"Panditji should never have treated him the way he did": How VP Menon recollected tensions between Nehru and Patel
The following excerpts from the book V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India, authored by Narayani Basu, a historian and the great granddaughter of VP Menon, look into the simmering tensions between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as recollected by Menon and then Home Secretary H.V.R. Iyengar
Sardar Patel died on 14 December 1950. It was the end of an era and for VP, it was a blow from which he never really recovered. He had known Patel closely for a little over four years and in that time they had shared both the weight of building a nation and the pettiness of politics. They had dealt with myriad personalities and ballooning egos, and in the process, they had become extremely good friends.
In many ways they were very different men, yet in more crucial aspects, they were very similar. In the years after Independence, VP had seen the Sardar struck down by illness, by shock at the handling of Kashmir, and by grief at the death of Mahatma Gandhi.
He had watched the relationship between Nehru and Patel undergo a slow, layered decline, which became more and more glaring as Nehru grew in international and national stature.
In the weeks following Gandhi’s assassination, there were calls for Patel to resign, and Nehru wearily told Krishna Menon that it was perhaps for the best if Patel stepped down. “He [Patel] has rather changed in some ways during the past few months. He has been a target of many attacks, more especially in regard to the assassination of Gandhiji and he has become rather nervous on certain subjects.
Any express or implied criticism of him in this context upsets him.” H.V.R. Iyengar, also watching the disintegration of what could have been a powerful duo, felt that the assumption of power on Nehru’s part had had much to do with it. “The previous relationship was one of a younger man who listened to the word of a senior, more seasoned man. Now that he was Prime Minister, Patel felt—though he never openly said—that Nehru was now dismissive of what he [Patel] thought.”
For VP, the deterioration of the relationship between Nehru and Patel boomeranged on him personally—for the simple reason that as the Sardar’s right hand man, he bore the brunt of Nehru’s pettiness and jealousy.
“When [Purushottam Das] Tandon was elected against [Acharya] Kripalani as Congress President in 1950, Nehru was of the opinion that but for the influence I exercised in the various unions of states to take Tandon’s part, they would never have succeeded,” he recalled. “I never did any such thing. And if Sardar Patel had any kind of reservations about Kripalani, he never asked me to do such a thing either.
”Nehru didn’t keep his suspicions hidden either, accusing VP of playing an underhand political game within the Congress Party. “I told him, ‘Panditji, I have better things to do than this. I am quite happy to do what I have been doing. What does it matter who is Congress President?’”
As it turned out, the accusation was moot, because Purushottam Das Tandon would contest successfully against Acharya Kripalani, going on to lead the difficult Nagpur Session of the Congress in 1950. Perhaps Patel had seen which way the wind would blow after Tandon’s election for although he was ill after a second, more severe heart attack, he summoned VP to meet him.
Under Sardar’s instructions, VP had been ordered to meet with every sitting Congress President, and his Secretary, twice a week, to discuss the developments within the States. It was the best way to coordinate party organisation and administration, and the Sardar knew quite well that once he died, Nehru would override the existing structure.
“When Sardar had his second heart attack, that time he called me to see him, and he said, ‘VP, you have to take over the organisational wing when I am gone. I don’t want any conflicts, so you see to it that you keep Tandon informed of everything.” However, Nehru never forgot his suspicions.
“When Sardar died, one of the first things Panditji told me was, ‘You are not to see Tandon.’ Why would he tell me that? That kind of thing leaves a very, very bad taste in the mouth.”
In his slim booklet of memories that he wrote towards the end of his life, VP would recall the incident again. “I made no reply,” he would write, “But I knew the reasons behind it.” It saddened VP to see that under the veil of idealism and greatness Nehru wrapped himself in, there existed a vindictive and petty man.
This is borne out by H.V.R. Iyengar who recalled a time as early as December 1947 when he was Private Secretary to Nehru and riots were rocking the city of Ajmer. “One day, the Prime Minister sent for me and said, ‘HVR, I would like you to go to Ajmer and submit me a report.’ Now, in retrospect, I feel I made a mistake. It was my duty to have told him that he should really consult the Home Minister [Sardar] before sending me to Ajmer, but I did not do that. I accepted his orders … I went to Ajmer. I met a lot of people, received various deputations and submitted a report to the Prime Minister.”
When the Sardar inevitably heard this he was furious. “The Sardar took the line that he was the Home Minister, that he was in charge of law and order directly … and what business had the Prime Minister, without telling him, to send a relatively junior person, to send me to report? Virtually, it amounted to a vote of no-confidence against the Sardar.” VP agreed with Iyengar, telling Hodson, “It is no wonder that Sardar died as a very, very bitter and sad man. Panditji should never have treated him the way he did.”
This was made clear during Sardar Patel’s funeral—a state occasion, to which VP was, astonishingly, not invited.
“I was told that it would be a private occasion and my presence was not required.” Anguished by Patel’s death, this was the last straw. VP lost his formidable temper and went against the wishes of his Prime Minister. He chartered a plane to Bombay that evening and took with him all the bureaucrats who had worked with Sardar Patel during his tenure as States Minister and Home Minister. Together they attended the Sardar’s funeral.
It is an episode that highlights the extent of Nehru’s pettiness and spite at a time of national grief. H.V.R. Iyengar was one of those civil servants who were blocked from attending Patel’s funeral. “Nehru was going to Bombay via special plane. I was Home Secretary at that time, and I asked for permission to accompany him. Surely there could have been room for me on that flight. But he (Nehru) vigorously shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I think you should stay here.’ Now I did not believe for a moment that the Prime Minister of India really thought that, for security reasons, the Home Secretary should stay in Delhi. The heavens would not have fallen if I had gone to Bombay and he must have appreciated that.”
Both Iyengar and VP would agree later that Nehru’s spiteful reaction was due to an inherent weakness in his nature. “He was a weak man in all crucial issues. When he was a young man, his father held his hand; in politics, Gandhiji held his hand, and with Sardar, he always had someone to fall back on in times of crisis. He was a good, honest man, but for one, he was terribly emotional. He said things that he regretted later. Then, when he became Prime Minister, he was surrounded by people he thought were good advisors, but who were not really good people. He was never a judge of character, and so that decline began in 1951,” VP recalled.
Iyengar would remember a time in the early 1960s, shortly before Nehru died. Iyengar had just published an article in The Indian Express, praising Sardar Patel. The next day, the then editor, Frank Moraes, came rushing to see him. “HVR, you’re in the doghouse as far as the Prime Minister’s concerned!” Moraes had just come from breakfast with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Indira Gandhi and Nehru.
Nehru had been silent—he was, at the time, recovering from a stroke he had suffered in Bhubaneshwar. Indira, who had read the article, was furious. “What possesses that fellow, HVR Iyengar?” she demanded. “Why does he write all this about Sardar Patel?” VP was desperately ill with emphysema by the 1960s, but that Nehru had begun a sustained and deeply calculated move to whitewash Sardar Patel from public memory was an allegation he stood by until the end of his life. “When he [Sardar] died, a deliberate campaign was begun to efface his memory,” VP asserted. “I know this, because I have seen it and at times, I fell victim to it myself.
Perhaps Nehru’s distrust sprang from the days when he felt that it had been VP who betrayed him over Plan Balkan; perhaps it was a strong jealousy against the Sardar and his overwhelming popularity; perhaps it was a mixture of both. VP would never know the truth, but by 1951, he began to feel Nehru’s dislike more palpably.
The States Ministry was still functional, but he knew its days were numbered, and with that knowledge, came a sense of relief that India had been integrated in Sardar’s lifetime. “If integration had not been completed during Sardar’s life, I could not have done it alone. Though he had heart attacks while he was on the job, I know how powerful he was. He was the man against whom no one would dare to go.”
For now, VP focused on the rather startling issues that the dying princely order still threw up from time to time. There was the case of the Nizam’s suspicious investments in The Indian Express, guided by the unscrupulous hand of his advisor, C.B. Taraporevala. The Nizam was banned from making any kind of political investments, and the mere fact that he suddenly produced 75 lakhs from thin air shocked VP.
The case would drag on through most of early January 1951. Hyderabad never really ended for VP. He was in court until the last years of his life, as a trustee (on behalf of the Government of India) of the Nizam’s jewels and the claims made to it by the rest of the royal family and their descendants. The States Ministry also had the unpleasant task of nipping royal dalliances in the bud. The Maharaja of Jodhpur created a flutter in Delhi and London when he invited two “night-club hostesses” to India.
Krishna Menon was frantic, “Both these women were acquainted with Jodhpur and he seems to have got himself entangled at any rate with [Miss] Quick and has provided her travel money. Quick appears to have booked a passage on the19th while [Miss] Ashbee proposes sailing in mid-March,” he wrote to VP.
“Quick is a professional ‘hostess’ while Ashbee appears to be a married woman working as a model and hostess and her husband is said to be something in the BBC.” VP was outraged at this, ordering India to withdraw legal endorsements for both Quick and Ashbee, and signing off a reply to Krishna Menon, with the ominous words, “We shall deal with the Maharaja when he comes here.”
In September 1950, the Maharaja of Bikaner died in London. While VP arranged for a Constellation aircraft to fly out to bring back his body, he also sent a spate of secret telegrams to Krishna Menon, putting him in charge of bringing Bikaner’s priceless art—which he had taken with him to England—back to India. “Though these relics are His Highness’s private property, the understanding between States Ministry and His Highness was that they would be kept in Bikaner itself for exhibition to the public and would not go out of the country.” Then there was the Maharaja of Baroda, whose defiance alone defied description.
In March 1951, a financial scandal involving Sir Pratap Singh, Feroze Gandhi [then married to Indira] and a suspicious cheque was scotched by VP, whose advice was sought by Gopalaswamy Ayyangar. The details of the scandal are not on public record, for unsurprising reasons, but VP’s letter of remonstration to Ayyangar was left among the latter’s personal papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. It was VP who advised Ayyangar to take the matter to Nehru.
“I suggest that you should mention this matter to the Prime Minister. If and when the fact becomes known, there is bound to be public outcry against it and I think we should avoid getting your name dragged into it … I take a very grave view of the whole affair. In the first place, it is tragic that two Ministers of the Government of India and the son-in-law of the Prime Minister should have approached a person who is virtually persona non grata with the GOI; secondly, the transaction has been entered into at a time when very grave constitutional issues are involved in the relations of the Government of India with the Maharaja of Baroda and even other outstanding issues are pending; thirdly, any impression that a ruler could be restored to favour by associating himself with a venture in which Ministers or any of their close relations are interested will undermine the very fabric of Government especially at this juncture.” However, it was the incident with Tandon that gave VP the strongest hint of what was to come.
In April 1951, the States Ministry was shut down, leaving VP, for the first time in over three decades of government service, without a job.
“The States Ministry was abolished with undue haste, although it would have been very useful in building up the backward economy of the former States’ areas,” he would write later. On 6 May 1951, V.P. Menon was appointed Governor of Orissa. He knew it was a sop. He did not, at that point, even know for how long he had been appointed.
As it turned out, he would hold it for a mere two months, putting in his resignation papers on 17 July 1951. The official word was that VP would be “retiring”. But he wasn’t. Nehru had appointed him a member of independent India’s First Finance Commission.
(Excerpted with permission from Simon and Schuster India, Publisher of the book V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India, authored by Narayani Basu.)