One Who Forged India’s Steel Frame

Patel: An Administrator Par Excellence

Continued from “Dared to Call a Spade a Spade”

No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is in the page of history. − William Hazlitt

Seldom in the chronicles of history those in the list of leading the vanguard of revolutionary movements − Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez −also figure among the crusaders of consolidation thereafter. One of such rare exceptions was Vallabhbhai Patel. His contribution to the freedom movement of India was second to none after Gandhi. But his contribution to consolidate the gains of Independence was outstanding by any criteria. No wonder when he passed away just after three years of Indian independence, the Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian was then known) summed up succinctly his life contribution:

Patel was not only the organiser of the fight for freedom but also the architect of the new State when the fight was over. The same man is seldom successful as rebel and statesman. Sardar Patel was the exception.

Man of Vision

When the national leadership was under the spell of the euphoria of freedom and the heady effects of power, it was Sardar Patel who foresaw clear-headedly the importance of having a uniform administrative structure in the country. In his celebrated speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1949, Sardar Patel had said: ‘You will not have a united India if you do not have a good All-India Service which has independence to speak out its mind’.

You may, in this context, recall the much-discussed term steel frame which held the British Raj firmly together. (The expression ‘steel frame’, incidentally, comes from Lloyd George’s speech of 1922 in the British Parliament: ‘If you take that steel frame out of the fabric, it would collapse. There is one institution we will not cripple, there is one institution we will not deprive of its functions or of its privileges; and that is the institution which built up the British Raj – the British Civil Service of India.)

Sardar Patel’s administrative experience had validated the soundness of this axiom. He wanted to organize, therefore, an all-India service on national basis with the central government having a considerable control over it so as to counterbalance the emergence of centrifugal forces that could lead to the disintegration of the Union. These proposals, understandably, were strongly opposed by the Chief Ministers of the States, who wanted no interference with their authority. They favored the State Civil Services over the All-India Services, which they saw as contrary to the federal principle. But the trauma of the Partition pointed to the utter necessity of providing for a strong center.

National integration, Patel visualized, was a double task, not only territorial but also social. While the contribution of the IAS to territorial integration can be assessed through its capacity to contain divisive and separatist aspirations, its role in promoting social integration is partly related to its level of representativeness. Today, there are some 5,000 members of the Indian Administrative Service, the highly respected IAS officers, in a country of more than one billion people holding its steel frame together.

All-India Services

Patel, as the first home minister of India, had a vision while creating the two all-India services. He believed that if free India was to be welded into a single nation, there were no better tools than the district collector from the IAS, and superintendent of police, from the IPS.

Development work and maintenance of law and order were to go hand in hand if India was to succeed and prosper.

Chronicles of the debates in the Constituent Assembly and outside speak of wide differences on whether India needed successors to the ICS. And it was in the teeth of very vocal opposition, especially with regard to permanency of tenure, that the Sardar’s persuasion triumphed. The outcome was the All-India Services Act of 1951. (We now have a third all-India service, namely, the Indian Forest Service.)

The first two decades after Independence were generally marked by adherence to conventions in the civil service that had been established under the British. A respect for the independent and honest civil servant was widespread and this was reflected in the high quality of administration. Those were the halcyon days when the reputation of the civil service was very high.

While the unification and integration of India was indeed his greatest achievement only next in importance was his creation of a strong and independent civil service to hold the Union together.

It was his handling of the bureaucracy that brought Patel’s statesmanship and sophistication into focus. For years, it had been widely believed that all the ICS officers, regarded as protégés of the British, would be replaced after Independence by patriotic Indians. Nehru, for instance, lost no opportunity to make public his intense dislike of the “ICS mentality”. Patel adopted a more nuanced view. He differentiated between the British and Indian ICS officers. While the British officers would be sent home, Patel accepted the Indian officers, after obtaining from them a commitment that they would serve independent India with same utmost faithfulness and loyalty that they brought to bear upon their work while serving the British establishment. Overnight, this dhoti-clad man with of rustic looks became a hero of the sophisticated, westernized ICS class

Use of Experience

A great leader knows the strengths of the men available for the task and knows how to deploy their strengths to implement the vision he has. Nehru lacked woefully this vital attribute of leadership that Patel had in abundant measure.

Nehru was, to begin with, too arrogant to listen to the civil servants in his Ministry. He had nothing but disdain for the ICS who in due discharge of their duty had the audacity to arrest him. He seldom solicited their opinion because he thought he knew everything worth knowing under the sun.

Patel, on the other hand, trusted and respected the officers who worked under him and gained their affection and deep commitment. And today’s generation needs to be reminded that there were three ministries – Home, States and Information and Broadcasting – under his charge which had outstanding civil servants of the caliber of H K Kripalani and R N Bannerjee ( in Home) and above all the illustrious non-ICS VP Menon in newly created Ministry of States. The meritorious work that Menon alone could perform owes itself to Patel’s encouragement, confidence and, above all, the trust he reposed in him.

A great administrator inspires his men to peak performance and simultaneously stands as a wall to protect the bona fide mistakes they may make. H.V.R. Iyengar in his “Administration in India - A Historical Review” relates one typical incident:

On one occasion I took a decision in his absence and reported it to him afterwards. He told me that if he had been consulted he would not have taken that decision. I was very unhappy about this, but he asked me not to worry and said that every human being makes mistakes. When the matter subsequently came before the Cabinet he told them that the decision was his, and there the matter ended.

In Sardar Patel’s words, “The most dangerous thing in a democracy is to interfere with the Services.” If, today, the services, particularly the police force, are wholly demoralized in most States, it is entirely due to the political interference by ministers and other politicians in the discharge of their professional duties.

Great Administrator

Today, the very mention of Sardar Patel’s name is associated with unification of India into a single political entity a feat of epic proportions. Let’s, however, not forget that he was above all, a great administrator a gift that Nehru was almost completely devoid of. He believed in envisioning and 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:

An efficient, disciplined and contented service assured of its prospect as a result of diligent and honest work is the sine quo non of a sound administration under a democratic regime even more than an authoritarian rule. The service must be above party. (Italics added).

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 subsequently − 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.

Kemple Ronald Hope has highlighted in a recent study − Development in the Third World − the all-too-prevalent problem (especially in developing economies) of “bureaucratic corruption”. This problem indeed has reached − and India is not second to any other developing country in this – “epidemic proportions in most Third World countries and is now regarded as a societal norm”. And this problem, it is important to note, is completely independent of the type of government that may be in power in the Third World. Its spread is as prevalent in a statist regime (like Zimbabwe) as in a typical capitalist system (lake Bahamas) as in democratically elected government (as in India).

The prescience of Patel displayed in emphasizing that the civil services “must be above party” is remarkable. As one Third World country after another joined the development league, politicized bureaucracy became a norm rather than an exception. It must be given to Nehru’s credit that he delayed the process as far as he could or at least didn’t personally contribute to accelerate its emergence and consolidation. (Later, his daughter amply made up for the father’s ‘shortfall’). And once Indira Gandhi set the ball rolling in this direction, there was no stopping it. This is what happened in all those countries that engaged themselves in “centralized economic decision-making and patrimonialism”. The phenomenon is best summed up by Prof Hope:

The politicians and the bureaucrats forged a dependent patron (politician) − client (bureaucrat) relationship through which administrative decision-making occurred. This process, inevitably, led to the abuse of public office for private and personal gains.

Would Patel have been able to abort the emergence of this process had he continued in office well into the 1950s? Would he have been able to thwart the entrenchment and use of favoritism in the civil services? These are hypothetical questions. What is significant is the man’s warning just as we started our life as an independent nation as to the possible perils that lay ahead. That we unwarily walked into the trap is another matter.

Insights of the Man

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 labor 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 labor by throttling industrial growth. (The developments in West Bengal in last half fifty years, bear eloquent testimony to the Sardar’s prescient diagnosis of the industrial malady-in-making).

Savior of the Polity

May I draw your attention to a fact of international relations that we glibly take for granted? During the twenty odd years after 1945 around 100 colonies of western imperial powers gained independence in Asia and Africa i.e., graduated from their colonial status to become independent sovereign states in the comity of nations. In none of them was there someone of the caliber of the indomitable Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It is no mere coincidence that in the absence of a Sardar almost every other heterogeneous society that became independent faced major civil strife over internal territorial contours of freedom. Every country in South-Asia, except India, underwent political convulsions some of which are still continuing. Have you ever wondered why India escaped unscathed? It was entirely on account of Sardar Patel’s far-sighted efforts to put in place institutional framework to hold the center (literally, in the sense Yeats used the metaphor).

Looking at the challenges confronting our democracy today, no idea would be of greater importance than the enduring relevance of Sardar Patel. More than ever before, we need to recall what he stood for and tirelessly strove to create. He had clear ideas about questions that are at the heart of India which concern us even today. What is the distribution of power between the Central Government and the component States of a federal Union? How can an effective national bureaucracy emerge from a system of State cadres? Under what circumstances the armed forces should be deployed internally? What is the correct balance between institutional power and political power? What systems can best release the economic genius of the Indian people? Sardar Patel saw these issues as practical concerns and provided answers keeping the nation’s unity and people’s welfare in view.

An extraordinary feature of the Sardar was his ability to combine roles that are usually filled by different individuals having different training and contrasting perspectives. The polity that thrives today owes in very large measure its existence to that one single individual who India was fortunate enough to have at the time of Independence and during those most crucial years thereafter.

If we owe to Vivekananda the first stirring of pride in our past to give us that precious commodity called self-respect, and to Gandhi, the awakening in a subjected people of the long-dormant urge to be free, it is to Patel that we owe our place on the political map of the world.

Continued to “One Who Understood Realpolitik”

Sardar Patel Assessed (All the Links):


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 4199      Comments: 3

Comment I have come to India Ahmedabad, few day from now
From what I found very important thing appear to me
1 corruption, 2 pollution, and 3 over population, without their
removal---- Gandhiji, Nehru and Patel did or did not do will be
of no help to India and to the people, Patel the man of character, not
Gandhi and Nehru, could unite India--- without it we could not call

Pranlal Sheth
22-Nov-2013 03:52 AM

Comment >While the British officers would be sent home, Patel accepted the Indian officers, after obtaining from them a commitment that they would serve independent India with same utmost faithfulness and loyalty that they brought to bear upon their work while serving the British establishment.<

It strikes one that the 'sending home of British officers' was axiomatic to Indian rule as envisioned by Patel, where being British pre-Independence occasioned the fault of being non-Indian post-Independence, where you were easily distinguished for 'sending home' by a simple skin colour test. I put it to you that this is the first step in the spiral of corruption that has risen to epidemic proportions, when you judge fitness to hold office in the new India not on merit, that would have enabled many a capable British (white) officer to remain in India as a citizen of India, and continue to serve the country, but on the basis of race, had Patel but realised it, later to devolve to kinship and other ties within race. It is a fact that while there are some white faces in the political assemblies of independent colonies of Africa and the West Indies, in Indian politics, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, even though an Indian name and wearing a sari, is conspicuous as she is oft maligned as the 'Italian'.

18-Nov-2013 20:57 PM

Comment May I quote from my article Bureaucrat Bankimchandra?-

'What we want to point out is that it was long before the first political party – the Indian National Congress - was born in 1885 that one frail young Bengali, that too an employee of the foreign government, risking his coveted job and sure persecution in service took a courageous stand alone against the British Empire. How many instances can my interlocutor show me of IAS officers in independent India taking a similar courageous stand against an inept and thoroughly corrupt politician in power? It is common knowledge that even the members of the ICS grovelled before Nehru like slaves. It is to Sardar Ballavbhai Patel that the whole credit goes for the creation of the IAS as the successor of the ICS and his sayings and deeds unmistakably show us his sincere intention to build it up as an institution of exceptional integrity and high aptitude. But the rot started as soon as it was created and once that iron man was gone there was none to stop that rot.' - See more at:

16-Nov-2013 18:28 PM

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