Nehru cared to think through Patel's warning, India's history would have taken a different course. The Iron Man said in the letter:
I don't think there has been in the history of international relations a more uncanny assessment of a nascent Communist power's longer-term imperial designs than Patel's then-confidential note on China's future intentions. Nehru disregarded the warning at the cost of national humiliation twelve years later.
Isn't it a cruel twist of fate - if not a downright tragedy - that half a century after his death, Patel's name is consigned to the lengthening list of had-beens. And yet if the man had not been around in the formative few years of independent India - and Nehru had unquestioned say in shaping India's destiny - there wouldn't have been the India that you and I live in.
Remarkably sharp were the man's insights into the problems faced by the country, most of which didn't strictly fall in the ambit of his assigned responsibilities in the Cabinet. He pointed out, for instance, how organized labour in the country should be oriented on truly industrial lines to contribute to India's economic growth. He was blunt enough to remind the union leaders that their methods of resorting to strikes to stop production at the slightest pretext just to prop up their own leadership, would do immense harm to the long-term cause of labour by throttling industrial growth. (The developments in West Bengal in last thirty odd years bear eloquent testimony to the Sardar's prescient diagnosis of the industrial malady-in-making).
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