Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Vallabhbhai Patel and the making of India

Patel and his deputy V.P. Menon imparted the geographic coherence to India

India has come a long way since its independence 69 years ago. Back then, a hard-fought independence came with besetting problems—partition, communal riots and a refugee crisis. By 15 August 1947, the process of integration of princely states was almost complete but the holdouts—Hyderabad, Kashmir and Junagadh—were the toughest nuts to crack. Add to that the resource constraints, fledgling institutions if at all, and a colonial machinery ill-equipped to deal with changed realities, and the Jawaharlal Nehru government had too much on its hands.

Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister and the minister of home affairs, would not just handle these problems with dexterity but would go on to truly become—in the words of Shashi Tharoor—“the man who saved India". By integrating more than 560 princely states, Patel and his secretary of the ministry of states V.P. Menon imparted geographic coherence to India and prevented its Balkanization, a fate which many predicted would befall the newborn state sooner than later. Indeed, geographic coherence is far less lofty than the much talked about “idea of India", but at the same time it is far less theoretical too.

Having made his mark in the satyagrahas of Kheda (1918) and Bardoli (1928), Patel was a strong contender for the role of president of the Indian National Congress in 1929. However, M.K. Gandhi chose Nehru. A loyal soldier of Gandhi, Patel fell in line. History would repeat itself, quite famously, in May 1946 when it was clear that the next Congress president would end up as independent India’s first prime minister. The provincial committees of the Congress favoured Patel, but Gandhi pressed for Nehru. A loyal Patel fell in line, once again.

Personal disappointments did not come in the way of higher duty. Patel would use all the tricks in the bag—including the use of force, as Hyderabad and Junagadh show—to integrate the princely states with the Indian dominion. An administrator by instinct, Patel sought to protect the privileges of the Indian Civil Service officers who were deemed to be compromised on account of their previous services to the Raj.

It is well-known that Patel had many differences with Nehru. On the economy, while Nehru was a committed socialist with a firm belief in state-led industrialization, Patel’s borrowed belief in Gandhian self-sufficiency was tempered by his personal advocacy of private capital. Patel argued against nationalization of industries and was for letting “those who have the knowledge and experience manage the industries and increase the country’s wealth". He was a major driving force behind the liberal industrial policy resolution of 1948.

In their book Freedom at Midnight, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins quote one of Patel’s aides as saying: “Patel came from an industrial town, a centre for machines, factories and textiles. Nehru came from a place where they grew flowers and fruit [sic]."

Patel was among the few to see the dangers from China’s imminent takeover of Tibet. One of the foremost chroniclers of Sino-India relations, John W. Garver records: “Patel advocated a series of practical measures designed to strengthen India’s position: accelerated road building in the frontier areas, strengthening of India’s military capabilities, moves to better integrate the northeastern territories into India." Garver goes on to say: “Had India adopted Patel’s recommendations in early 1951, history might have been very different." On Kashmir, the realist Patel had advised Nehru against going to the UN.

These differences were natural as Nehru and Patel were two very contrasting personalities. Nehru was a visionary, abstract at times, Patel a hard-nosed realist, his clarity of thinking was matched only by Subhas Chandra Bose and B.R. Ambedkar among contemporaries. Patel was a man of few words but when he did talk, note Lapierre and Collins, “people listened". Patel’s loyalty to Gandhi and “stoic decency"—to borrow Sarvepalli Gopal’s phrase—helped avoid an “open rupture" between him and Nehru.

The question often asked: What if Patel had become India’s first prime minister? Any attempt at answering will not just be an exercise in speculation but also unfair to both Patel and Nehru. This newspaper has said earlier that Nehru’s contribution to modern India is immense and cannot be discounted. While avoiding a comparison between the two, a tribute to Patel could be: While it is contested, sometimes bitterly, if Nehru was India’s best prime minister, it is overwhelmingly believed that Patel’s record as home minister has never been bested.

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