Jawaharlal, whether out of spite or fear of the Sardar, intended to exclude his only potential rival — and the one person who could govern India better than himself — from the Cabinet.
One particular chapter in the biography, V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India, authored by Narayani Basu and published recently, became the subject of a heated debate between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Titled ‘Omission’, it is among the shortest chapters in the book, which is an admirable and extensive study of the remarkable bureaucrat who had worked closely with independent India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, helping him with the formidable task of the integration of the hundreds of princely states with free India. The attention the chapter has got is not surprising because it suggested that Sardar Patel’s name had been left out in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first list of ministers.
“At twenty past midnight, a deputation of the President of the Indian Constituent Assembly and the Prime Minister of India called upon them to announce that India’s Constituent Assembly had officially taken overpower.”
A few scholars and authors, besides the Congress, took umbrage at the assertion, saying that it was unbelievable and did not reconcile with the enormous regard Nehru had for Patel, with Patel’s own statute within the Congress party, and with Nehru’s liberal and democratic outlook. The BJP, meanwhile, used the chapter to reinforce its long-held belief that Nehru’s Congress had always conspired to give the Sardar a raw deal.
Basu writes that Lord and Lady Mountbatten had gone to Karachi on the afternoon of August 13, 1947, to participate in the celebrations of Pakistan’s independence — termed Pakistan Day. The viceregal couple returned to Delhi later in the day. “At twenty past midnight, a deputation of the President of the Indian Constituent Assembly and the Prime Minister of India called upon them to announce that India’s Constituent Assembly had officially taken overpower.” Thereafter, Nehru solemnly handed over an envelope to Lord Mountbatten saying: “May I submit to you the portfolios of the new Cabinet?” That envelope turned out to be empty as a result of some confusion. Basu says that regardless of this comic slip, Nehru had prepared and submitted in August the official list of his Cabinet Ministers. “The list should have been headed by Sardar Patel. But it wasn’t.”
The author writes further that according to VP Menon, Nehru’s original list, which was sent to Mountbatten, had excluded Patel’s name. She does not hazard a guess on this anomaly. Menon had said this in an interview with journalist and author HV Hodson. In fact, Hodson had mentioned it in his book, The Great Divide: Britain, India, Pakistan, drawing on the same interview. Menon said, “I went straightaway to Mountbatten. I told him, if you do this, you will start a war of succession. Congress will be split in two. Have no doubt about it.” He added that if it came to a showdown between Nehru and Patel, “Sardar will certainly win”. Lord Mountbatten then went to meet Mahatma Gandhi to seek a solution, and “Sardar’s name was finally included”.
This is, of course, Menon’s version. However, Basu points out that Hodson’s private papers vindicate the claim. According to those documents, Hodson had approached Mountbatten many years later to seek verification of the episode. The Hodson Papers says Mountbatten evaded a response, to begin with, but later admitted, “Now to be quite honest, this story does ring a very faint bell with me.” It is possible that Mountbatten was somewhat unsure or that Menon had got it wrong. But these are not convincing explanations. As Basu writes, “Mountbatten’s memory, usually mirror clear, possibly suddenly failed him because he was involved in the making of the list.” As for Menon making an error on such a crucial subject, that is again not in keeping with the character of the man.
“I have a feeling that this was such a very hot potato that I probably just mentioned it quickly to Nehru at teatime and made a point of not recording it anywhere and probably not even passing on the story.”
What is clear is that in a Staff Meeting addressed by Mountbatten, contents of which have been quoted by Basu, the necessity of having talented people in the Cabinet did arise. It was said in the Staff Meeting that VP Menon was “concerned about the way things were going in regard to the selection of ministers… it appeared that Pandit Nehru was having great difficulty forgetting his loyalties”. The book’s author asserts that, with Menon insistent on having the issue resolved, Mountbatten sent for Nehru and “advised him to let go of those he was holding on to, simply because they were his old friends (and by implication, loyal to Nehru)”.
In his interview with Hodson, where he had suffered from some vagueness in recollecting past issues, Mountbatten appeared to be crystal clear when asked whether he had known specifically of Patel’s exclusion when he went to advise Nehru. The Lord said, “I have a feeling that this was such a very hot potato that I probably just mentioned it quickly to Nehru at teatime and made a point of not recording it anywhere and probably not even passing on the story.” This, then, explains why the Mountbatten Papers do not have unambiguous material on the episode. The fact that some parts of Menon’s private papers, which might have shed more light on the issue, are either missing or destroyed (according to Basu), lends an air of uncertainty.
But Basu is not in two minds in the conclusion she arrives at: “Mountbatten’s correspondence with Hodson provides sufficient corroboration of VP’s (Menon) assertion that Jawaharlal, whether out of spite or fear of the Sardar, intended to exclude his only potential rival — and the one person who could govern India better than himself — from the Cabinet.”
It can be argued that since Basu, besides being a scholar, is also VP Menon’s great-granddaughter, her inclination is to add flavour to her already illustrious ancestor’s role. And what more dramatic way to do that than to show how Menon played a role in getting the Sardar’s name included in the Cabinet list! But neither Mountbatten’s nor Hodson’s accounts can be brushed aside. In sum, the issue is far from closure, until some more research is done and fresh papers are revealed.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.