Rising above rivalry
Lalit Mohan

Our founding fathers were men of uncommon decency, as revealed
in a collection of old letters published by Nehru

THERE is something about a struggle for freedom that brings out the best in men and produces some of the titans of history. But it is also a fact that these men are, after all, human and the clouds of euphoria that surround such strivings often hide some of their baser and meaner qualities that are common knowledge to their close contemporaries.

The death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru falls on May 27

Under the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington DC are a series of large paintings that depict landmark events of American history. Among them is the one that captures the signing of the Declaration of Independence. All the colossuses of their revolution are gathered around a table penning their signatures to that famous document. What most people do not notice is that Thomas Jefferson, the third President, has his foot planted on the toes of John Adams, President number two.

This was not an inadvertent slip captured on camera, but a deliberate depiction of the bitterness between the two men that must have been known to the artist, who could not resist putting it on canvas for posterity.

In contrast, what made the leaders of our freedom struggle stand out was the sheer decency with which they conducted their disagreements. Pt Jawaharlal Nehru was utterly incapable of deceit in his dealings with his great rival Vallabhbhai Patel, who, for all their differences, loved Jawahar like a younger brother. He was a better administrator, and had a more shrewd appreciation of any situation. If need be, he would nudge and cajole, and even protect, his younger colleague, but never did he embarrass him in public, nor conspire to undermine his position in the party or government.

Most important, they had the benefit of an arbiter whom they could always turn to if the disagreements became too wide, and whose decision they always respected, even if they differed with it.

And differences there were aplenty between them. But they were always expressed in private, in dignified terms and were based on principles. They were all self-sacrificing men, ever ready to subsume their personal ambitions in the national interest. Among them there was no hitting below the belt, no backstabbing and even when at loggerheads, they did not loose mutual love and respect.

In December 1927 Jawaharlal returned from Europe and went straight to the Madras session of the Indian National Congress. There he appears to have conducted himself like a man in a tearing hurry and pushed resolutions which, according to Gandhiji, were too radical for the times. He wrote to Nehru on January 4, 1928: "I feel that you love me too well to resent what I am about to write. In any case I love you too well to restrain my pen when I feel I must write. You are going too fast`85."

This note, and many of the others that follow, have been reproduced in A Bunch of Old Letters published by Nehru in 1958. As was typical of him, he included even those missives, which were critical of his conduct because he knew that their writers did not bear any malice towards him.

Two weeks after the letter quoted above, Bapu again wrote to him: "The differences between you and me appear to be so vast and radical that there seem to be no meeting ground between us. I canít conceal from you my grief that I should loose a comrade so valiant, so faithful, so able and so honest as you have always been; but in serving a cause, comradeships have got to be sacrificed."

Theirs was almost a father and son relationship. They disagreed, made up, only to differ again. On April 30, 1936, Gandhiji wrote to Agatha Harrison: "My method is designed to avoid conflict. His is not so designed. My own feeling is that Jawaharlal will accept the decision of the majority of his colleagues. For a man of his temperament, this is most difficult. He is finding it so already. Whatever he does, he will do it nobly. Though the gulf between us as to the outlook upon life has undoubtedly widened, we have never been so near each other in hearts as we are today."

In his thinking and strategy, Patel found himself closer to the Mahatma. Since Gandhiji was the leader whose word was the command, two people supposedly vying for the top position would normally be expected to make every effort to drive a wedge between the Mahatma and the other person. Yet, on July 3, 1939, we have this letter from Patel to Nehru: "The other day you lost your temper and talked to Bapu with considerable feeling on the matter of his interview published in the Harijan. We were all very sorry to find that you were so very angry about it and we felt that you were less than fair to Bapu. He is 71 and has lost much of his energy. He feels hurt when your feelings are wounded. I donít think that he loves anybody more than he loves you and when he finds that any action of his has made you unhappy, he broods over it and feels miserable. Since the evening he has been thinking of retiring altogether`85."

Even if they were rivals, they did not even know how to conduct their battles! In Mahatma Gandhi Ė The Last Phase his secretary, Pyare Lal sheds further light on the relationship between these two stalwarts of our freedom movement. There were differences of ideology and temperament between the two. "The Sardar had the highest regard personally for Pandit Nehru, and his matchless qualities of head and heart. But he complained that his chief had surrounded himself with bad counsellors, did not show sufficient confidence in him and got himself lost in abstractions and generalities which defeated his good intentions. Pandit Nehru, on his part, was dissatisfied with the Sardarís way of handling various questions, though he yielded to none in his appreciation of his shrewd common-sense, administrative genius, drive and unsurpassed fighting qualities."

He writes further: "In spite of their differences the two had cooperated as disciplined soldiers and loyal friends and comrades for nearly thirty years during the struggle for freedom. Nor had their differences in the past detracted from their mutual affection and esteem. But since Independence, these differences had begun, more and more, to assume a practical shape and even to affect their personal relations." So, what did they do? Did they go for each others throats or try to undermine each other? Writes Pyare Lal: "Instead of one trying to eliminate the other, each was prepared to eliminate himself in favour of the other in the interest of smooth running of the government and both had written to Gandhiji to that effect."

But the gulf over various issues continued to widen. The pressure of the events following the countryís Partition and the large influx of refugees also began to tell. They had their differences with Gandhiji, too. On the matter of some Partition dues to Pakistan, the Sardar was of the view that they should be withheld until the aggression in Kashmir was vacated. Gandhiji felt that this was a moral commitment made by the Indian nation, and it must be fulfilled. The cabinet eventually fell in line with the Mahatmaís views. Patel felt terribly let down. On January 16 he wrote a note to the Mahatma: "The sight of your anguish yesterday made me disconsolate. It has set me furiously thinking. The burden of work has become so heavy that I feel crushed under it. I now see that it would do no good to the country or to myself to carry on like this any more. It might even do harm.

"Jawahar is even more burdened than I. His heart is heavy with grief. Maybe I have deteriorated with age and am no more any good as a comrade to stand by him, and lighten his burden. In the circumstances, it will perhaps be good for me and for the country if you now let me go."

A few days before his assassination, Mahatma Gandhi had written to Jawaharlal Nehru; "May you live long and continue to be the jewel of India." His Ďarch-rivalí Vallabhbhai Patel, could not have agreed with him more. In fact, on Gandhi Jayanti in 1950, the Sardar said at a public meeting in Indore: "Our leader is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Bapu appointed him as his successor in his lifetime and proclaimed him as such ... I do not have any thought of the place I am occupying. I only know this much: I am still where Bapu put me."

And that is where he stayed till his end; never for a moment lusting for power or trying to pull down his comrade because, above all, he was a very decent man.