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What If Patel Was PM?

Would we have emerged as a religious-nationalist society? As India's first PM, Sardar Patel would have prompted more questions and provided few answers.

What If Patel Was PM?
Hulton Archive
What If Patel Was PM?

Had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel become PM in 1947, he would have certainly left the country in great chaos at the time of his death—just three years later. Kashmir would have erupted by 1950, instead of smouldering till it caught fire in ’89. The nation’s secular fabric would have been ripped asunder in the 1950s itself, rather than in the ’80s. India’s relations with China would have deteriorated faster than they did. Nationalisation of key sectors would have happened sooner than in 1969. And a ‘nationalistic’ culture and education would have been the staple of post-Independence generations much earlier.

Before the Patel-baiter label is flung at us, a reminder that the ‘Iron Man’ was never in the race—once he had given his word to Gandhiji on not opposing the anointment of Jawaharlal Nehru. And he was definitely not against the Muslim community in general; even Gandhi admitted "it would be a travesty of truth to describe Sardar as anti-Muslim". Patel must also be acknowledged for several achievements, most notably the manner in which he integrated the princely states (especially Hyderabad) as minister of home and states. The Nizam was trying to pit India against Pakistan but, despite Nehru’s anxieties about the use of force, Patel bulldozed his way through.

His supporters contend that’s exactly what he would have done in Kashmir. After tribesmen intruded into Kashmir in October 1947, he would never have agreed to a ceasefire with Pakistan until the Indian army had driven the last of the attackers out of the state. So there wouldn’t have been an entity like Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Nor would the dispute have been referred to the United Nations, as it was on January 1, 1948. So there wouldn’t have been a Kashmir problem as there wouldn’t have been a UN resolution that mentioned a plebiscite in the now-disputed state.

The problem with this simplistic reading, as Nehru felt, is that excessive use of military power would have created an international furore, especially since Britain’s attitude—and also that of India’s last governor-general Lord Mountbatten—was pro-Pakistan. Britain would have ensured that India was reprimanded in the UN. The Commonwealth may have refused membership, and even the US might have joined hands with Britain. That would have been a terrible blow to Patel who wanted India to recognise Israel faster, was pro-US, and also favoured joining the Commonwealth.

India’s diplomatic alienation would also have been complete due to Patel’s views on China and neighbours like Nepal. On the former, he was convinced that the "Chinese advance into Tibet (in 1949) upsets all our security calculations". The Sardar would have adopted a confrontationist stance against China. He also believed that India couldn’t afford any instability in Nepal and that "there was no doubt that in Nepal’s difficulties it was India and no other power which could assist it". Logically, he would have interfered in the internal problems of "friendly" neighbouring states.

Result: India would have been battling Pakistan in the northwest and China in the north and northeast, interfering in Nepal, and facing internal strife in the south due to the ruthless use of the military in Hyderabad. Remember, the country was still a fledgling republic and had minimal resources to spend on army mobilisation. Western powers would have looked at India with great suspicion, leading to the next PM’s (obviously Nehru) total tilt towards the Soviet Union (which India didn’t) or inward-looking streak (in the event, Nehru’s purna swaraj meant no truck with Britain or the Commonwealth).

Either way, the economic impact of Patel’s policies would have been disastrous. Had India become a Soviet satellite under the second PM, private capital would have died a natural death and sectors like banks would have been nationalised in the ’50s (not 1969). That, as several economists agree, would have spelt a bigger doom. And if India had become an "introvert economy", growth rates would have been lower than the already abysmal "Hindu rate of growth of 3-4 per cent" of the period. And because Patel was perceived to be pro-capitalist, against controls, central planning, nationalisation, Gandhism and unreasonable labour—which is why most Indian businessmen wanted Patel, not Nehru, to be the PM—his successor would have deliberately initiated policies that were anti-Indian business.

The situation could have become unmanageable since his actions against Pakistan could have created an irreconcilable divide between the Hindus and Muslims as early as the 1950s. For example, Patel opposed India’s move to pay back any cash dues to Pakistan, as had been agreed to in the Partition agreement, until the neighbour withdrew its troops from PoK. The then PM of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, even accused India of "strangulating" its economy. If Nehru hadn’t insisted on the payment, and decided not to push Pakistan to the wall, Indian Hindus, who were clamouring for revenge against Pakistan and Muslims, could have become more militant and virulent earlier than they did.

Don’t forget that most Hindus who migrated from Pakistan wanted India to teach Pakistan a lesson for the massacres (which actually happened on both sides of the border). At one meeting where the issue was raised, Patel enigmatically said: "I do appreciate your feelings but as all of you know it is not right to pluck an unripe fruit, as it is rather painful. However, it is much more easy to pluck a ripe fruit." Was Patel, who firmly believed that Pakistan’s reunion with India was inevitable, hinting that, at some stage, India would force Pakistan to its knees? If true, the rise of Hindu militancy could have happened in the 1950s, not the 1980s.

Now if this counter-factual is taken to be a truism, one can only imagine the consequences. Rightly or wrongly, what India has witnessed during the last two decades would have happened in the first two following Independence. Would India have emerged stronger from this cultural-religious-civic turbulence, or would she have crumbled under the enormous pressure? Would we have rewritten our history and textbooks in a different manner? Would we have emerged as a religious-nationalist society? As India’s first PM, Sardar Patel would have prompted more questions and provided few answers.


The author is researching 'The Money that Moved the Mahatma', an expose of how the Indian freedom movement was financed.


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