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When Gandhi Played Dronacharya

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Sardar Patel’s loyalty to the Mahatma and Nehru’s rise to the top

The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and his Idea of India | Hindol Sengupta | Penguin Random House | 483 pages | Rs 650

Gandhi had seen in Patel and Nehru the perfect balance that India needed, but he would have also realized that such balancing acts are rarely ever equitable. Lack of equality—seemed like a price all three men were willing to pay—even Patel, at his own expense. It is, then, unsurprising that right after his great victory in the Bardoli satyagraha Patel gave a speech on his mentor and guru, Gandhi, where he refused to take any credit for the success of the campaign.

On 9 July 1928, in Ahmedabad, Patel said:

I do not deserve the honour which you are bestowing on me because of Bardoli. The condition of the peasants in India is akin to that of a bed-ridden patient suffering from an incurable disease, waiting only, as it were, to depart from this world and then suddenly restored to life by taking some miracle medicine given to him by a sanyasi. I am merely the instrument through whose hands the sanyasi administered the medicine to the patient. If we have such men of whom the whole of Gujarat is so justly proud, the credit again goes only to Gandhiji.

So what had been his role? Patel explained:

You have all heard of the Bhil disciple of Dronacharya in the Mahabharata. He never had the good fortune of learning directly under Dronacharya, but he used to worship an earthen figure of his guru. It was through his devotion that he acquired all that Dronacharya had to teach. Indeed he learnt more than what Dronacharya’s other disciples ever learnt. In my case, I have access to the guru whose disciple you say I am. So far from being his chief disciple, I doubt if I am fit even to rank among one of his many disciples.

What is Patel talking? Rather, who is he talking about?


Guru Dronacharya is the greatest teacher of the art of war. He teaches boys to become warriors. But he only teaches princes, not commoners.

Eklavya, a tribal boy, wants to desperately learn archery. He has natural talent but he knows that the guru would never accept him.

So he watches the guru teach the princes from time to time hidden in the forest. Then he makes a mud idol of Dronacharya and starts to practice before it as if he is being trained by the guru.

One day when Dronacharya is teaching his pupils they come across a dog in the forest whose mouth is full of arrows so that the animal cannot bark. But not one arrow has hurt the dog - such is the precision with which they had been fired.

Dronacharya sees this and realizes that the archer who has done this is perhaps the greatest—but he has promised his favourite pupil Arjun that he would make the prince the world’s greatest archer. And yet, here was clear example that someone else was far more talented than Arjun.

Dronacharya enquires about this archer and finds Eklavya.

Where did you learn archery, the guru asks the boy.

From you, replies Eklavya and shows him the mud idol.

Dronacharya is deeply moved but he believes he must still fulfill his promise to Arjun. So he asks Eklavya for a guru dakshina or a tribute to the guru.

What can I offer?—asks the boy.

Your thumb, says Dronacharya, knowing that without his thumb to pull back the arrow and the string of the bow, Eklavya’s talent as an archer would probably be doomed.

Without another question, Eklavya takes out a knife and slices off the thumb of the hand he used to pull back the string of his bow.

The injustice of this story has echoed through the thousands of years since the Mahabharata was written and is still one of the most repeated and remembered tales from the great epic. Some retellings add that the story of Eklavya did not end there and that he still went on to become a great archer.

It seems prophetic that even at the very beginning of his political career, Patel saw himself as the Eklavya to Gandhi’s Dronacharya. We may never know the exact reasons why he believed this but as the tale unfolds we might be able to gather how his prophecy about himself, in a sense, came true, and who might Arjun be in this story.

The year 1942 would prove definitive for the Patel–Gandhi–Nehru relationship. At the very beginning of the year, Gandhi had declared that his heir apparent would be Nehru and not Patel, or even Rajaji for that matter.

Somebody suggested that Jawaharlal and I were estranged. It will require much more than differences of opinion to estrange us. We have had differences from the moment we became co-workers, and yet I have said for some years and say now that not Rajaji but Jawaharlal will be my successor. He says that he does not understand my language, and that he speaks a language foreign to me. This may or may not be true. But language is no bar to a union of hearts. And I know this—that when I am gone he will speak my language.

For Patel this must have been a moment of final, agonizing disappointment. After decades of being passed over and discounted for positions of leaderships within the Congress, despite performing without pause backbreaking labour for the party, including raising vast sums of money, at the cost of his health, now that independence was ever so near, Gandhi was ensuring that only Nehru could claim leadership of the party and what destiny it charted in independent India. Yet Patel never made any argument about this declaration from the man he had devoted his life to. He accepted Gandhi’s ruling with the same stoicism that he had shown when Vithalbhai robbed him of his first opportunity to travel to England to study law.

Many reasons have been offered for Gandhi’s choice of Nehru instead of Patel. That Patel was older by more than a decade. That supposedly the youth and the Leftists (socialists) and the Muslims preferred Nehru to Patel. That Nehru had greater charm. And even—well, anyway Patel would be around, to protect the country, the Congress, and even Nehru, even if he was not made the heir apparent of Gandhi, Patel would not go away, he would forever be the loyal soldier.

These reasons are just that—reasons, and each has an equally powerful counter argument. If Patel was older, he was also far more experienced. He had built deep and enduring grassroots networks which he could beckon and run at will. He had the ability to speak to and connect with perhaps the biggest constituency in India—its farmers. He had an advantage neither Nehru nor Bose, Rajaji or even Gandhi had—he did not have to mould or shape himself or learn about the Indian masses to be part of them. He had come from among them, and that is where he remained. It is true that Nehru had travelled more around the world and had a greater interest in world affairs but there is no reason to believe that Patel’s knowledge about the world was inadequate, and his intrinsic sense of India at the grassroots was much deeper than Nehru.

As for the youth who preferred Nehru—who is this youth? The youth from the whole of India? The youth in the villages? Where is the empirical evidence that ‘the youth of India preferred Nehru’? It is astonishing that these claims, made so casually without any distinct evidence, have been so blithely accepted as the truth. Even though there is no denying the charisma Nehru had as a vote-gatherer for the Congress, the question of popularity versus administrative skills and control of the party needs to be balanced out in argument.

There is no dispute that the Leftists would have preferred Nehru but isn’t it time we held a mirror to that argument? The Leftists were certainly not the dominant faction of the Congress and across India there was no doubt which group would have a larger constituency—the Leftists or the millions of ordinary, traditional Indians. Why was Patel’s weight among ordinary Indians considered any less than Nehru’s charms on Leftists?

And as far as Muslims were concerned, shouldn’t Gandhi have realized with the elevation of Azad that he was fighting a losing battle against Jinnah and the Muslim League? Admittedly Gandhi being Gandhi, it is only natural that he would be inclined to take an idealist position on this matter. But was it fair? Was it just? Was it not cruel of Gandhi to openly declare a definitive successor even before Independence, and in the middle of a war, no less? There are no easy answers to these questions but it would be unfair to dismiss them easily.

Having said all of the above, there is one more argument against the elevation of Patel to heir apparent, and de facto first prime minister, he was genuinely ill and it was unclear if his body would be able to take the pressure of prime ministership. Since he died in 1950, there is no running away from the illness argument. But even this argument should be taken with the caveat that even as an ill, and maybe some would say dying man, he had the strength, courage and stamina to undertake without question the most challenging task during and after independence—bringing all the princely states together in the Indian union. So, when we speak of Patel’s illness, it cannot be considered without simultaneously discussing his stamina in uniting India.

Also, it is important to mention here that it was unlikely that Nehru would have settled quietly and without fuss had he not been given the pole position. ‘The Mahatma may have felt that Jawaharlal was more likely than Patel to resent a number two position,’ wrote Rajmohan Gandhi.

‘Patel’s soul must have been seared’ but once again there is no sign that he either protested or quarrelled or even complained about this to anyone. His respect and love for Gandhi, miraculously, never died. If we trace Patel’s decisions and his firm stand from this point on, it can well be surmised that something in Patel would have based his decisions far more on what he—morally, ethically and principally—thought was better for India rather than on the opinions and morals of Gandhi or the ideologies of Nehru. But, it must be reaffirmed in all fairness, that a deep-seated affection, regard and respect that the three men felt for one and another, never went away.

From the reverberating depths of Patel’s silence on the injustice done to whatever ambition he may have possessed, we cannot but hear a change of pace, the altered footfall of his sanguine stride. We cannot but wonder at the impact of Gandhi’s decision on the resolute steps Patel would take during the partition of India and more so immediately after, from ensuring India retained at least a part of Kashmir to sending the military to keep Hyderabad in the Indian union. These were not steps that would have been easy for a lifelong disciple of nonviolence. But Patel took them, almost in defiance of Gandhi and Nehru, as if daring them to change the course of his actions. In the end he saved India but his relationship with his mentor was perhaps irrevocably altered, not in extravagant, noisy ways, but altered all the same.

One delicate but devastating hint of the tortured soul was recorded though. Gandhi advised Patel to learn Urdu. The Sardar replied:

Sixty-six years are over and this earthen vessel is near to cracking. It is very late to learn Urdu but I will try. All the same, your learning Urdu doesn’t seem to have helped. The more you try to get close to them, the more they flee from you.

The question for the Congress now was who would lead any interim government that might be formed—who would be nominated as the prime minister of India?

It would have to be the man who would be the next president of the Congress and there were several contenders. Azad who had hoped for another term as Congress president—though his prison sentence and the war had extended his term already for six years. JB Kripalani was in the fray. The most overwhelming support, however, was for Patel—twelve of the fifteen state-level Congress committees had voted for him. Also, in spite of all his heroics for the party, he had had only one year-long stint as Congress president. He was clearly the most deserving. Wrote Durga Das, Patel was the head of the Congress Parliamentary Board and the provincial Committees had expressed their preference for him as Azad’s successor. But Gandhi felt Nehru would be a better instrument to deal with Englishmen as they would talk in a ‘common idiom’ (a remarkable testimony to this view was afforded by Lord Mountbatten in November 1968 while delivering the Nehru Memorial Lecture in Cambridge. Mountbatten said, ‘I found myself more attracted by Nehru than anyone else. Having been educated at Harrow and Trinity and having lived so many of his formative years in England I found communication with him particularly easy and pleasant)’.’

The story does not end here. Years later, Das approached Kripalani to ask why he—himself a candidate for the post—thought Gandhi chose Nehru? Kripalani answered:

Like all saints and holy people Gandhi wanted ‘significant men’ among his adherents. A legend had grown round the sacrifices made by the Nehrus for national freedom and Gandhi, therefore, preferred them [. . .] I knew Gandhi wanted Jawaharlal to be president for a year, and I made a proposal myself saying ‘some Delhi fellows want Jawaharlal’s name’. I circulated it to the members of the [Congress] Working Committee to get their endorsement. Kripalani would live to regret this.

I played this mischief. I am to blame. Patel never forgave me for that. He was a man of will and decision. You saw his face. It grew year by year in power and determination. After fifty years, a face reveals a man’s full character.

Kripalani’s assessment of Patel as well as Gandhi’s opinion about Patel and Nehru was correct. Durga Das verified Gandhi’s choice of Nehru instead of Patel later in 1946 by asking Gandhi directly. The Mahatma replied: Jawahar is the only Englishman in my camp [. . .] Jawahar will not take second place. He is better known abroad than Sardar and will make India play a role in international affairs. Sardar will look after the country’s affairs.

They will be like two oxen yoked to the government cart. One will need the other and both will pull together. As we have noted earlier, there came a moment in that fateful summer of 1946 when Gandhi gave Nehru a chance to do (what at the very least symbolically might have been) the right thing—make way for Patel to become the Congress president because in a democratic, all-India party, the will of the constituent state members ought to be respected. And overwhelmingly the provincial Congress committees had chosen Patel. The Mahatma’s suggestion was met with silence by Nehru. Gandhi then did what he had done again and again with Patel—he asked Patel to sacrifice. And the Sardar did, once more, unquestioningly.

Patel was seventy-one years old. Stepping away from the race at that point, he knew he would never be Congress president (again) or prime minister of India.

At least one historian has analysed that of the several reasons (including respect for Gandhi, a natural lack of cut-throat ambition, and an innate spirit of sacrifice) for Patel stepping down without a murmur, a significant one was the thought that, if denied the pole position, Nehru would refuse to cooperate, and in fact might turn to open rebellion ‘which would bitterly divide India’.

The denial of Patel is one of the open secrets of the Indian freedom movement. Even though it has been documented, so little has been discussed about Patel and his life in seventy years of independent Indian history that this incident has never been adequately analysed or highlighted.

(This is an excerpt from Hindol Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and his Idea of India | Penguin Random House | 483 pages | Rs 650)