Balraj Krishna is unquestionably the best contemporary authority on the life and times of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In the first place, he had the good fortune of corresponding with and receiving information from such old stalwarts as Indulal Yajnik, Kalyanji Mehta, K.M. Munshi, M.R. Masani, Lalji Mehta, Mahavir Tyagi, Mehr Chand Khanna, Humayun Kabir, Bhimsen Sachar among politicians and from Lord Louis Mountbatten, Gen Sir Roy Bucher, Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst among Britishers who were in power in pre-and post-Independence India.
Even more significantly Balraj Krishna received enormous help from Indian Civil Service officers including C.S. Venkatachar, H.V.R. Iyengar, K.B. Lall, Vishnu Sahay, C.D. Deshmukh, C.M. Trivedi, H.M. Patel, K.P.S. Menon and the one-day-only V.P. Menon, the Sardar'sright-hand man in the elimination of the Princely Order. That entire generation is now gone. Balraj Krishna, then, must be the last of the biographers who had gathered authoritative information, first hand, from those who mattered. It is this which gives this work the stamp of accuracy and unchallengeability.
Balraj Krishna had written an earlier biography of the Sardar, which was published in 2005. It was more detailed in its coverage, especially of the Sardar'schildhood and early years as a lawyer. This volume in no way is a condensed version but provides new insights into his later years as he began to make history. Indeed some of the anecdotes recalled in this latest biography make fascinating reading. The Sardar was known for two things: his strength of character and his total loyalty to the Mahatma. In many ways he was the Mahatma'salter ego. Of all the Congress leaders of the post-1920 Independence struggle the Sardar was surely the closest to Gandhi, closer, surely, than Jawaharlal Nehru. With Nehru, the Mahatma could be brutally frank. Thus, when Nehru made a wholly unnecessary and provocative statement concerning his colleagues in the Congress Working Committee, Gandhi sharply pulled him up by telling Jawaharlal that he had given ?much pain to Rajen Babu, C.R. and Vallabhbhai?. Two months later, in another letter dated July 29, 1936, Gandhi was even more stern. To Nehru he wrote: ?They (Vallabhbhai et al) have chafed under your rebukes and magisterial manner and above all your arrogation of, what appeared to them, your infallibility and superior knowledge. They feel you have treated them with scant courtesy and never defended them from the socialist ridicule and even misrepresentation.? But the greatness of Vallabhbhai was that to the end he treated Nehru with respect, even when he strongly disagreed with Jawaharlal on many issues, including Kashmir, Tibet, Hyderabad and others of lesser importance. Had Vallabhbhai instead of Nehru, been the Prime Minister?even though he barely lived three years after independence Indian would have been spared a lot of agony.
Vallabhbhai'smost significant and magnificent contribution to his motherland, of course, was the unification of the country as a whole. Aurangzeb may have extended the Moghul Empire by conquest and devastating wars; Vallabhbhai united India bloodlessly?except in the case of Hyderabad?through quiet but firm negotiation, to a point that when the Soviet leader Krushchev visited India in 1956, barely nine years after the final unification of India, he could say: ?You Indians are an amazing people! How on earth did you manage to liquidate the Princely rule without liquidating the Princes?? Not one ruler was touched. Not even the likes of the Nawab of Bhopal, the Nizam of Hyderabad and even the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. There were revolts from the Maharaja of Travancore under the guidance of that supreme egoist, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer and the Nawab of Junagadh and hesitancy from the ruler of Jodhpur. Vallabhbhai handled some of the rulers with a finesse that can only be described as extraordinary. With the Nizam he was firm. The Indian Army had to be sent to Hyderabad to defeat the militant Razakars, which was done in 48 hours. But the Nizam was treated with utmost courtesy.
The Sardar'swisdom and far-sightedness were reflected in his directives to his aides: ?Do not question the extent of the personal wealth claimed by them (the princes) and never confront the ladies of the household. I want their states?not their wealth.?
Balraj Krishna rightly notes that the unification of 560 princely states took no more than 18 months. As he put it: ?It moved fast with the speed of a soft whirlwind, gently drawing the princes into its warm embrace, hurting none.?
When some petty rulers argued that they have to consult lawyers before agreeing to merge their estates with Orissa, the Sardar plainly told them: ?Your Highnesses may consult lawyers, but I make the law.? There was no more discussion.
Against this background, to compare the Sardar with Bismarck is to do grave injustice to Vallabhbhai. Bismarck never had to face the kind of gigantic problems that the Sardar had to face in India. Before Vallabhbhai, Bismarck looks like a pygmy. The find word on Vallabhbhai was articulated by none other than J.R.D. Tata, who said: ?While I usually came back from meeting Gandhiji elated and inspired but always a bit sceptical and from talks with Jawaharlala fired with emotional zeal, but often confused and unconvinced, meetings with Vallabhbhai were a joy from which I returned with renewed confidence in the future of our country. I have often thought that if fate had decreed that he, instead of Jawaharlal, would be the younger of the two, India would have followed a very different path and would be in better economic shape than it is today.? And no truer words have been said.
The value of this volume is further enhanced by inclusion of several rare and hitherto unpublished letters received by Balraj Krishna from many British and Indian administrators, not the least from Lord Mountbatten. There is no question that after Ashoka, Vallabhbhai remains the greatest ruler of India.
Winston Churchill who hated India and Indians and said that when independence comes to India ?power will go into the hands of rascals, rogues and free-booters and men of straw? had to eat his words and concede that the Sardar should ?not confine himself to the limits of India but the world was entitled to see and hear more of him?.
Balraj Krishna'sbiography, in the circumstances, is the best tribute any Indian can pay to the greatest unifier of India in history.
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