Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nehru-Patel Bhai-Bhai?

In response to the furious appropriation of Patel by the BJP, liberal commentators have launched a vigorous counter-offensive. One prong of the attack consists of downplaying differences between Nehru and Patel.

Writing in The Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha argues that:
Because of such partisanship, many Indians have come to believe that Nehru and Patel were personal rivals and political adversaries...Nehru and Patel were in fact not rivals but comrades and co-workers. They worked closely together in the Congress from the 1920s to 1947; and even more closely together thereafter, as prime minister and deputy prime minister in the first government of free India. [emphasis mine]
Personally, I found this a bit odd since 'rivals' and 'co-workers' are hardly antonyms. That Nehru and Patel, part of the same cabinet and party, were 'co-workers' is a tautology. As anyone who has even a passing interest in politics will be able to confirm, party men and co-workers being bitter rivals is hardly unprecedented.

Later on, Vidya Subrahmaniam writing in The Hindu launched an even more sincere almost Pollyannaish defence of Nehru-Patel bhai bhai:
What is the truth? Nehru and Patel often disagreed, and furiously so. But such was the beauty of the relationship that they rarely kept a secret from each other. They wrote to each other almost every other day, expressing their doubts and differences honestly and openly, and concluding in the end that their mutual affection and regard outweighed any difference they felt with regard to state policy. In their letters, the two great men agonised over the rumours surrounding their relationship and the constant attempts to create a divide between them.
Here is an excerpt from Nehrua biography of our first Prime Minster by Benjamin Zachariah which provides a maybe more level-headed appraisal of the tensions (Zachariah uses the phrase 'Cold War') between Nehru and Patel.
Through all this, the ‘duumvirate’ was engaged in what effectively was an internal Cold War. There was a brief thaw after Gandhi’s assassination in which Nehru and Patel appeared to stand together on the issue of communalism and to have overcome differences: in his address on All-India Radio, following Nehru’s, after Gandhi’s assassination, Patel referred to Nehru as ‘my dear brother’.But this was illusory. Patel, the man who increasingly felt in control of the Congress’s organisational politics and who had done so much to set up the continuity and functioning of the institutional mechanisms of the new Indian state, wished to have a larger say in political matters. Representing the Congress right, he also commanded the allegiance of a large section of the party, possibly, he believed, the majority; especially after he had engineered the transformation of the Congress into a more disciplined party, had engineered the exclusion of the CPI from the Congress after the war, and had seen the secession of the socialists in 1949. Nehru was definitely indispensable to the Congress as the most popular and recognisable figure both on a world stage and within India that the Congress could present in public. But the attempted disempowerment of Nehru in terms of day-to-day practical politics was to continue, if possible. Patel hoped he could work Gandhi’s old trick of placing Nehru in a position of formal responsibility from which he could not exercise power. 
Gandhi, however, had been able to work this tactic because of Nehru’s undoubted reverence and respect for him. Patel could command no such respect from Nehru, who would publicly praise him when necessary, but made no particular secret of their differences. Nevertheless, Patel was firmly in control of the Congress organisation and the leader of the right wing of Congress, supported by surviving members of the ‘old guard’ such as Rajendra Prasad, who if anything was more anti-Muslim than Patel himself. These members of the Congress right, increasingly sensing their potential for achieving effective power, no longer felt it necessary to hide behind the legitimating rhetoric of Gandhism. Genuine Gandhians, whose discomfort with a centralised state apparatus and large-scale industry as envisaged by Nehru had long been apparent, now withdrew to the background. J.B. Kripalani, who had been the Congress president at independence, resigned his presidency in November 1947, raising uncomfortable questions about corruption in the party and in the civil service inherited from British rule, and warning of the dangers of ‘investing the State with the monopoly of political and economic exploitation, which is what happens in the centralised economy of a communist or a fascist state’.

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