Was Jawaharlal Nehru an appropriate choice to lead free India?
This has been a question that has baffled Indian intelligentsia for decades.
Heads turned when Narendra Modi, sharing the stage with former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, asserted, “Is desh ko hamesha ek gila-shikva rahega, ek dard rahega. Har Hindustani ke dil me ek dard rahega. Kaash Sardar saab hamare pehle pradhan mantri hote, toh aaj desh ki taqdeer bhi alag hoti, desh ki tasveer bhi alag hoti (This country will always have one regret. Every Indian will feel this pain in his heart. Had Sardar Patel been our first Prime Minister, then the face and the destiny of the country would have been different)”
The statement sent tremors among the Nehruvians but it was not new.
Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to Dr Rajendra Prasad, talked about five men who were the closest to Gandhi. Apart from these two stalwarts, there were Rajaji, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Gandhi would have surely thought of each one of them, before making up his mind about Nehru as his successor.
Let’s analyse this issue, one by one.
Around 40 years before Narendra Modi, Chakravarty Rajgopalachari, India’s last Governor-General and a former colleague of Jawaharlal Nehru and the first Home Minister of independent India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, uttered the same statement Swarajya.
Rajaji wrote, “Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru would have asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell in the error believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two and therefore it would be best that he was premier…”(Swarajya, 27.11 . 1971).
However, if we turn pages of history carefully, we can rebuke the claims of Narendra Modi and Rajaji’s assessment. An opposite picture emerges before us.
Gandhi saw Rajaji as his heir
In 1927, Gandhi saw Rajaji as his heir, and he clearly stated, “I do say he (C.R) is the only possible successor (CWMKG, 40:155).” This was the same year that Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji both came to know that their respected kids, Devdas Gandhi and Laxmi, wanted to marry each other.
The respective fathers from both sides asked their kids to prove their love, but they didn’t reject the proposal, as Rajaji would have become family, and passing the torch to Rajaji would mean passing the torch to a member of the family. Gandhi was sceptic to it.
However, one of the major obstacles was Rajaji’s poor command over the language Hindi, spoken by the majority of India. No other human was as aware of India’s problems as Gandhi and he understood the importance of language in a country with an illiterate majority.
Nehru and the other youth icons
Rajendra Prasad, or fondly known as Rajen Babu, was a traditionalist and gentle politician from Bihar. He had an advantage of language over Rajaji but lacked his or Nehru’s charisma.
Maulana Azad was an excellent orator like Rajaji or Jawaharlal Nehru and also a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, again like Rajaji and Nehru, but he was too aloof. Nehru in an interview recalled, “He was afraid of crowds and would keep away from the hustle. We had to forcibly take him along… He had one issue. He was so occupied with his own matters that people couldn’t reach him easily. He would meet people nicely, but he wouldn’t open up and form close bonds” (Panditji-Potane Vishe, edited by Ramnarayan Chaudhary and translated by Karimbhai Vora, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, 2013. Page 55-56).
Thus remained the Sardar, the strongman in Indian National Congress. He was called by Maulana Shaukat Ali as the “volcano in the ice” and was the greatest organizer of the party.
But he too had some disadvantages over Nehru.
Sardar was 14 years older to Nehru, and both Gandhi and Patel always used to see themselves as men who would free India and leave the burden of managing it to the younger generation. While presiding a session in Karachi, Patel, in 1931, emphasised about this to the youth of India. “Gandhi is now almost 63 years old. I am 56. Should we, the old, be anxious for independence or you, the young? We are interested in seeing India independent before we die. (Patel A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 205).
When Gandhi was asked by a British journalist if he would be the prime minister of the future government, he candidly said, “It will be reserved for younger minds and stouter hearts. (Mohandas A True story of a man, his people and an Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 350).
Both saw their role of freeing India only to a limited extent. In Yeravada jail, when both Gujaratis were co-prisoners, Patel said “You are not to go before Independence. After that, we would leave together” (Mohandas A True story of a man, his people and an Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 369).
Another incident occurred at the same time, where Gandhi asked him, “If India becomes free, which portfolio in the Swaraj cabinet would be reserved for you” (Patel A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 224)?
Gandhi and Patel both knew they were not young and Sardar was only physically fit to hold an important portfolio, not the premiership of free India.
Gandhi also considered the deteriorating health of Patel. From the late 1930s and after the Quit India Movement imprisonment, Patel’s health was too weak to carry the burden of prime ministership. Gandhi and Patel repeatedly talked about the latter’s health. On 23 July 1946, in a letter to Patel, Gandhi stated, “I do not agree with you at all on your health. You must do something about it. … In any case, you must not allow your health to get worse” (My letters, MK Gandhi, edited by Professor Prasoon, page number 91).
Patel lacked Nehru’s personality, one of the faces that made Nehru the darling of the youth of India and popular among the masses, after Gandhi.
Nehru appealed differently to different people.
For an intellectual like Tagore, Nehru had “the undoubted claim to the throne of young India” because his “determination was unflinching and courage was indomitable” and what raised him to lofty heights was “unwavering adherence to moral truth and intellectual character” (From A bunch of old letters, page number 180).
For Bhagat Singh, he was a revolutionary. While comparing Nehru with another youth icon, Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh wrote, “Subhas is sensitive—for the heart. He’s giving a lot to the youth, but only for the heart. The other is revolutionary, who is giving plenty to the head along with the heart” (From The Bhagat Singh Reader by Chaman Lal, page number 167). Singh also asked the youth of Punjab to follow only Jawaharlal Nehru. He writes, “At this point in time, Punjab is in dire need of a mental stimulus and this is available only with Jawaharlal Nehru” ( From The Bhagat Singh Reader by Chaman Lal, page number 168).
Subhas Bose also shared similar sentiments. In his autobiography, he talks about Nehru’s popularity and his uniqueness. “It would be correct to say that while his (Nehru’s) brain is with left-wingers, his heart is with Mahatma Gandhi.” He talks later about all important leaders and concludes that among all of them Jawaharlal Nehru’s popularity is by general consent “the highest” (from The Indian Struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose, edited by Sisir .K. Bose and Sugata Bose, page number 33). He added, “Among the front-rank leaders of the Congress today, you are the only one to whom we can look up to leading the Congress in a progressive direction (From A Bunch of OldLetters, letter number, 130, page number,172).”
While Gandhi knew that Patel would take the second position, he also knew Nehru’s rebellious nature with immense popularity wouldn’t have allowed him to accept the second position to Patel. And the country needed a joint leadership. Mahatma had advocated that “Jawahar will not take second place” (The Good Boatman by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 379).
Secular Outlook of Nehru
Sardar Patel was largely seen as a Hindu and Nehru as a secular by minorities in general and Muslims in Particular.
After Partition, they trusted Nehru more than Patel, though Gandhi knew that “Sardar had a heart expansive enough to accommodate all” (Patel A Life, page number 465). He also was aware that on the question of Hindu–Muslim unity, Nehru’s commitment was far greater than others.
Nehru’s also had a better hold in global affairs over Patel. Acknowledging this, Patel stated, “Pandit Nehru had always held the view that the Indian Problem was a part of the world problem…..At such time the only proper person who could effectively represent the Indian aspirations was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru” (Nehru_ Patel Agreement within Differences Select Documents and Correspondences 1933__1950 edited by Neerja Singh page number, 26_27.).
Hence, Gandhi declared officially at the AICC session on 25 January 1942 in Wardha, “I have always said that not Rajaji, nor Sardar Vallabhbhai, but Jawaharlal will be my successor… When I am gone he will do what I am doing now. Then he will speak my language too” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 81, page number 432_434).
Gandhi favoured Nehru’s succession
By stating “I have always said,” Gandhi emphasized on various indirect references he had made in favour of Nehru’s succession. 13 years ago when Gandhi realized that he was getting old, he said, “I see old age approaching me” (Navajivan,15 December 1929, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 48, page number 92). Eleven days later Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as Congress President and Gandhi’s words clearly show that he saw Nehru as a successor from that point of time. He began grooming him under his influence so that his successor had a mind of his own and yet was not detached from the roots.
Gandhi thus came to the conclusion that “In bravery, he is not to be surpassed. Who can excel him in the love for the country? He is pure as Crystal; he is truthful beyond suspicion. He is knight sans peur, sans reproche. The Nation is safe in his hands” (Young India, Youth on Trial, October 3, 1929).
A charge against Gandhi is that he fostered Jawaharlal Nehru upon India. This is misleading. Apart from his personal preference, Nehru had ‘won’ the people’s choice award. In a letter to Motilal Nehru, dated August 1929, Gandhi promulgated, “I would not on any account thrust him on the country” (My letters, MK Gandhi, edited by Professor Prasoon, page number 40).
Gandhi didn’t do this in 1929 and he certainly did not do it in 1946, when the majority of the Provincial Working Committee chose Sardar Patel over Jawaharlal Nehru.
The reason for the latter is given by a pro-Patel leader, DP Mishra, who wrote “When we members of the Mahakoshal (C.P’s Hindi region) PCC preferred him (Patel) to Nehru as Congress President, we had no intention of depriving Nehru of the future premiership. The younger man had already been raised to the Office of the Congress President thrice, and we, therefore, thought it just and proper that Patel, the older man, should have at least a second chance. As regards the premiership of free India, we had always a vague idea that having been declared as his successor by the Mahatma, Nehru was bound to occupy that exalted office at the dawn of freedom. We, therefore, showed no reaction when Patel withdrew from the contest at the instance of the Mahatma” (From Patel A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 372).
So Gandhi adhered to will of the people and no one was aware of it more than Patel. Gandhi stated, “Jawaharlal… is bound to be the rightful helmsman of the organization in the future” (Patel A Life, by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 247).
When he was invited by Nehru to be the “strongest pillar” in the first cabinet of Free India, Sardar, in a letter to Nehru on 3 August 1947, wrote, “Our attachment and affection for each other and our comradeship for an unbroken period of nearly 30 years admit no formalities. 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” (Nehru Patel Agreement within Differences, Select Documents and Correspondence, Edited by Vidya Shankar, page number 16).
Sardar Patel too backed the decision of Gandhi
After Gandhi’s assassination, Sardar on numerous occasions had clearly stated that no better person to lead India at that time was Nehru.
“It was, therefore, in the fitness of things that in the twilight preceding the dawn of independence he should have been our leading light, and that when India was faced with crisis after crisis, following the achievement of our freedom, he should have been the upholder of our faith and the leader of our legions. No one knows better than myself how much he has laboured for his country in the last years of our difficult existence” (Nehru Abhinandan Granth, 14 October 1949).
On another occasion, he justified the decision of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi named Pandit Nehru as his heir and successor. “Since Gandhiji’s death we have realized that our leaders’ judgement was correct” (From Patel A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 490).
Like, Gandhi and Nehru, Patel was remarkable and yet flawed. But flattery was not one of his weakness. He was known for calling spade a spade, he was uncompromising in utterances, and was blunt in words. Many times Gandhi had to come in his defence, “Sardar has a bluntness of speech that sometimes unintentionally hurt” (Patel A Life, page number 465).
So words spoken for Nehru were his considered opinions along with the people of India who saw Jawaharlal Nehru as his own.
In the AICC session, Gandhi had not only cited Sardar’s name but also Rajaji’s name.
Rajaji too felt that Nehru was the right person to be the premier though and like Gandhi advocated for joint Nehru–Patel leadership. In a letter to Sardar Patel on 29 October 1948, Rajaji made it clear that “Our Prime Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru) is much admired by the statesmen of the World as he is beloved to this land. Who can resist his sincerity of purpose? He is a tower of strength to us. You and he can and will overcome all difficulties abroad and internal. May God’s grace be upon you both so that India may grow strong and happy and be a power for peace” (From Sardar Patel Select Correspondence, 1945__1950, Vol 2, Edited by Vidya Shankar (Page number 368).
In his last speech as Governor-General of India, Rajaji again advocated for joint Nehru–Patel leadership and underscored both men’s strength. “The Prime Minister and his first colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister, together make a possession which makes India rich in every sense… The former commands universal love, the latter Universal Confidence” ( Rajaji A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number 312).
So, Rajaji too believed that Nehru should have been the prime minister. It was much later in 1971, due to his opposition to Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, that Rajaji went back to history and preferred Patel over Nehru. He never did it while Nehru was Prime Minister, despite differences over Nehruvian economics. Rajaji paid a stirring tribute to Panditji, “Eleven times more important for the nation, and eleven hundred times more beloved of the nation…a beloved friend is gone, the most civilized person among us all” (From Modern South India A History from the seventeen century to our times by Rajmohan Gandhi, page number,380).
Therefore, it is clear that Nehru was not only the choice of Mahatma Gandhi but also of Rabindranath Tagore, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Bose. All of them saw him as the one shaping our tryst with destiny. And that decision was backed by Patel and Rajaji, and of course the people of India.
An attack on Nehru is an attack on all of them.