Gandhi preference for Nehru and not Sardar Patel as first Prime minister ???

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Sc. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

According to official history, Jawahar Lal Nehru was elected as the first Prime minister of India and Sardar Patel became his deputy and it was all done purely on merit.

The official history has always downplayed the grave injustice that was done to the ‘Iron Man of India’ – Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel.   The official history does not mention the emergence of Sardar Patel  and not Jawahar Lal Nehru as the overwhelming choice of the Congress party to lead India after been reduced independence

The entire rank and file of the Congress looked at Sardar Patel as the most deserving candidate to be sworn in as independent India’s first Prime Minister. Sardar Patel  has proven track record of being an able administrator and a no-nonsense politician.

By 1946, it had become quite clear that India’s independence was only a matter of time now.

Naturally the post of Congress president became very crucial as it was this very person  who was going to become the first Prime Minister of Independent India.

At that time, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad  was the president for the last six years as elections could not be held for the Congress presient’s post since 1940.

Azad was also interested in fighting and winning election for  the Congress president’s post  as he, too, had ambitions to become the PM,  but he was told in no uncertain terms by Mahatma Gandhi that he does not approve of a second term for a sitting Congress president and Azad had to fall in line ,albeit reluctantly. Not only this, Gandhi made it very clear to everybody that Nehru was his preferred choice for the Congress president’s position. A perusal of Congress party documents shows that despite Gandhiji having made his choice known.

It has been repeatedly said that Jawaharlal Nehru was unanimously elected as the first Prime Minister of India and was the darling of the country. The documents and facts speak completely opposite.

The last date for the nominations for the post of the President of Congress, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India, was April 29, 1946.

And the nominations were to be made by 15 state/regional Congress committees.

On the contrary, 12 out of 15 Congress committees nominated Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel. The remaining three Congress committees did not nominate any body’s name. Obviously, the overwhelming majority was in favour of Sardar Patel.

Despite Gandhiji’s open support for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress party overwhelmingly wanted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the president and consequently the first Prime Minister of India, because Patel was considered “a great executive, organizer and leader” with his feet firmly on the ground.

It was a challenge to Mahatma Gandhi as well. He instructed Acharya J B kriplani to get some proposers for Nehru from the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members despite knowing fully well that only Pradesh Congress Committees were authorized to nominate the president.In deference to Gandhi’s wish, Kripalani convinced a few CWC members to propose Nehru’s name for party president.

It’s not that Gandhi was not aware of the immorality  of this exercise. He had fully realized  that what he was trying to bring about was wrong and totally unfair.

In fact, he tried to make Nehru understand the reality. He conveyed to Nehru that no PCC has nominated his name and that only a few CWC members have nominated him. A shell-shocked Nehru was defiant and made it clear that he will not play second fiddle to any body.

Gandhiji said to Nehru:

“No PCC has put forward your name…only [a few members of] the working committee has.”

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

Nehru threatened to split the Congress in case he was not made prime Minister.

Nehru coerced Gandhi into supporting him by saying that if he split the Congress, the entire independence plan would go awry as the British would get an excuse in delaying independence by raising the question as to who should be handed over the reins of power, Congress with Nehru or Congress minus Nehru.

Gandhi feared Nehru would revolt in case he was denied PM’s post and that would give the  British an excuse to delay transfer of power.

Gandhi must have thought that it would  be safe to ask Sardar Patel for making the sacrifice than to reason with a power-smitten Nehru. In fact, he had commented that Nehru had gone power-mad.

A disappointed Gandhi gave asked Sardar Patel to withdraw his name. Sardar Patel had immense respect for Gandhi and he withdrew his candidature without wasting any time.

When Dr Rajendra Prasad heard of Sardar Patel’s withdrawal of nomination, he was disappointed and remarked that Gandhi had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant in favour of the ‘glamorous Nehru’.

There is no denying the fact that Gandhi had a ‘soft corner’ for Nehru since beginning and he had preferred Nehru over Sardar Patel at least twice before 1946 for the post of Congress president. It happened in 1929 as well as in 1937.

Gandhi was always impressed with the modern outlook of Nehru. In comparison to Nehru, Sardar Patel was a little orthodox and Gandhi thought India needed a person who was modern in his approach.

Nehru  was a figure of revulsion on the Hindu right, which governs India. Nehru is the quintessential foreigner in his own land. Nehru is never more prescient, when he addresses the nationalism that will one day endanger his vision of India. “Nationalism,” he writes in “Toward Freedom,” “is essentially an anti-feeling, and it feeds and fattens on hatred against other national groups, and especially against the foreign rulers of a subject country.”

Nehru, by his own admission, was not authentic, not culturally whole. He was a hybrid, forged on the line between India and Britain, East and West. The reputation of Mahatma Gandhi, though he was no less a hybrid, survived the change. Nehru’s did not.

His ease with Western mores and society is a liability, for it implies an apparent contempt for Hindu culture and religion. Nehru comes to seem almost like a symbol of a country looking at itself through foreign eyes, and in a newly assertive India, his legacy is being dismantled.

Considering himself on the subject , in “Toward Freedom,” he writes: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways.” He continues: “I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.”

Although Nehru ease with Western mores and society is a liability, for it implies an apparent contempt for Hindu culture and religion. Nehru comes to seem almost like a symbol of a country looking at itself through foreign eyes.

But more than anything, Gandhi always knew that Sardar Patel would  never defy him.  He was not so convinced about Nehru. Gandhi’s apprehensions came true when Nehru made it clear to him that he was not willing to play second fiddle to anybody.

Gandhi wanted both Nehru and Patel to provide leadership to the country. He used his veto power in favor of Nehru because he feared Nehru could cause problems in the way of India’s independence if he was not given the chance to become Prime Minister.

First of all, Gandhi introduced the concept of forced decisions by the so-called ‘high-commands’ that usually means overruling state units. This practice, now being followed across the political spectrum, has negated the very concept of inner party democracy. Nehru’s follies on Kashmir and China proved beyond doubt the fact that Gandhi committed a  mistake in backing Nehru by showing utter disregard to  overwhelming support  from the majority of PCCs for Sardar Patel.

Even two known critics of Sardar Patel conceded the point that Gandhi’s decision to chose Nehru over Patel was erroneous.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad  confessed in his autobiography that was published posthumously in 1959, “It was a mistake on my part that 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.”

Similarly, C Rajgopalachary who blamed Sardar Patel for depriving him  of the first president ship of independent India,  wrote,  “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.”

Once the election for the post of the Congress president was announced, Maulana Azad expressed his desire for the re-election. Maulana writes in his autobiography,

“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….”

When Rajendra Prasad was using the phrase “once again”, he indeed was referring to the denial of Congress president-ship to Patel in 1929, 1937 and 1946 in preference to Nehru; and always at the last moment.

Patel accepted to take the second position because of two reasons: firstly, for Patel, post or position was immaterial; 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 office was likely to moderate Nehru, rejection would drive him into opposition. Patel shrank from precipitating such an outcome, which would bitterly divide India.”

Maulana Azad, who had issued a statement on 26 April 1946, three days before the last date of nomination, to elect Nehru as Congress president, wrote in his autobiography, 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….

“I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made to realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. …(It was a great mistake that) I did not support Sardar Patel. … He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal…  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.”

Michael Brecher, one of the most sympathetic biographers of Nehru, writes:

“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….

“If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first de facto Premier of India, in 1946-7…. The Sardar was ‘robbed of the prize’ and it rankled deeply.”

Looking back at all those tumultuous years C. Rajagopalachari, who had all the reasons to be angry, and uncharitable to Sardar Patel because it was Patel who deprived Rajaji the first Presidentship of India, wrote in Bhawan’s Journal in 1972 (almost 22 years after Patel’s death):

“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… This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.”

Gandhi’s decision proved too costly for the nation.


Brecher, 1959, Nehru: A Political Biography

C. Rajagopalachari, in Swarajya

Durga Das, 1969, India From Curzon to Nehru and After

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, 1959, India Wins Freedom

Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991, Patel: A Life



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.