Undoubtedly, the most important leaders who were close to Gandhiji and who influenced and were influenced in turn by him were Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. On Sardar Patel’s birth anniversary today, it is worth focusing on his relationship with Gandhiji.
It is pertinent to note that both the Sardar and Nehru shared deep emotional ties with Gandhiji which went beyond the mundane spheres of politics, power and office. In popular perception Nehru was regarded as the favourite colleague of Gandhiji but in the eyes of contemporary Congressmen, Patel was viewed as his true and devoted disciple, and Nehru was regarded as a devout but critical follower of Gandhiji.
It would be seen, however, that in neither case the relationship was totally blind or unqualified. Differences arose a plenty amongst them during the course of the national movement and even after the attainment of independence.
Some of the major moments which brought to the fore their differences quite prominently were: relevance of non-violence in statecraft, acceptance of Goverment of India Act of 1935, Council Entry and formation of Ministries during 1936-1938, Cabinet Mission, Muslim League and relationship with Jinnah, Socialists, RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, Communalism, and finally blunt and seemingly strong speeches of Patel made particularly during the 1940s. Despite these differences, which do arise in any movement for independence of such a diverse kind, the three leaders were in unison over the question of non-sectarian, non-majoritarian politics.
To begin with, there existed a basic unity of values and norms between Gandhiji and Patel. The sense of loyalty and bond of personal affection between the two was so fundamental that it continued unimpaired till the end.
Gandhiji was always protective towards Patel, knowing his blunt, frank and forthright temperament. He knew that Patel at times might appear harsh and 'hot-headed' in his speeches, and this might lead people to misunderstand his otherwise noble intentions, and dedication to the nation and secular values.
When in Yeravada jail, in 1932, Gandhiji undertook a fast unto death on the question of Communal Award, this gave a lot of anxiety to Patel, who too was housed in the same jail along with Mahadev Desai and other Congress leaders. Gandhiji knew that this decision of his would give anxiety and tension to Patel. He asked Mahadev Desai whether Patel was angry with him.
Mahadev Desai's reply was: 'he is experiencing great mental strain. Whether you die during the fast or survive, he is anxious to ensure that there should not be around you an atmosphere of dissatisfaction, quarrel or unhappiness.' Gandhiji's reply was: 'I understand that. Do I not realise how great has been God's kindness to me in giving me the companionship of such an extraordinary man as Vallabhbhai?'
Gandhiji was also equally concerned over Patel's failing health. Almost each letter of his to Patel invariably began and ended with either enquiring or advising about his health.
For instance, he wrote to Patel in 1937: 'I knew you were going to fall ill. You may be Sardar to others, but you do not seem to be any better than your own slave... If you are punctual in everything and regulate your daily life, you will live long. Do not dismiss this only as the pot calling the kettle black.'
Patel too was very worried over physical attacks made on Gandhiji. Referring to his providential escape in Pune in 1934, Patel in his statement reported by The Bombay Chronicle, dated 16th July 1934 said that 'he had warned Gandhiji about two months ago that Poona was likely to prove troublesome to him, as he knew the sort of poison that was being spread in Poona.'
Their camaraderie apart, when they had to voice their opinion, they did so unhesitatingly. In fact, their differing stances persisted during the entire course of the national movement and even thereafter. Nevertheless, their differences were not serious enough to lead to sapping of the relationship or its breakdown as the congruence on their goals, strategy and moral values was too basic and fundamental for any long lasting rupture.
Tactical differences no doubt did arise between Gandhiji and Patel. For example, Gandhiji objected to Patel's use of strong language in his speeches particularly when the morale of the masses was low.
Commenting on Sardar Patel's Presidential address at Uttar Pradesh Kisan Conference on 25 April 1935, Gandhji commented that the tone of his speech at Lucknow was not correct.
To quote, 'I read your speech... That won't do. The tone you have adopted in criticising Government policy is not the correct way of going about it at present. Your line really should be as follows: "This is not the time for examining the policy of Government or of the landlords but for turning the search light inwards and setting our own house in order. Therefore, you should not expect me nowadays to speak about anything other than what we ourselves must do".
“After these prefatory remarks you should explain to the tenants what their own duty is without mentioning the Government even once. We might just as well forget all about New Delhi Just now. But if this approach does not appeal to you, say what words the Ruler of your heart puts upon your lips,' Gandhi Ji wrote to Patel.
A great believer in rationality as well as faith Gandhiji strongly rejected dogma and blind belief. He made his position clear to his colleagues and at the same time left others to follow their own heart on issues. However, what remained non-negotiable was the principles of truth and non-violence.
Patel complained to Gandhiji that non-violence might not be a viable strategy in the long run in defending the nation from foreign invasion and also that Socialists and other left groups were ridiculing the notion of non-violence. Gandhiji replied on 1 August 1940: 'why do you feel uneasy? I would definitely regard whatever you decide as proper because in the final analysis a person can only act according to his own lights... The change will come only with experience. I have not the slightest doubt about mine being the right view.'
Patel, too, believed in non-violence as a value but he was sceptical about its efficacy in statecraft. In his letter to Mahadev Desai written in 1939 Patel admitted that 'What Bapu's position is, is not ours... Heart is with Bapu but that path is a blind alley. I am unable to find my way.'
Despite his scepticism, however, Patel's heart lay with Gandhiji. in his speech of 5 January 1947 he said: 'Except India the world fights sword by sword. But sword does not end the strife. It is a vicious circle, so Gandhiji has asked us to be non-violent.'
Controversies continue on various aspects of their relationship. They have their origins mostly in subjective sources. For example, it is popularly held that though Patel was a true Gandhian follower, Gandhiji's heart beat mostly for Nehru and therefore he favoured Nehru over Patel for Prime Ministership.
Speculations often pervade popular perception as facts of history irrespective of their facticity or authenticity. The relationship between Gandhi, Patel and Nehru is also marred by this malaise.
Facts, however, will remain facts. There was no contest for the post of first Prime Minister of India. Nehru was generally viewed as its natural and legitimate claimant to the tasks of this office, despite Patel's name being temporarily floated in certain circles. In fact, choice fell on Nehru as a matter of course by force of history. Gandhiji had named him as his heir as early as 1942. The self-confessed statements of Patel at various fora about his own age- and illness-related physical frailty further closed the question of his candidacy.
It is also testified by the letters exchanged between Patel and Nehru after Gandhiji’s assassination that whatever their differences, they swore complete loyalty to each other and expressed their detrmination to work together for the common cause of the motherland, especially now that Gandhiji was gone.
(Neerja Singh is the author of Patel, Prasad and Rajaji: The Myth of the Indian Right)