“…So long as we know that we are doing the right thing”, wrote Sardar Patel to VV Dravid, then commerce minister of the Madhya Bharat Union, “we should not be afraid of any criticism from any quarters. Over-sensitiveness to criticism in a man who is in charge of public affairs is likely to prove fatal.” Such conviction of purpose, such a determined will to actuate India’s destiny in the face of stiff opposition from various quarters and an iron will to redefine India’s aspirations and march towards re-assuming her rightful place in the comity of nations essentially defined Sardar Patel’s actions – especially in the last three years of his life when he grappled to consolidate Swaraj.
Never sensitive and hardly ever “over-sensitive” to criticism, the Sardar always did what he thought was right – right for India and for the fulfilling of her national interest. As V Shankar, Sardar’s devoted secretary during those trying years observed, “Sardar’s unerring touchstone on most of the matters that came to him was patriotism. His one criteria use to be whether a particular policy or a particular development was in the interest of the country…During his entire political life his guiding star was the vision of India’s greatness and its unity.” Even his staunch opponents especially of the Muslim League vintage often conceded, albeit grudgingly that “he [Sardar] meant what he said and said what he meant.”
Never the elite circle leader or the high flying intellectual with an approved western academic stamp, for those who closely observed him, Sardar made up that deficiency – if at all not having these were deficiencies – “by a massive commonsense which encompassed the intricacies and complexities of various problems and reduced them to remarkable simplicity.” While his leader in the cabinet – Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach to public life and decision-making was defined by prevarication and procrastination, Sardar’s approach was one of clinical precision, unshakable conviction and determined action.
In the early years of Independence when the gigantic task of consolidating and strengthening the fibres of freedom and of national unity fell on Sardar’s frail but unbending shoulders it was this approach that led the way and laid the upholding pillars of freedom.
For Sardar, Independence meant independence for the whole of India – no part, however small, could be left out of its liberating ambit, as he wrote to the then president of the Goa Congress who, in a letter to him, sought “reunion with Mother India”, “Your desire for reunion with Mother Country is understandable as it is natural… Indian independence means Independence of the whole of India in which there can be no spot or place for foreign domination however small it may be.”
Sardar Patel endured to redefine India’s aspirations and march towards re-assuming her rightful place in the comity of nations. Photo credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter
Such a stand was in sharp contrast to Jawaharlal’s who allowed issues such as these to fester and protract beyond a point of no return. In the case of Goa, it was eventually the Jana Sangh that took up the reins of the struggle for its liberation under the leadership of the intrepid Jagannath Rao Joshi by launching the satyagraha, which eventually forced the police action and liberation.
Ironically, it was the Jana Sangh, which had repeatedly spearheaded movements to fulfil the promise that Sardar made for the complete integration of the Indian Union. Sardar’s own party, the Indian National Congress, which he practically built, worker by worker and movement-by-movement, began losing its moorings and direction after Independence and eventually sank into the cesspool of dynastism and cronyism. The first casualty of such degeneration was Sardar’s own vibrant and inspiring legacy – so complete was this loss that when Sardar’s centenary came on October 31, 1975, India was converted into one big prison, with democracy suspended, political opponents jailed and the ordinary citizen’s freedom and rights curtailed in display of a rank spirit of fascism!
In fact, immediately after his passing, there was a conscious attempt to erase Sardar’s legacy, the move spearheaded by a coterie within the Congress, which wished to see his contribution obliterated from our collective memory and psyche. Rajendra Prasad, himself marginalised as president, was to lament, “…That there is today an India to think and talk about is very largely due to Sardar Patel’s statesmanship and firm determination… yet we are apt to ignore him.”
I have also often referred to the politics of “Bharat Ratna” and of how both BR Ambedkar and Sardar Patel were denied it until decades after Independence, receiving it much later, after most of the Congress leaders had conferred it on one another.
What really shaped Sardar Patel’s earthy understanding of public affairs and his sturdy grit were his years in the Ahmedabad municipality – 11 years (1917-1928) of steady, solid, determined, one-pointed work in remedying civic affairs, launching new initiatives, warding off the negative designs of the minions of the Raj – all done through those unrelenting years which saw him gradually scale the steps towards a pan-Indian leadership, as GV Mavalankar, in his reminiscences, wrote: “While Ahmedabad cannot be permitted the exclusive claim of having given Gandhiji to India and the world, it can legitimately claim so as regards the Sardar. He practically started his public life in Ahmedabad and rose to his present position by dint of his qualities of work and sacrifice.”
It was so similar to what would happen in Gujarat, decades later between 2001 and 2014, when another leader would also go through a similar, near fourteen-year-long grind and eventually rise beyond the confines of the state to emerge as a leader of the entire nation by winning one of the largest and most decisive democratic mandate in more than three decades.
However, it is perhaps V Shankar, Sardar’s secretary and amanuensis, who made the best assessment of Sardar’s views, his ways of work and of the policies that he championed for India, when he wrote:
Many views have been expressed about the quality of Sardar’s views and policies. Some see in them his reactionary outlook, some credit him with needless caution while few others see in them a bias in favour of capitalists and against labour.
Let all such critics remember that Sardar Patel was not living in a vacuum. He had acquired throughout his life a remarkable insight into the mood and capacity and capability of his countrymen. He also had an idea of what could be achieved with the material, manpower and monetary resources available to the country.
Profiting from lessons of history, he fully realised the need of a united endeavour. As an intensely practical person endowed with administrative genius, he knew the value of teamwork. As a successful politician, he could also assess at their true worth the virtues of practical wisdom and expediency. Above all, he was fully conscious of our inherent weaknesses and the legacies of centuries of history. It was the combined effect of all these factors that moulded his thoughts on practical problems that faced the country. [He was] guided by the cumulative effect of these factors for this is what a sagacious statesman and a wise politician must do if he has to pull his country out of the times of grave trouble, or if he has to build up – despite severe handicaps, limitations, differences of caste, creed and ideology – the fabric and administrative system of the country…”
Shankar’s assessment and potent observations have a compelling message for our times as well.
It is therefore most natural that after an enforced silence of decades, it has fallen on Narendra Modi to salvage and preserve for posterity Patel’s legacy – even symbolic, because it is he who comes nearest to the Sardar’s mould in our times.