Best Prime Minister We Never Had

Continued from “The Tallest of Them All”

One of the ironies of the human life is that the Maker didn’t lay down a set of immutable rules to govern the game of living. No wonder, therefore it isn’t the best who always reach the winning post first. Often enough, the lesser qualified make to the top while the most meritorious languish on the sidelines. If it wasn’t so, shouldn’t Gandhi have been awarded the Nobel for Peace and Leo Tolstoy, the Nobel for Literature. And ironically enough, the fate of nations too is governed by the same blind forces as the lives of individuals.

No Rules of the Game

In a provocative study of the democratic process we all swear by, Edward Pearce examines the lives and careers of three British leaders: RA Butler, Denis Healey and Iain MacLeod. These were the men who had the potential to make to the top - their mistakes notwithstanding - but couldn’t. Pearce poses the question “Why looking for the best, most creative, competent or intelligent, we quite often get someone else”? With a touch of poignancy he adds: “No rules exist for the outcome of races”. (He might have added political races, in particular.)

Is it inherent in democratic politics? Or is it the framing of the rules of the game that is faulty? As Pearce puts it, “Politics, after all, is too human to be left to merit”. Does it mean the faults and the foibles of human nature, all said, finally play more effective a role than mere consideration of merit? He names his study The Lost Leaders: The Best Prime Ministers We Never Had. And it is from the title of his book that I’ve borrowed the heading of my piece in continuation of a re-assessment of Vallabhbhai Patel. It is interesting to note in this context how B K Nehru who could indeed have made to the top of diplomatic pyramid - the office of the Secretary General of the United Nations was almost his but for the asking - chose the title of his scintillating memoirs as Good Guys Finish Second.

It is my contention that in our case, Patel was the best prime minister independent India could have had. If the Congress Party - or rather Gandhi alone - wasn't beguilingly fixated on Nehru – the Prince Charming - in 1946 and, instead, let Patel take over as Congress President, he would have been the first Prime Minister of free India. Maulana Azad continued to regret all his life why he chose to throw his weight behind Nehru's selection and he called it “perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life”. In that case it would have been a different India today. Patel had his finger on the pulse of the common man whose problems he knew of, and most importantly, knew how to go about to solve them. The party vote was carried away by rhetorical flourishes, the lingering haze of which lasted all through the Prime Ministership of Nehru.

How Nehru Was Selected

Despite Gandhi’s well-known preference and open support for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress Party overwhelmingly favored Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the Congress President and consequently the first Prime Minister of India. In their estimation, Patel was as a great executive, a seasoned organizer and a leader with feet firmly the on the ground. And the few years he lived and worked after Independence proved this assessment as dead correct.

The last date for the nominations for the post of the President of Congress, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India, was April 29, 1946. By then, Gandhi had already made his choice fairly widely known. Despite that, twelve out of fifteen Pradesh Congress Committees, the only legal bodies having power to nominate and elect President of the Party as per the Party Constitution then, nominated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The remaining three may not have nominated Patel but then they did not nominate anyone else, and most certainly not Jawaharlal Nehru.

No Pradesh Congress Committee proposed the name of Jawaharlal Nehru even on the last day of filing the nominations i.e., April 29, 1946. In deference to Gandhi’s wishes, J.B Kripalani took the lead to find someone to propose and second Nehru’s name. Gandhi was fully aware that Jawaharlal’s nomination almost missed the April 29 deadline, and even he could not get at least one Pradesh Congress Committee, the only legitimate body entitled to elect the President of the Congress, to nominate Jawaharlal Nehru.

Finally, once Nehru was formally proposed by a few Working Committee members, efforts began to persuade Sardar Patel to withdraw his nomination in favor of Jawaharlal. Patel sought Gandhiji’s advice who, in turn, asked him to do so and Vallabhbhai did it unhesitatingly. It must be mentioned, however, that before advising Patel to withdraw, Gandhi had given enough hint to Nehru to allow the legitimate nomination of Sardar Patel to go through the process. Gandhiji said to Nehru: “No PCC has put forward your name…only [a few members of] the Working Committee has.”

This remark of Gandhiji was met by Jawaharlal’s sullen silence.

Only after Gandhi was informed that “Jawaharlal will not take the second place” he asked Patel to withdraw. Dr. Rajendra Prasad lamented that Gandhi “had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the ‘glamorous Nehru’ and further feared that “Nehru would follow the British ways.”

When Rajendra Prasad used the phrase “once again” he indeed was referring to the way Patel had been denied Presidentship of the Congress party thrice earlier in 1929, 1937 and 1946 in preference to Nehru. It is relevant that today’s generation should know Rajendra Prasad was not the only person to complain about Gandhi “sacrificing his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the glamorous Nehru.” Many others have endorsed this view. Gandhi took the decision because he knew that “Jawaharlal will not take a second place but by giving Jawaharlal the first place India would not be deprived of Patel’s services.” The Sardar was too disciplined and dedicated a Gandhian to put personal ambition above the Party interests. And Gandhi was keen to yoke both the oxen to the Governmental cart to provide it necessary locomotive power.

Sardar Patel was close to 71 when all this drama was unfolding. Patel knew that this was the only chance he could get to lead the country. Nehru, then only 56, still had age in his favor. Despite all this Patel accepted to take a second position because of two reasons: first, for Patel post or position was immaterial and service to the motherland was more important; and secondly, Nehru was keen that “either he would take the number one spot in the Government or stay out”. Vallabhbhai also reckoned that whereas office was likely to moderate Nehru, rejection would drive him into opposition. Patel shrank from precipitating such an outcome, which would bitterly divide India right from the beginning of a new era.

Another Spoke in the Wheel

However, Jawaharlal Nehru’s so called unopposed elevation to the office of the President of the Congress did not automatically lead him to assume the office of the Prime Minister of India. Another drama was unfolding. Even after Nehru’s election as President of the Congress had become a foregone conclusion and results announced in the first week of May 1946, Maulana Azad a self-declared friend of Nehru, announced his intention to continue as Congress President until November 1946. Again, Gandhi came to the rescue of Nehru to thwart Maulana’s scheme. Azad recorded his version of events in that part of his autobiography published posthumously in 1959:

After weighting the pros and cans I came to the conclusion that the election of Sardar Patel would not be desirable in the existing circumstances. Taking all facts into consideration it seemed to me that Jawaharlal should be the new President….

I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made to realize that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the Presidentship of the Congress at this junction. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhi’s words as the one of Himalayan dimension.

My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself, I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr. Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.

Looking back to the events of all those tumultuous years, C Rajagopalachari, who had all the reasons to be unhappy and uncharitable to Sardar Patel because of whom alone he couldn’t become the first President of India, wrote almost 22 years after Patel’s death:

When the independence of India was coming close upon us and Gandhiji was the silent master of our affairs, he had come to the decision that Jawaharlal, who among the Congress leaders was the most familiar with foreign affairs, should be the Prime Minister of India, although he knew Vallabhbhai would be the best administrator among them all…Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru had been asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell into the error of believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two… A myth had grown about Patel that he would be harsh towards Muslims. This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.

Besides Indian contemporaries, may I refer to the testimony of Prof. Michael Brecher of McGill University, a sympathetic biographer of Nehru who even distorted well known facts to show Nehru in favorable light? This is how he sums up Nehru’s elevation to the Presidentship of the Congress and the Prime Ministership of free India:

In accordance with the time-honored practice of rotating the Presidency, Patel was in line for the post. Fifteen years had elapsed since he presided over the Karachi session whereas Nehru had presided at Lucknow and Ferozpur in 1936 and 1937. Moreover, Patel was the overwhelming choice of the Provincial Congress Committees…. Nehru’s ‘election’ was due to Gandhi’s intervention. Patel was persuaded to step down.

One month after the election the Viceroy invited Nehru, as Congress President, to form an Interim Government. If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first de facto Premier of India, in 1946-7. Gandhi certainly knew of the impending creation of Interim Government. One must infer, therefore, that he preferred Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India. The Sardar was ‘robbed of the prize’ and it rankled deeply. He was then seventy-one while Nehru was fifty-six; in traditionalist Indian terms the elder statesman should have been the first primer and Patel knew that because of his advanced age another opportunity would probably not arise.

There is striking parallel with Congress election of 1929; on both occasions Gandhi threw his weight behind Nehru at the expense of Patel.” (Nehru: A Political Biography, pp. 314-15, Oxford)

Why Gandhi Favored Nehru

Over the years the issue why Gandhi preferred Nehru over Patel has been discussed threadbare. Various explanations have been offered by veterans for the Old Man’s weakness for the Westernized Nehru over the home-spun fellow Gujarati.

Through most of its existence, Congress had little in the way of a defining and driving ideology apart from its anti-imperial stance. Ideological compromise was more often the cement which held its members together; particularly as so many of them were comparatively privileged and had social and economic interests to safeguard in the future. Consequently those of its declarations which had a socialist ring were generally little more than vote-catching rhetoric.

In the party Gandhi and Nehru were in their own ways unique, and that uniqueness was both their strength and a long-term weakness in terms of their ability to galvanize Congress into action in pursuit of visionary goals. Gandhi was never a ‘leader’ in any Western sense of the word. His role from 1920 to the 1940s was more that of an ‘expert’ on non-violence who could be welcomed and to an extent and used by Congress when they felt his particular non-violent strategy of opposition and profoundly moral stance and style suited their purposes. He was also useful to achieve compromises between different groups within Congress when its internal divisions threatened to rend it apart and destroy the vital unity of the nationalist movement.

Nehru’s role was, similarly, not that of a leader with a natural power base in a locality or in a group of like-minded allies. His ‘ticket’ in Congress was that of Gandhi’s protégé and later heir, a fact which at times caused him embarrassment and distress. In the late 1930s his ideological position was so anti-pathetical to many of the more conservative in Congress that the latter would have made his position in the party impossible if it had not been for Gandhi’s presence and watchful eye on the internal dynamics.

As independence became almost certain after the end of the Second World War, Congress activists recognized — in retrospect, very mistakenly – Nehru’s skills as a negotiator with the imperial authorities - in part because he spoke their language and had inhabited so much of their mental and political world. But even though he became leader of the transitional government which saw the transfer of power to Indian hands, Nehru was not ever secure as the party’s undisputed leader and ideologue until fully entrenched in power.

Bhartrihari Complex

My personal explanation for Gandhi’s fixation on Motilal and his son is that we Indians suffer from what I may call as Bhartrihari Complex, which represents unquestioning admiration — bordering on blind adulation — of someone who has supposedly renounced great riches he had accumulated in life to devote himself selflessly to social and spiritual causes. It is based on the legend of Raja Bhartrihari who as a King of the Malva Kingdom with its capital in Avantika (modern Ujjain) renounced his throne to become an ascetic. The dramatic story of his renunciation served as a favorite theme of many a ballad sung by the wondering minstrels and performed by the folk theaters all over the country.

Bhartrihari also authored three Shatakas — poetic compositions of hundred stanzas each on the themes of beauty, state craft and, most importantly, renunciation. The most memorable of these was Vairagya Sataka, dedicated entirely to renunciation and asceticism.

A special charismatic appeal gets associated with a leader if his past is a story of renunciation. Motilal Nehru jettisoned his legal practice to clamber on the Independence bandwagon which he thought was far more rewarding, especially for the future of his brief-less barrister son, Jawaharlal. Most meticulously, Motilal and his acolytes built the legend of great renunciation of the Nehrus to throw their lot in independence struggle.

As children my generation was fed with story of the great opulence of the Nehrus: how their clothes were laundered in Paris and only water from Switzerland was used for drinking and how Motilal slept on a mat and that too on floor when his beloved son — the common phrase then was the very apple of his eyes - courted arrest and went to jail. Most of this was fiction but it served the purpose of building a cult a la Kennedys where plain simple mediocrity and many a myth of Camelot are elevated to the status of legends to swear by. Harsh truths are camouflaged by hagiography. Adulteries are depicted as Platonic affairs and an unabashed life of luxury, portrayed as austere living.

Even if Gandhi was shrewd enough to know what’s what, he preferred to turn a blind eye because he knew movements require the adhesion of myths.

Gandhi’s Obsession with Self-image

Another possible explanation for Gandhi’s preference for Nehru over Patel is provided in two recent movies Gandhi My Father and Sardar.

Gandhi My Fatherdeals with Gandhi’s intricate, complex, and strained relationship with son Harilal. Both father and son had different dreams. Harilal wanted to study abroad and become a barrister like his father. He knew that a benefactor had given his father a scholarship for study abroad to award to someone of his choice. Gandhi didn’t want to give it to his son lest he should ever be thought of practicing nepotism. And that decision of Gandhi forever strained the relations between the father and the son beyond repair. An un-reconciled, highly inebriated Harilal was around when Gandhi was cremated at what came to be called Rajghat.

In the second movie, Sardar there is a scene where Gandhi passes a slip to Patel, reading which the faithful Gandhian announces his withdrawal from the contest of Congress Presidentship. Why did Gandhi not let Patel take over? Besides what I explained above another possible – and very plausible — reason was Gandhi’s obsession with his self-image. He didn’t give the scholarship to Hiralal because he didn’t want to be thought of practicing nepotism. In that momentous working committee meeting Gandhi didn’t want posterity ever to think of him as favoring a fellow-Gujrati.

What, you may assess, for yourself was more important: the larger interest of the country or his own self-image? Thereafter, it is history.

On 29 March 1949, civil aviation authorities lost radio contact with a plane which was carrying Patel, his daughter, Maniben and the Maharaja of Patiala. Engine trouble forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in an obscure desert area in Rajasthan. Fortunately, no one was hurt. All of them tracked down a nearby village.

In the above referred movie Sardar, there is an emotionally-charged scene that shows Patel sitting in a very pensive mood on a charpai. What was the man brooding over? If he had that day died in the crash what account of his life would he render to his Maker? Had he done for the country all that he could? Was his mission of consolidation over? How would posterity judge him? Was his work finished or he had yet some tasks to perform?

Next day when he reached Delhi unannounced, thousands of Congressmen gave him a resounding welcome. In Parliament, MPs gave a long, standing ovation to Patel, stopping proceedings for half an hour. They were honoring a man who laid the granite foundations of a unified India.

There were tasks waiting to be performed till the final call from his Maker on December 15, 1950. He had willed to be cremated as a commoner at the same spot where his brother and his wife had been consigned to flames. And Nehru who would never have been the President of Congress in 1946 and hence, the first Prime Minister of India but for Patel’s magnanimity advised President Rajendra Prasad not to attend his funeral, which he wisely brushed aside.

Continued to “Three Questions That Defy Simple Answers”  

Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3405      Comments: 5

Comment wonderful analysissir,but i wanttoknowmore aboutmaharaja Patiala and PEPSU.I found someletters of Vivekananda addressed toAla Singh.Was he sameoradifferentman?

could you suggest somebookoraticle?

01-Oct-2015 07:32 AM

Comment Sardar Patel undoubtedly was the best Prime Minister we never had. He was utilized by the British for the good of the Congress precisely for that reason. They used Nehru for garnering public support, Gandhi to ensure non-violence, Patel for sensible administrtion. They used Krishna Menon to monitor Nehru, VP Menon to monitor Patel. But derspite all this, Patel cannot escape censure for total complicity in the Partition and one of the worst carnages witnessed in history. The evidence for that is overwhelming and irrefutable.The crime committed against the most secular province of undivided Punjab by two lawyers from Gujarat and feudal aristocrats from UP cannot be washed away. Don't worry, just wait and watch. It is not the end of history.

My Word
20-Oct-2013 22:25 PM

Comment One should be here to learn from Mother India's progeny and so far I have learned a great deal, notably microastrology, something I'd never heard or read about, yet too many of its offspring have turned their backs on their own past and seem to think like sepoys. They see everything through Western eyes. It's as though for them the cursed interloper never left. For instance, scholarliness is always impressive and commendable, but when it's entirely secular the conclusions are false because the premises are inadequate. The starting point in all cases must be this: that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This means that, from the point of view of the Timeless Plan, we're all the best that can be expected for whatever mission we have to go on, like maybe murdering someone, or stealing several crore rupees from the exchequer, since otherwise things would be different and the Plan wouldn't be carried out properly. Consequently, each one of us will do what we have to do and we'll do it perfectly well, as planned, whether we're a mango tree, a sewer rat or a statesman.

Daniel Rey M.
20-Oct-2013 21:12 PM

Comment Bali Saab, the Bhartrihari Complex and the Self-Image Suggestion is an Interesting psycho-analysis, but I for one feel that the latter scores over the former.
Like Motilal Nehru, Prakasam Pantulu too gave up his lucrative legal practice to devote his time and energies to the freedom struggle but Gandhi had always been inimical, even hostile, to him and that perhaps negates thethe theory of Bhartrihari Complex.
To my mind, the more plausible reason could have been that Gandhi wished to avoid the possible public perception that he was parochial in opting for Patel. Whatever, it can be said that Gandhi lacked conviction and was not above favoritism.
For more on my take on Gandhi, you may read my "A Lingering Longing"
Best regards,
BS Murthy

BS Murthy
20-Oct-2013 11:21 AM

Comment Gandhiji was not God man. He committed blunders. One of them was to
give weight to NEHRU when majority of Congress was in favour of SARDAR
PATEL. For this blunder, India pays heavily, even today. Sardar Patel was
tallest man from Gujarat, not Mahatma Gandhi not even Pandit Nehru from

pranlal sheth
20-Oct-2013 03:16 AM

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