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Sardar Patel, truth and hype about a leader


Gold Member
Gold Member

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was the most powerful man of his time.

The Mahatma was the most respected, Jawaharlal Nehru the most loved and Subhas Bose the most longed-for. But in terms of the iron control he exercised over the largest political apparatus in the country and the grip he had on political currents and cross-currents in virtually every province in India, the power wielded by the Patidar from Karamsad, Gujarat, had no match. No near-match, either. Not by far.

Gandhi loved Jawaharlal, trusted Prasad, admired Rajaji, esteemed Azad. But Patel, he leaned on and laughed with. Patel regarded Gandhi as his mentor, his leader.

And yet he 'owned' an equation with the Mahatma that was special. Everyone laughs differently with different people. What Gandhi and Patel planned together, worked-at together, history has recorded. What they laughed over, only they knew. And Gandhi's secretary, Mahadev Desai.

Here are two samples given by Desai in his diaries:

The year is 1932. They are all three prisoners, at Poona's Yeravada jail.

June 11, 1932.

Gandhi (in a sombre mood, contemplating death): Some day or other one must mount the shoulders of the bearers.

Patel: Bring the ship to shore first and then go where you like.

November 24, 1932.

Gandhi (on reading a hate-letter from a person who says that he, the writer, is unfortunate to be living in the same age as Gandhi): Tell me, what sort of reply should I send him?

Patel: Tell him to poison himself.

The Mahatma could not have guessed then that the man giving him this advice was the future deputy prime minister of India and the Sardar could not have known that he, as deputy prime minister and home minister, would have to answer difficult questions about the assassination of his leader.

Prime Minister Nehru and home minister Patel had different perceptions on the role of the RSS in the Gandhi assassination. But, as Rajmohan Gandhi tells us in his epic biography of Patel, Nehru wrote to Patel on February 3, 1948: "I have been greatly distressed by the persistence of whispers and rumours about you and me… We must put an end to this mischief".

Patel, addressing the Congress in the Constituent Assembly for the first time after Gandhi's departure, called Nehru "my leader". The home minister had no doubt in his mind as to who had conspired to kill Gandhi.

"It was the fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha", Patel wrote to Nehru, on February 27, 1948, "that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through". A ban followed.

The country's leading socialists targeted the home minister for his ministry's failure to protect Gandhi and asked him to resign. They did not know that Patel had already sent in his resignation to Nehru who had refused to countenance it.

Patel heard his critics patiently and then said he had had several arguments with the Mahatma to let police be stationed in the house he was staying in, but Gandhi had turned the idea down outright. And then Patel told his socialist critics not to "exploit the greatest misfortune and calamity of the nation for party ends".

Patel's death stunned the nation, Nehru more than anyone else. He was now all in all but all alone. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is reported to have alleged that Nehru did not attend Patel's funeral.

Only the ignorant will believe this. Prime Minister Nehru went to Bombay to attend the last rites of his comrade and before doing so, told Parliament "…he will be remembered as a great captain of our forces in the struggle for freedom and as one who gave us sound advice in times of trouble and in moments of victory, as a friend and a colleague on whom one could invariably rely, as a tower of strength which revived wavering hearts".

With all their differences of style and temperament, Nehru and Patel would have given the country a balance of leadership styles, Prasad and Rajaji helping to cement the duumvirate. But the Fates willed otherwise.

Patel's death, Prasad's absorption into constitutional propriety and Rajaji's returning to Madras left the Congress a one-tree hill. And despite Nehru's instinctively democratic temper, a slow but steady mono-culturism took hold over the party which forgot, surprisingly fast, its most powerful "captain".

Does the BJP have any right, political, moral or any other, to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel? None. But it does have an excuse to do so.

The misuse of Patel is the result of the disuse of Patel, the counterfeiting of Patel is the result of the forfeiting of Patel. The BJP would never have thought of gilding the Sardar's legacy if it had not got dust-laden and cob-webbed in its own home.

Party politics in today's India is a child of political power practices from ancient and medieval times. These, to over-simplify them, have traditionally spun around two cults.

First, the hero-worshipping of a figure who is thought to be half-man and half-lion or tiger. This cult may be called lionism. The second, a sycophantic worshipping of descendants thought to be indestructibly self-perpetuating. This cult may be called scionism.

Both cults operate within and across the main political divide of India, especially in the states where the lion and tiger loom large as symbols, and where dynastic arrangements reign in most parties. Lionism and scionism have sought to perpetuate themselves by propitiating their icons. Both are in tragic error, both futile.

Patel would have told both cults off in no uncertain terms. We must not let the misappropriation of Patel go unchallenged. But we must seek his re-appropriation nationally, for we need his aura and Nehru's to work together again.

The hollow 'hunkar' of a lion's paper mask has tried to blow the dust off Patel's legacy. It has coated it, in the process, with the out-breath of a poor joke.

But the dramatics have done us all an unintended favour. They have jogged our memories of the tower of strength that we, in our troubled times, need so urgently to revive our wavering hearts.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor



Gold Member
Gold Member
It is often imagined by the Indian Right that Patel was India’s “rightful” first prime minister but was somehow cheated out of the position by Nehru. Modi himself flirted with this thought when, in October last year, he attacked Nehru, bemoaning the fact that Patel would have made a better prime minister. More recently, politician Subramanian Swamy had a more detailed take on the matter:

Gandhiji took a vote of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents in 1946, and only one of the 16 PCC Presidents voted for Nehru. The other 15 voted for Sardar Patel. But Gandhiji asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for practical politics ‒ to hasten British departure.

This, as you may know, is an extremely popular tale on the internet. As you also might know, Pradesh Congress Committees voting to elect the prime minister is an absurd proposition ‒ a bit like Modi getting elected by BJP state units.

A variant of this conspiracy theory is that the Pradesh Congress Committees thought they were electing the Congress president (and not the prime minister). But the Congress president at the time of Independence somehow became prime minister (the exact process is never explained). Problems here too: Pradesh Congress Committees don’t elect Presidents, delegates of the All India Congress Committee do. Moreover, Nehru was not the Congress President when India gained independence, JB Kripalani was. Tragically, no one informed Kripalani of this mechanism and he remained bereft of prime ministership right until his dying day.

The simple reason as to why Nehru became PM was that he was, by far, the Congress’ most popular politician (after Gandhi, of course). Right from the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru was the party’s star campaigner, enthralling crowds with his Hindustani oratory. Patel had an iron grip on the Congress party itself but he was many miles behind Nehru as a popular leader. The Sardar himself conceded this: at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, he told American journalist Vincent Sheean, “They come for Jawahar, not for me.”

Thus, in 1946, when the Viceroy formed his interim government, Nehru was, unsurprisingly, given the highest post. Later, on August 15, 1947, he naturally took office as prime minister, without the least opposition from anyone in the Congress.

The most recent espousal of the theory that Nehru was responsible for Partition came via the RSS’s Kerala mouthpiece, which argued that Nathuram Godse should have targeted the first prime minister instead of Mahatma Gandhi since he was responsible for acceding to the creation of Pakistan.

Whatever be the wrongs of Partition, it was a decision taken jointly both Nehru and Patel. In fact, if anything, Patel was far more receptive to the idea and Nehru only came around much later and far more reluctantly. VP Menon, the architect of the Partition Plan, informs us that as far back as December 1946, Patel had accepted the division of India while Nehru would only acquiesce six months later. Abul Kalam Azad, a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, was disappointed with Patel’s support and writes in his memoir, India wins Freedom, that he was “surprised and pained when Patel in reply [to why Partition was needed] said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India”.



Gold Member
Gold Member
Srinath Raghavan, a Professor of International Relations and History at Ashoka University in a 2018 article for The Print, writes that the notion that Nehru was the sole one taking decisions about Kashmir's status is wrong. According to him, declassified documents, including records of cabinet and defence committee meetings, show clearly that both Nehru and Patel were closely involved in handling all three states – Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad.
While they had different approaches and differences in opinion, they worked in consultation with each other.
While the negotiations for the drafting of Article 370 were carried out over several months between N G Ayyangar (cabinet minister without portfolio and former Dewan of Kashmir), Sheikh Abdullah and his senior colleagues, Nehru rarely took a step without Patel’s agreement, Raghavan writes.

Writing in Frontline, historian AG Noorani also concurs on this point, stating that negotiations were held on 15-16 May 1949 at Vallabhbhai Patel's residence in New Delhi on Kashmir's future, where Nehru and Abdullah were present. At this time, one of the most important topics were "the framing of a Constitution for the State" and "the subjects in respect of which the State should accede to the Union of India."

Raghavan writes that when Ayyangar prepared a draft letter from Nehru to Abdullah, summarising the understanding reached in the negotiations, he sent it to Patel with a note: “Will you kindly let Jawaharlalji know direct as to your approval of it? He will issue the letter to Sheikh Abdullah only after receiving your approval”.

Further, Noorani writes that during the negotiations over the draft of Article 370, Ayyangar attempted to reconcile the differences between Patel and Abdullah.
When Ayyangar made a change in the draft that eventually went on to become final, Patel was the one who informed Nehru about it after the latter returned from the United States.
Moreover, when Abdullah insisted that Article 370 should leave it to J&K's constituent assembly to decide whether to adopt the fundamental rights and directive principles or not, Patel was the one who permitted Ayyangar to proceed with it because Nehru was abroad. In a letter to Nehru post his return, Patel informed him that with a great deal of difficulty, he had persuaded the Congress to accept this provision, Raghavan writes in his article.

Would Sardar Patel Have Secured All of J&K?

The claim that Patel would have secured all of Kashmir had he been the prime minister, instead of Nehru is also doubtful, Raghavan writes, stating that until late 1947, he was open to the possibility of allowing Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan in return for the Pakistanis telling the Nizam of Hyderabad to accede to India.

According to Raghavan, at another meeting with Khan on 28 November, 1947, Patel even made an offer to pull Indian troops out of Poonch if it would help pave the way for a diplomatic settlement. But Nehru was the one who opposed this course.

In 1948, when Nehru concluded that the best solution for Kashmir was to partition the state, Patel was in complete agreement, observing that it would offer “a permanent, immediate and realistic settlement”.

Therefore, as Noorani stated in his book “Article 370: A Constitional History of Jammu and Kashmir”, Article 370 had the complete approval of Patel, whom the BJP continues to portray as a "strong man" who was opposed to Nehru's move to grant special status to Jammu & Kashmir.


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