The Battle of the Icons: Nehru vs. Patel

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There is a tendency of identifying an icon and pitting him against another icon, as recognised by a individual. There is bad blood between the followers of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. Hardly a day goes by when we are not treated to an article, which eulogises one and condemns the other. For the supporters of Nehru, he remains the foremost icon of the modern day India and some of them unhesitatingly place him on a higher pedestal than the . For the supporters of Patel, Nehru was just a usurper, who was catapulted to the Prime Ministerial chair, which rightly belonged to Patel and according to them Nehru was at best metaphorically speaking an incarnation of bumbling Inspector Cleausau, who went on committing blunder after blunder but was not held accountable for any. Here’s an interesting analysis by Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

There is a cottage industry which seems to have developed roots in India. And it can very easily get out of hand, I believe it has to be understood in all its dimensions.

I shall call it the battle of the icons! Broadly, it is the tendency of identifying an icon and pitting him against another icon, as recognised by a different individual.

I know I am not alone in harbouring a sense of unease over the bad blood between the followers of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel. Hardly a day goes by when we are not treated to an article, which eulogises one and condemns the other. For the supporters of Nehru, he remains the foremost icon of the modern day India and some of them unhesitatingly place him on a higher pedestal than the Mahatma. For the supporters of Patel, Nehru was just a usurper, who was catapulted to the Prime Ministerial chair, which rightly belonged to Patel and according to them Nehru was at best metaphorically speaking an incarnation of bumbling Inspector Cleausau, who went on committing blunder after blunder but was not held accountable for any.

If the newspapers and news portals are any indication, every section of the society is getting sucked into this debate and is taking sides. The vernacular papers, which have a huge circulation have also joined this battle of the icons. In the past three days, I came across two articles by two senior politicians representing the two different positions.

It never ceases to amaze me why one has to promote his/her icon at the expense of the other – almost to present a position that tolerance of the other would diminish the stature of their icon who has to be deified in every way imaginable. While one can understand this tendency among the politicians, it is interesting to note it in those who have no axe to grind.

Abdul Ghafoor Noorani is a very highly respected jurist, who has also established a reputation as a and an author. My own generation had always admired him for his very staunch and principled opposition to the . Therefore, it is almost a painful experience to peruse some of his columns in the last few years. He writes on more or less a regular basis for the Frontline and the Pakistani newspaper, The Dawn.

I shall confine myself to his views on this Nehru/Patel debate as they appeared in the Frontline some time ago. His unbridled admiration for Nehru emerges very clearly:

Nehru was cultured and refined. Patel was coarse to a degree. Nehru had a world view. 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.


Patel left a legacy of corruption and graft, which is now a serious handicap to the party. 


As an orthodox Hindu, he did not disguise his communal sympathies. Would such a man have brought lustre to India’s reputation in the world? And what kind of legacy would he have bequeathed to a newly independent India in its formative years? – Patel’s achievements have been hugely exaggerated; his grave failures totally overlooked. Historical illiterates, who call him India’s Bismarck know little about either.

If that was not enough, he expounds on certain events and gives them an interpretation that is simply at variance with the facts. For instance, he repeatedly alludes to the close relationship between Nehru and Rajagopalachari (the only other statesman apart from Nehru that he seems to admire) stating that they never differed on any issue completely overlooking the fact that Rajaji became one of Nehru’s staunchest critics not long after and actually constituted a new political party to oppose him. The Swatantra Party was the opposition party with maximum number of seats in the 1967 elections and could boast of stalwarts like Piloo Mody and Minoo Masani. It was Rajaji, who had called for an electoral alliance between the DMK, the Jana Sangh and his party to ensure defeat for the Congress. Writing in the Swarajya, on Novenmber 27, 1971, Rajaji had this to say:

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 Again Noorani tends to dismiss the letter written by Nehru to Dr. Rajendra Prasad in which he had falsely claimed that both he and Patel had decided that Prasad should himself propose Rajaji’s name for President, as there was some suggestion that he was going to be put forward for this post; the truth was that he had not even consulted Patel before he wrote this letter as he himself admitted to Prasad in the very next correspondence. According to Noorani, this was just an example of Nehru being ‘ill advised’. There are other instances of selective interpretation which disappointed me.

The other commentator who takes up cudgels for Nehru and is vituperatively disparaging towards those who were not exactly in sync with him is Mani Shankar Aiyar His articles are unfailingly felicitous towards Nehru but disparaging towards not just Patel but those he regards as close to him. In a recent piece, he gave a totally new spin to the Hindu Code Bill and stated that ‘riot act’ had to be read out to Prasad to get him to sign it when he expressed reservations. Clearly he had not bothered to peruse Prasad’s letter expressing his initial concerns. The Bill was presented to Prasad when the First General Elections were yet to be held and the country was governed by an interim Parliament. Prasad had refrained from commenting on the merits of the Bill, as the letter shows; his main concern was that a Bill of that nature, which was likely to bring about such a major change should only be taken up by an elected Parliament. This position was opposed by Motilal Setalwad, who was the Attorney General but supported by the Chief Justice Patanjali Sastri. And incidentally that is what happened. When the Bill was presented to Prasad after the 1952 Elections, he signed without any objection.

If the Nehru supporters have gone over the top, some of the Patel supporters can equally be accused of using deeply derogatory and unworthy expressions for Nehru, which unfortunately reflect a singular lack of grace and decorum. Some of the comments are so distastefully personal that it would be improper to replicate them here.

Therefore, it was refreshing to peruse historian Ramchandra Guha’s column on the subject in the Hindustan Times a few days ago and another erudite piece by Gopal Gandhi, yesterday. They took a balanced view on the matter pointing out that both the leaders were deep patriots and despite differences completed each other in the exercise of nation building in the very difficult days post-Independence. To dismiss one’s contribution and promote the other would be an exercise that would demean both. Gandhi pointed out that Nehru had people’s love, while Patel enjoyed their confidence. Guha alluded to a fictitious claim that was made against Nehru i.e. his refusal to attend Patel’s funeral; he was very much there. But it is also a matter of record that he advised Dr. Rajendra Prasad not to attend it, an advice that Prasad chose to ignore. It would also be important to point out that following Prasad’s death, in 1963, he had proffered a very similar advice to Dr. Radhakrishnan, which again the late President chose to ignore and even exhorted Nehru, who had decided not to attend to change his mind. Nehru was conspicuous by his absence.

But do these glaring shortcomings disqualify him of his greatness. I do not think so. None of these commentators have the capacity either to detract the greatness and iconic status of the established icons. Mani Aiyar is renowned for his revolting Billingsgate blarney amalgamated with overactive vocabulary, which he alternates with cheap servility depending on whether his ossified opinions emergent from his partial and biased scholarship are in tandem or not; hurling vile abuses is not just a vocation with him; it is a way of life! But Noorani’s piece did shock me. As far as Nehru detractors most of whom claim to be Modi supporters the less said the better. Majority use pseudonyms and even the names like Satyam Sharma and Madhukar Nikam appear to be camouflaged! They are crude semi-literates, devoid of intelligence, which they tend to obfuscate with offensive expletives.

As someone trained in behavioural sciences, I shall tray to analyse this further and place it in the context of what happens in the other established democracies.

I have myself had the good fortune to live and work in 11 countries, most of them democracies. David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill remain the foremost icons in the United Kingdom. But their human failings are universally acknowledged and this has in no way diminished their respective statures. And some of the failings are pretty glaring. It is generally accepted that a person with serious human failings can still retain an iconic stature if his/her commitment to a cause and fixity of purpose results in formidable benefit to the country. This tendency is also to be seen in the United States where Jack Kennedy’s failings are freely discussed but his iconic status remains intact. Even a fledgling like South Africa has accepted Nelson Mandela’s human failings despite his universally acknowledged greatness. It is instructive to learn that he himself insisted to his biographer that he should be presented as a human being and not as an infallible icon.

It is this attribute that we in have not learned from these nations. Ironically, it was India’s foremost icon, who himself was remarkably candid about his human failings in his autobiography in which he expounded his never ended battles with them. Sadly, this remarkable lesson was not fully learned by some of his disciples, who perhaps could not fully overcome their vanity.

Additionally in this part of the globe there is an overwhelming tendency to accord an iconic status without proper evaluation and then to unconvincingly defend the indefensible partly because of the desire to almost fully identify with the projected icon and to see any perceived slight against him/her as an assault on one’s own . Every political formation in today’s context is guilty of this.

Needless to say, these are inimical to democratic aspirations and we need to comprehensively introspect to seek a solution. In my view, both Patel and Nehru were icons despite their human failings and their iconic status does not owe its provenance to the offices they held but what they were able to realise and bequeath to the nation.

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet.

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. 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'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad