How Sardar Patel was kept from being the first Prime Minister of India

It is an accepted fact that without Sardar Patel we may not have seen India’s political geography the way it is. However, in this article we shall talk about something that is very little known, even less talked about: How Sardar Patel was robbed of being the first Prime Minister of India, despite being elected to that destination.

Maulan Azad as Congress president

By 1939, the Muslim League had gone virtually on war path and polarised the Muslim population on religious lines. To defuse the situation Mahatma Gandhi very wisely chose Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the Congress president, just a couple of months before the Lahore Resolution for the creation of Pakistan. Because of various factors like World War II, Quit India Movement and most of the Congress leaders in jails, the annual elections for the post of Congress president could not be held until April 1946. Maulana Azad continued to be the Congress president and represented the Congress in various negotiations with the government and visiting British Missions.

Also, by the time the World War II was coming to an end, it was becoming clear that India’s freedom was not very far. It was also very clear that it will be the Congress president— due to the number of seats the Congress had won in 1946 elections — who shall be invited to form the Interim Government at the Centre. Thus, suddenly the position of the Congress president became a matter of great interest.

Once the election for the post of Congress president was announced, Maulana Azad expressed his desire for re-election. This fact has been accepted by Azad himself, but in a very twisted way.

In his autobiography, India Wins Freedom, Maulana writes: “The question normally arose that there should be the fresh Congress elections and a new president chosen. As soon as this was mooted in the Press, a general demand arose that I should be selected President for another term…. There was a general feeling in Congress that since I had conducted the negotiations till now, I should be charged with the task of bringing them to a successful close and implementing them.”

Maulana’s this move agonised his close friend and colleague, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had his own expectations. However, Gandhi had made his choice known in the favour of Nehru on 20 April 1946. This was not for the first time that Gandhi spoke about his choice of Nehru. He had been speaking about it for the last several years.

But, Maulana’s desire for re-election and various newspaper reports about it upset Gandhi and on 20 April 1946 he wrote to Maulana Azad, who had already been president of Congress for the last six years: “Please go through the enclosed cuttings… I have not spoken to anyone of my opinion. When one or two Working Committee members asked me, I said that it would not be right for the same President to continue…. If you are of the same opinion, it may be proper for you to issue a statement about the cuttings [the news item Gandhi had sent him] and say that you have no intention to become the president again…. In today’s circumstances I would, if asked, prefer Jawaharlal. I have many reasons for this. Why go into them?”

However, despite Gandhi’s open support for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress overwhelmingly wanted Sardar Patel as its President and therefore the first Prime Minister of India, because he was considered “a great executive, organiser and leader” with his feet firmly on the ground.

Patel elected Congress president unopposed

Last date for the nominations for the post of the president of Congress was 29 April, 1946, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India. In those days as per the constitution of the Congress Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) were the one Electoral College and only they could participate in the election process.

Let us not forget that by this time Gandhi had already made his choice known. Still 12 out of 15 Pradesh Congress Committees nominated Sardar Patel. The remaining three abstained. They did not nominate anyone. Thus, no Pradesh Congress Committee proposed the name of Jawaharlal Nehru or anyone else even on the last day of filing the nominations i.e. 29 April 1946.

Thus, as per the rule, Sardar Patel stood elected Congress president unopposed. This upset not only the loyalists of Nehru but even those who may have been opposed to Patel for one reason or the other.

The machine opposed to Patel started working fast. JB Kripalani took the lead in finding the proposers and seconders for Nehru’s candidacy, in deference to Gandhi’s wishes, during the Working Committee meeting on 29 April 1946 in New Delhi. Kripalani succeeded in getting a few Working Committee members and local members of AICC to propose Nehru’s name for the post. Though Gandhi knew whom he had recommended, Jawaharlal’s nomination almost missed the 29 April deadline, and also he could not get even one Pradesh Congress Committee, the only legitimate body entitled to nominate and elect the president of the Congress, to nominate Nehru.

However, once Nehru was formally proposed by a few Working Committee members, which was totally illegal, efforts began to persuade Sardar Patel to withdraw his nomination in favour of Nehru. Patel sought Gandhi’s advice who in turn asked him to do so and “Vallabhbhai did so at once”. But it must be mentioned that before advising Patel to withdraw Gandhi had given enough hints to Nehru to step down in favour of Sardar Patel. Gandhi said to Nehru: “No PCC has put forward your name…only [a few members of] the working committee has.”

This remark of Gandhi was met by Nehru with “complete silence”. Once Gandhi was informed that “Jawaharlal will not take the second place”, he asked Patel to withdraw. Dr Rajendra Prasad lamented that Gandhi “had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the ‘glamorous Nehru’ and further feared that “Nehru would follow the British ways.”

When Rajendra Prasad was using the phrase “once again” he indeed was referring to the denial of presidentship of the Congress to Patel, always at the last moments in 1929, 1937 and 1946 in preference to Nehru. Let it also be mentioned that Prasad was not the only person to complain about Gandhi “sacrificing his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the glamorous Nehru.”

There were many others. But Gandhi took the decision because he was convinced that “Jawaharlal will not take a second place but by giving Jawaharlal the first place India would not be deprived of Patel’s services and the both will be like two oxen yoked to the governmental cart. One will need the other and both will pull together”.

Sardar Patel was close to 71 when all this drama was unfolding. Patel knew that this was the only chance he could get to lead the country. Nehru, then 56, still had age with him.

Still, Patel accepted to take a second position because of two reasons: first, for Patel post or position was immaterial. Service to the motherland was more important; and secondly, Nehru was keen that “either he would take the number one spot in the government or stay out. Vallabhbhai also reckoned that whereas the office was likely to moderate Nehru, rejection would drive him into opposition. Patel shrank from precipitating such an outcome, which would bitterly divide India.”

Nehru nominated as Congress president

However, Nehru’s so-called unopposed elevation to the presidentship of the Congress did not automatically lead him to assume the office of the Prime Minister of India. Another drama was unfolding.

Even after Nehru’s election as president of the Congress had already a foregone conclusion and results announced in the first week of May 1946, Maulana (the friend of Nehru) had already announced on 29 April that despite this fresh election for the president, he shall continue to hold office of the Congress president until November 1946.

It was again Gandhi who came to the rescue of Nehru and thwarted Maulana’s scheme. Gandhi immediately wrote to him that Maulana’s “announcement does not seem proper.” Maulana, seeing that his game has been exposed by Gandhi, took a very strange stand. He wrote to Gandhi “I did not expect that you would think that Congress is not safe in my hands.”

The very same Maulana Azad, who had always been considered a great friend and confident of Nehru and who had issued a statement on 26 April 1946 to elect Nehru as Congress president, wrote in his autobiography, and published posthumously in 1959: “After weighing the pros and cons I came to the conclusion that the election of Sardar Patel would not be desirable in the existing circumstances. Taking all facts into consideration it seemed to me that Jawaharlal should be the new president.”

He continued, “I acted according to my best judgement but the way things have shaped since then has made me realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw from the presidentship of the Congress at this junction. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhi’s words as the one of Himalayan dimension.”

Azad added, “My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself, I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress president he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”

Looking back to all those tumulus years Rajagopalachari, who had all the reasons to be angry, unhappy and uncharitable to Sardar Patel because it was Patel who deprived Rajaji the first Presidentship of India, wrote almost 22 years after Patel’s death: “When the independence of India was coming close upon us and Gandhiji was the silent master of our affairs, he had come to the decision that Jawaharlal, who among the Congress leaders was the most familiar with foreign affairs, should be the Prime Minister of India, although he knew Vallabhbhai would be the best administrator among them all.”

He continued, “Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru had been asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell into the error of believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two… A myth had grown about Patel that he would be harsh towards Muslims. This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.”

Before we close, let us have a look at what Michael Brecher, one of the most sympathetic biographers of Nehru (Nehru: A political Biography), has to say on the issue of Nehru’s elevation to the presidentship of the Congress and the Prime Ministership of free India: “In accordance with the time-honoured practice of rotating the presidency, Patel was in line for the post. Fifteen years had elapsed since he presided over the Karachi session, whereas Nehru had presided at Lucknow and Ferozpur in 1936 and 1937. Moreover, Patel was the overwhelming choice of the Provincial Congress Committees… Nehru’s ‘election’ was due to Gandhi’s intervention. Patel was persuaded to step down.”

“One month after the election the Viceroy invited Nehru, as Congress president, to form an interim government. If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first de facto premier of India, in 1946-47. Gandhi certainly knew of the impending creation of the Interim government. One must infer, therefore, that he preferred Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India. The Sardar was ‘robbed of the prize’ and it rankled deeply. He was then seventy-one while Nehru was fifty-six; in traditionalist Indian terms the elder statesman should have been the first primer and Patel knew that because of his advanced age another opportunity would probably not arise,” Brecher said.

“There is striking parallel with Congress election of 1929; on both occasions Gandhi threw his weight behind Nehru at the expense of Patel,” he added.

(The article was published on on October 31, 2022 and has been reproduced here)

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