A few days ago, the ruling political establishment felt thoroughly pleased with its own sophomoric cleverness when it chose to rub the Sardar Patel point in, once again. Many inspired articles extolling Patel were churned out and, invariably, each one ended up trying to belittle Jawaharlal Nehru. The sangh parivar and its quasi-educated hordes have long cultivated a myth that somehow Sardar Patel would have made a better Prime Minister of free India than did Nehru. The sangh leaders are entitled to their make-beliefs. But what is very clear is that the good Sardar would have found nothing good in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, he would have totally and comprehensively disapproved of Modi’s conduct as Prime Minister.
The Sardar would have been horrified to find everyone, from the honourable Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, down to the taluka-level BJP activist, badgering us to accord to Narendra Modi the status of a maximalist Prime Minister. Every professional gossip-monger as also every career bureaucrat in New Delhi is willing to regale anyone, without provocation or prompting, with tales of how no file moves, no appointment is made, no decision permitted and no initiative gets incubated without the Prime Minister’s nod. The Sardar would have found this concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office unacceptable and totally detrimental to good governance and effective governing.
Let it be recalled that very early, even before the Constitution-framers got down to their business of drafting a new governing document for India, a massive argument had broken out between Nehru and Patel about the nature and extent of the Prime Minister’s powers. The quarrel had the potential of disrupting the entire post-Independence political arrangement. The two squabbling leaders took their case to the Mahatma, but before the patron-saint could give a ruling, Nathuram Godse had fired those fatal shots at Birla House.
When Patel faulted Nehru
The Nehru-Patel spat began because the Sardar as Home Minister had taken exception to the Prime Minister sending an officer (HVR Iyengar) from his office to Ajmer, which had witnessed communal violence. Ajmer was a commissionerate and directly under the Home Ministry’s supervision. Patel thought Nehru had exceeded his authority and let the Prime Minister have it with both barrels. Nehru was shocked and incredulously asked his Home Minister whether as Prime Minister he was not even entitled to send a personal emissary to a trouble-spot.
Patel was unrelenting and uncompromising. He curtly told the Prime Minister: “You seem to feel that my action in explaining what I consider to be the probable consequences of any action taken by you regarding matters which fall within my ministerial responsibility or venturing to question the propriety or soundness of any action which ignores or affects such responsibility results in restraining or constraining your liberty or your freedom which you consider necessary for the due discharge of your responsibility. I am afraid I cannot subscribe to this view.”
Patel’s funda was clear: No prime-ministerial overlordism, please.
However tempting it may be to consider that a Sushma Swaraj or Rajnath Singh or Nitin Gadkari — all presumably Patel acolytes — must be longing to imitate the Sardar and write a similar letter, that would be a digression from the December 1947-January 1948 event. After squabbling a little bit more, Nehru produced a concept paper for the benefit of the Mahatma.
In a note dated January 6, 1948, (with a copy forwarded to Patel on the 11th), Nehru formulated: “As I conceive it, the Prime Minister’s role is, and should be, an important role. He is not only a figurehead but also a person who should be more responsible than anyone else for the general trend of policy and for the co-ordination of the work of various Government departments… the Prime Minister is supposed to play an outstanding role… As Prime Minister, I have a special function to perform which covers all the Ministries and departments and indeed every aspect of governmental authority… as a co-ordinator and a kind of supervisor…”
Patel objected – vehemently and cogently – to Nehru’s formulations. Within 48 hours, he had a counter-note for the Mahatma: “I have found myself unable to agree with his conception of the Prime Minister’s duties and functions. That conception, if accepted, would raise the Prime Minister to the position of a virtual dictator, for he claims ‘full freedom to act when and how he chooses.’ This in my opinion is wholly fully opposed to the democratic and Cabinet system of government.” While Patel was willing to concede that a Prime Minister had a pre-eminent position and that he was first among equals, he felt that a PM certainly “has no overriding powers over his colleagues.”
It needs to be emphasised that neither Nehru nor Patel was engaged in any kind of power struggle. Both were life-long colleagues, dedicated nationalists, spending every single moment of their lives to make the newly established Indian state a going proposition. Both had enough on their plate. Both were overwhelmed with problems. And, eventually both settled down to an effective partnership – “I have endeavoured in almost every matter of importance to confer with Sardar Patel” – which saw India through a turbulent period.
Primacy of cabinet concept
If there is any contemporary lesson in all this, it is that it is against the democratic grain to allow any one single individual to exercise unlimited power. Fortunately, Nehru was no autocrat, even though after Patel’s death his authority was rarely challenged. Nonetheless, some of Patel’s apprehensions did come true after Nehru’s death.
In fact, throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, first the Jana Sangh crowd and later the BJP ideologues had intensely critiqued Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi for concentrating too much power in their hands, reducing their cabinet colleagues to big ciphers, and for encouraging a personality cult. Each one of these accusations is equally applicable in Modi’s case. Or, as the Sardar had put it, the concept of cabinet and cabinet responsibility has become “superfluous.”
In 2014, Modi had cunningly tapped the corporates’ impatience with democratic cumbersomeness. He also humoured his middle-class constituency which felt exasperated at Manmohan Singh being a ‘weak’ Prime Minister. The country was made to believe that Modi had invented a new mousetrap. But it is certain that had he been around, Sardar Patel would have led a full-battery charge against Modi for having elevated himself to “the position of a virtual dictator.”
Since the Modi sarkar is busy reinventing history, this bit of Sardar history is relevant today. The question then, as now, is of tempered use of power. Every NRI, every crooked corporate, every closet majoritarian triumphalist chafes at institutional restraints and organisational constraints. Their secret and not-so secret desire is that Narendra Modi should imitate Xi Jinping. This mindset has already produced massive governmental dysfunctionality and democratic dissatisfaction. Unless the Modi crowd is willing to appreciate Sardar Patel’s wisdom, the country would find itself being marched, like lemmings, over the edge.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune
Courtesy: The Tribune