Nehru-Patel vs. Prasad: Revisiting Political Tensions between the Founding Fathers of India

The Founding Fathers of India’s independence had political differences, which were sharp at times. Jawaharlal Nehru favoured Rajaji as India’s first president. Ashoka gives us an inside view of the spat between the political statesmen of India. He cites letters that Nehru and Dr. Rajendra Prasad wrote to each other, also the letter that Nehru wrote to Sardar Patel. The author also quotes what Maulana Azad wrote in favour of Prasad. Despite political differences these great men had a class that was not crass or gross like the present lot of Indian politicians. Despite shortcomings, which is human, these great men shaped India’s destiny. Here’s an exclusive in-depth report, just before the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence, for Different Truths.

Many impartial observers including the famous Iodophil British journalist James Cameron have commented on an Indian trait to either deify or demonise those in the public eye. I have myself noticed this tendency not just among the general population but also in a fair proportion of the members of the Fourth Estate -a section of the society that is generally expected to be more objective than the rest both in their reportage as well as analysis. We have an incessant urge to ascribe either Divine motives or Satanic tendencies to anyone who is in the public eye. It seems to happen also in our day to day interactions.

As a psychoanalyst, I would regard this tendency to carry a divisive in the long run and have the potential to cause damage both at individual and collective levels. It would appear that we have a reluctance to observe greatness in a human being despite some glaring human flaws. It would also appear that those in the public eye who are invested with positive feelings are not to be seen as carrying any negative human trait and any observation to that effect is hotly contested both in private as well as public space; we just have to project as repositories of every virtue know to humankind and regard any critical observation no matter how mild, innocuous or well-intentioned as nothing short of blasphemous. We are collectively just unable to see shades of grey in every human being.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee

Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee

A consequence of this tendency is observed every day in the social media where even a whiff of disagreement (let alone criticism) unleashes the foulest expletives from many who claim to be Narendra Modi followers. Most of these use pseudonyms, which are at times bizarre. The most vicious practitioners of this art who emerge with the most uncivilised expletives do use names like Satyam Sharma, Madhukar Nikam, etc., which again I believe are pseudonyms. These lot believe that their icon is a Divine gift to this nation and is vested with powers of unprecedented wisdom coupled with infallibility. Their hostile comments are at times so cheap, ill-informed, supercilious and profane that they have been reported to the respective administrators.

It often puzzles me why we have not made any collective effort as a society to divest ourselves of this very limiting trait. The British have long since recognized that their icons are humans  with full of human failings. David Lloyd George is credited as having saved the nation. His compulsive philanderings have not diminished his stature in any way. Winston Churchill’s racism is now a matter of record. But both are regarded as great individuals, who changed the course of history.

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson remains one of the most revered presidents in the US despite his personal failings that are only too well known. More recently Jack Kennedy was not without his share of collossall human failings but still remains an icon.

Bizarre is the fact that the most revered icon in India never made any effort to conceal all his human failings in his very candid autobiography and yet retains a saintly halo.

We have noticed this trend more so of late since the non-Congress (I) have assumed power. There was a time when almost all the recognized icons were from the Indian National Congress. Congress (I) which through an inexplicable Election Commission logic falsely lays a claim to its legacy has presented some very controversial icons like the leader, who declared the Emergency and suspended the Constitution, and another, who allowed a friend to fleece the government by corrupt means. The other parties have started presenting their own icons and investing them with the same sense of delusional infallibility.

The first generation consisted of, among others, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal; the second generation of M.K. Gandhi, C.R. Das, G.B. Pant, Maulana Azad, etc; the third generation of Subhas Bose, T. Prakasam, Jawaharlal Nehru and their colleagues; the fourth generation of K. Kamaraj, Y.B. Chavan, S. Nijalingappa, Sucheta Kripalani and others.

There has also been a disconcerting tendency to de-iconise the icons of the other political parties very often using vicious expletives. Right now everything that is wrong with the nation is being pinned on Jawaharlal Nehru by one section, the other section is retaliating with commensurate hostility rubbishing the icons of their political rivals and this ugly spat is seemingly never ending.

One person who has entered the battlefield is the renowned columnist Abdul Ghafoor Noorani. A barrister (like this columnist) he has acquired an enviable reputation for his erudition reflected in his vast body of work and legal practice. During and immediately after the dark days of Emergency, I was one of the many who followed his columns and developed an admiration for him. It was, therefore, with a sense of dismay that I observed him getting into an unseemly spat metaphorically bare knuckled against those who deigned to criticise Nehru and use selective information with bizarre analysis to condemn Vallabhbhai Patel in a series of articles that have appeared in the Frontline. Coming from a person like him it was deeply disappointing.

His observations on Patel are:

“Nehru was cultured and refined. Patel was coarse to a degree. Nehru had a worldview. Patel was ignorant of world affairs. Nehru was great despite his serious flaws and grave failures. Patel was small and mean despite his admirable qualities. Nehru’s foreign policy was seriously flawed. But what an image he projected to the world for years as Prime Minister of newly independent India.

“Even Patel’s friends among the British diplomats could not deny his communal sympathies or his arrangements with RSS leaders.”

He describes Patel as the quintessential Hindu communalist accusing him of all sorts of nefarious activities including massacre of Muslims in different parts of the country and even goes on to suggest that the accession of the princely states was the work of Mountbatten where Patel at best played only an ancillary role. He then questions the legality of the action against the Nizam.

In contrast he applauds  Nehru contemptuously dismissing any shortcoming ascribed to him. He believes that Nehru with his worldview was completely in the right when he approached the United Nations on the Kashmir issue under the influence of Philip Noel-Baker. Noel-Baker incidentally is widely regarded along with Henry Kissinger as one of the slimiest figures to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His intentions vis-à- vis India were well known to most interested observers. It was Nehru’s naiveté to have trusted him on the matter. He does present some selective evidence quoted out of context to support his view.


Noorani even applauds Nehru on his flawed China policy. But his most uninformed and bizarre espousal of his icon emerges when he describes the selection process for the first president.

On September 10, 1949, Nehru wrote to Prasad:

“I have discussed the matter with Vallabhbhai and we felt that the safest and the best course from a number of points of view was to allow the present arrangements to continue mutatis mutandis. That is that Rajaji might continue as President. That would involve the least change and the state machine would continue functioning as before. Of course you would be a very welcome choice as President but that would involve change and consequent re-arrangements…. It was for these reasons that Vallabhbhai and I felt that Rajaji’s name should be put forward for unanimous election. In this matter it would be fitting for you to suggest this rather than for any other person.”

The entire letter was a pack of pre-determined exactitude. Nehru had never consulted Patel and this was an underhand effort to ease Prasad out of the race.

On September 11, Prasad wrote a lengthy letter to Nehru:

“I have never been a candidate for any post of honour and when I issued the statement, I did so without any mental reservation. I should have thought that at least you and Vallabhbhai would accept that statement as genuine…. As it is I am required to accept and act upon a decision that has been taken even without the courtesy of consultation although it concerned me intimately as my name has been dragged…. You do not need to provide me any reasons as I would wholeheartedly support Rajaji…. Perhaps it would not be proper for me to nominate while still serving as the President of Constituent Assembly, but I shall resign and make myself free to implement.”

Important to mention here is a public statement that Prasad had made on June 10, 1949:

“I am surprised and dismayed to note that a canard has been spread that there are two contestants for the post of the President of our Republic when the Constitution comes into force. There can be no question of any rivalry between Rajaji and myself for any post of honour at any time, and I would urge the people not to be misled.”

Nehru wrote back in his own hand on the same day:

“I have been distressed to note the inference you have drawn through any action of mine. May I state that you have rather misjudged me and indirectly Vallabhbhai. The initiative was entirely my own without any reference to Vallabhbhai or any consultation with him.” (This runs counter to the statement in the first letter where he mentioned ‘discussion’ with Sardar Patel.) He then added: “I am deeply sorry that I should have hurt you in any way or made you feel that I have been lacking in respect or consideration for you.”

Prasad wrote back to Nehru on September 14. Excerpts:

“I am very sorry for the pain and distress caused by my letter… I felt hurt that you had any doubts in your mind that I was a contestant and that too against Rajaji.”

Nehru wrote a letter to Sardar Patel on September 15, in which he stated:

“The Biharis are of course making their preference known for Rajendra Babu, but so are the people from Andhra and a good number of Tamils. I was a little surprised to learn that Syama Prasad Mookerjee and the Bengalis are also in his favour.”

Noorani sees nothing wrong with Nehru’s first letter that was reeking with mendacity. He just dismisses it as ill-advised. Then he goes to to defend Nehru’s actions by stating that Prasad was an out an out communal person and implies that both he and Patel were nothing more that crude yokels. Instead he castigates Prasad for indulging in canvassing without presenting a shred of evidence despite Prasad’s public statements. He then goes on to state that Rajaji and Nehru had identical worldviews and therefore would have been better suited.This again coming from him is puzzling ; while it is true that Nehru inducted Rajaji into his Cabinet when he demitted the Governor General’s office, within a very short time, he became one of the Nehru’s fiercest critics and remained so even constituting a new party to oppose him.

Inauguration of the women’s hostel at Presidency

I am not sure what prompted Noorani to regard Patel, a brilliant self made barrister and Prasad, a brilliant professor of English at the Presidency College with an outstanding academic record and a top attorney as unworthy. Both Patel and Prasad had comparable command of English and certainly better legal acumen than Nehru.

Noorani conveniently omits to mention that it was this ‘mean’ Patel who gladly made way for Nehru to assume the Prime Minister’s position despite enjoying greater support with the Congress membership.It must also be remembered that in 1929 Patel had himself given up the Congress Presidency to enable Nehru to fulfill his father’s wishes. And as for the charges of communalism, he remained the RSS’s major hate figure for a long time. He had imprisoned over 80000 RSS members in the Gandhi murder case which probably is a world record. And as far as Prasad’s communalism is concerned, his  second most revered icon (after Gandhi) always had been the great  Maulana Mazhar-ul-Haque.
It must also be remembered that in 1929 Patel had himself given up the Congress Presidency to enable Nehru to fulfil his father’s wishes. And as for the charges of communalism, he remained the RSS’s major hate figure for a long time. He had imprisoned over 80000 RSS members in the Gandhi murder case, which probably is a world record. And Prasad’s second most revered icon always had been Maulana Mazhar-ul- Haque.

Noorani also ignored the following evidence as it does not fit in with his worldview:

“Patel and I 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.” ~ Maulana Azaad.

Nehru did make many errors and I am sure so did Patel. After all both were humans. To promote one by diminishing the other by anyone these parties in my view is a graceless exercise. Unlike the present lot of politicians, at least I regard them as great statesmen, who were sincere in their commitment to the country and on the whole played a role which left us in a better shape.

It is of course debatable whether they could have done more. But let us learn to salute them for what they did recognising their human shortcomings. I believe that is exactly what the Mahatma would have wanted us to do.


Disclaimer: The author would like to state that he is personally associated with a figure mentioned in the text.

©Ashoka Jahnvi Prasad

Pix from Net.


Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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