No one in modern India has achieved so much in such a short time as Sardar Patel did. On his birth anniversary on October 31, it should be both timely and instructive to recall his many-splendoured contribution in various arenas of public life, particularly when the country has lost the constructive impulse for which Patel was justifiably famous.
Before departure from India, Lord Mountbatten wrote to Sardar Patel on June 19, 1948: ?There is no doubt that by far the most important achievement of the present government is the unification of the states into the Dominion of India. Had you failed in this, the results would have been disastrous. But since you succeeded, no one can see the disastrous consequences that you avoided. Nothing has added to the prestige of the present government more than the brilliant policy you have followed with the states.?
Pt. Nehru was undoubtedly a great leader. But in ?resolute practicality? he was nowhere near Sardar Patel. According to Hudson, the author of Great Divide, Lord Mountbatten once observed: ?I am glad Nehru has not been put in charge of the new States? Department, which would have wrecked everything.?
Our country has no dearth of theoreticians. But it is woefully deficient in the art of execution. It does not understand that the great questions of the day are settled not by speeches and resolutions but by determined and diligent action. Ideas are important. But it is constructive work alone that can ?inject meaning into the veins of history and civilisation?.
Sardar Patel was certainly one of the greatest constructive geniuses the country has known. He has often been compared with Chancellor Bismark, who effected German unification in the late nineteenth century. But Patel'sachievements regarding the integration of state were far more remarkable. Bismark wove only about a dozen states into German fabric. Patel had to handle 561 states of a wide variety. While the former resorted to the policy of ?blood and iron?, the latter brought about a ?bloodless revolution?. Patel'samazing capacity to size up man and moments and to strike when the iron was hot, without splattering blood around, caused about 800,000 square kilometers of land to be added to the Indian Union, besides a population of 86 million.
Patel took care not to allow any grass to grow underneath his feet. He scotched the Nawab of Bhopal'sidea of grouping a few states and securing a separate dominion status. And when the compulsive denigrators of India, like Winston Churchill, tried to complicate the Hyderabad problem by propping up the decisive game of the Nizam, ?an old and faithful ally of the Empire?, Patel responded clearly and firmly: ?It is only in goodwill, spirit and not on the malice and venom of Mr Churchill'stongue, that an enduring relationship can be built between India and Britain and other members of the Commonwealth.? The message went home and browbeating of India stopped.
Being an implementation man par excellence, Patel was aware of the crucial role the Civil Services had to play in tackling the great many problems which India had to face at the time of Partition and, later, as a nascent democratic republic. He did not allow the old prejudice of the Congress party to come in his way?Nehru had earlier described the Indian Civil Services as neither Indian nor civil nor service.
Patel gave an honoured place to the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Police. He inspired them with a new zeal, won their loyalty and admiration and also acknowledged their great contribution. Speaking in Parliament on October 10, 1949, he said: ?I wish this to be recorded in the House that, during the last two or three years, if most members of the services had not been serving the country efficiently, practically the Union would have collapsed.?
Patel fully appreciated the need for a sound and stable administrative set-up. He organised new All-India Services. In a letter to Nehru, on April 27, 1948, Patel said: ?An efficient, disciplined and contented service assured of its prospect as a result of diligent and honest work is the sine qua non of a sound administration under a democratic regime even more than under an authoritarian rule. The service must be above party.?
Patel encouraged initiative, independence and objectivity in the services and instilled confidence in them. H.V.R. lyengar, a stalwart of the Indian Civil Service, in his Administration in India?A Historical Review, recalled: ?On one occasion, I took a decision in Patel'sabsence and reported to him afterwards. He told me that if he had been consulted, he would not have taken that decision?When the matter subsequently came up before the Cabinet, he told them that the decision was his and there the matter ended.?
What is happening now negates practically the whole norms and principles on which Patel had constructed the edifice of the public service. Political interference is rampant. Officers are being humiliated by way of whimsical transfers and suspensions. In the overall management of the services, parochial, caste and personal considerations are fast creeping in. And, instead of a strong, honest, fearless and vibrant Civil Service, a weak, frustrated, apathetic, faction-ridden and venal set-up, with groups, grooves and god-fathers of its own, is emerging.
Patel has been accused of being anti-Muslim. Unfortunately, in the present-day India, this accusation has to be faced by all those who are the real benefactors of the Muslim but who have the courage and commitment of calling a spade a spade, and making a distinction between appeasement and fairness, between whetting and appetite of a trouble-maker and telling him to behave.
Patel, it is often forgotten, was the Chairman of the Minorities Sub-Committee of the Constituent Assembly. The liberal provisions which our Constitution contains for the protection of the linguistic and cultural rights of the minorities speak volume about the catholicity. Mahatma Gandhi'sunflinching faith in Sardar Patel'ssecularism comes out clearly in a letter of October 24, 1924, written to him by Mahadev Desai, during Gandhiji'sfamous 21-day fast for Hindu-Muslim unity. Mahadev said: ?Whatever may happen on the Hindu-Muslim front in Gujarat, as long as you are there, Bapu is at peace. If a storm occurs despite your presence, Bapu will assume that it was not possible to prevent it.?
Though little known, Patel'swork in the field of civic administration was no less remarkable. In 1948, the Bombay Corporation held a civil reception in honour of Patel. On the occasion, he was asked what he considered to be the ?finest hour? of his illustrious career. Nobody expected him to say what he said?inviting his attention to his work first as Chairman of the Sanitary Committee (1917-22) and then as President of the Municipal Board (1924-28). Patel reflected: ?To cleanse the dirt of the city is quite different from cleansing the dirt of politics. Form the former you get a good night'srest while the latter keeps you worried and you lose your sleep.?
Taking cue from Sardar Patel'ssolid and selfless work in the streets of Ahmedabad, Gandhiji advised municipal councillors all over the country ?not to seek honours or indulge in mutual rivalries, but to have real spirit of service and convert themselves into unpaid sweepers and road-makers and, above all, take pride in doing so?.
Patel was an embodiment of probity in public life. The only property he left comprised a few dhotis and kurtas and a suitcase. But he bequeathed to the nation a legacy that it cannot afford to squander as it is doing today.
(The writer is a former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir and a former Union Minister.)