In a recent article in a popular daily, a Union Minister wrote that "Patel as Prime Minister would have changed our history." He has hit the nail on the head. But for better or worse ? Nobody knows, and no one will ever know.
History is not based on 'ifs' and 'buts' rather on facts and events that have happened. There is no doubt that Sardar Patel as deputy prime minister and home minister played a formidable role in the integration of princely states for which even Jawaharlal Nehru gave him the full credit. But we must not forget that had both Nehru and Mountbatten, as India's first Viceroy and Governor General, not done the spade work before independence, the work of Sardar would have been rendered extremely difficult. Nehru had warned the princes many times, before independence, that if they didn't merge he will launch a peoples' movement against them in their respective states. He said so with complete authority as he was then Congress party's states incharge of people's movement even when he was not Congress President. The role played by V.P. Menon to make Patel's task easier is also well documented.
Let us examine how India would have been different had Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru not become the first prime minister of India. For Jawaharlal Nehru, Jammu and Kashmir would never had been part of India. The people of Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah decided to throw their lot in favour of secular India under Nehru over Muhammed Ali Jinnah's theocratic Pakistan. On 10 July 1950, Abdullah wrote to Nehru : " I can willingly go down and sacrifice myself for you -- I have several times stated that we acceded to India because we saw there two bright stars of hope and aspiration, namely Gandhiji and yourself, and despite our having so many affinities with Pakistan we did not join it because one thought our programme will not fit their policy."
Sardar Patel died in December 1950. Even if he had become prime minister he woud have had a little over three years as the country's chief executive, and no one else but Nehru would have succeeded him. Whether the foundations of parliamentary democracy, secularism, social justice and non-alignment would have been as strong as they became under Pt Nehru would never be known. With his 17 years as prime minister reduced to 14 years, if Patel had preceeded him, Nehru with the breadth of his vision , statesmanship and magnetic appeal will still be the "architect of modern India." Yes, Sardar Patel was a great adminstrator and an extremely capable organiser. But whether these two qualities only are sufficient for a leader of a nation is debatable.
Sardar Patel himself knew that Nehru was far more popular than him amongst the masses and hence never faulted the Mahatma for the choice of his heir and successor. He was also big enough to say to the American journalist Vincent Sheean with reference to a huge crowd of nearly 3 million that had come to hear him and Nehru in Bombay: "They come for Jawahar, not for me" (Patel : 490).
As historian Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma wrote on the Nehru-Patel controversy: "The debate focuses too narrowly on the choice of the Congress President in the summer of 1946 overlooking that the succession in Nehru's favour had been settled and announced much earlier and more than once. It also overlooks the crucial age factor as well as Patel's own sense of the soundness of Gandhi's decision."
In November 1948 Patel had said : "Mahatma Gandhi named Pandit Nehru as his heir and successor. Since Gandhiji's death we have realized that our leader's judgement was correct (Patel:490)." Earlier, on the eve of independence, when Nehru had offered him a place in his cabinet, Patel wrote back : "My services will be at your disposal, I hope for the rest of my life, and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength."
Are we trying to question the wisdom of Gandhi and Patel? We will only end up fooling ourselves because history cannot be brushed aside. Ultimately, truth will prevail.
(The writer, an ex Army officer, is Member, National Commission for Minorities. The views expressed by him are personal.)