Ifs, buts, and instead: Sardar Patel vs Jawaharlal Nehru

Omair Ahmad | Updated on February 21, 2020

Who’s the right one: Of late, many people have suggested that Vallabhbhai Patel (right), seen here with Jawaharlal Nehru, should rightly have been India’s first prime minister   -  Thiagarajan

Since we cannot change history, it is also pointless to assume who or what might have been better for the world

These days, we seem to be obsessed with what happened 70 years ago, a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago. The study or the questioning of history is a good thing. The one thing I remember about reading history in school is how boring it was. It was all about dates of battles lost and won and kings long dead.

If people stood out in my memory, it was only because of what I read outside the curriculum. The tales of Shivaji piqued my curiosity because of Amar Chitra Katha comics. I doubt if the comics conveyed anything close to good history, but they at least made me curious about him.

A similar thing happened with Hannibal Barca, the Carthagian general who brought war to the Roman Empire, and whose tactics during the Battle of Cannae are still taught nearly 2,500 years after his death. I think I came across his name in a Louis L’Amour Western novel that I picked up at the Wheeler bookstore at the Gorakhpur railway station, something to read on the long train ride on the way to my boarding school.

Looking back, I think the charm of both these characters came from their fight against large empires — the Mughals in the case of Shivaji, and the Romans in the case of Hannibal. Few teenagers are unmoved by the romance of contrarian heroes, of those that change the status quo, and especially those who might have been, under different circumstances, rulers over greater territory. The story of an eight-year-old Hannibal swearing revenge on Rome for the defeat of Carthage in the first Punic War in the third century BC has moved people for generations.

In much the same way we seem to be in a national mood to question what would have happened if Sardar Patel, rather than Jawaharlal Nehru, had been our first prime minister. Or if BR Ambedkar, rather than MK Gandhi, was the real leader of India’s fight for independence. Such ideas, as idle fantasies of teenagers, are all well and good. It shows an instinct to challenge received wisdom. It is, however, less appealing to adults.

The thing about history is that it really is a record of what happened, rather than what could or should have been. We know that Hannibal, as great a general as he might have been, was ultimately defeated by Rome. And that the Roman Empire became the European and Mediterranean power, not Carthage. We can speculate on what could have been had Carthage been triumphant, but no one can say how that might have changed the world. At most, such speculation may lead to the idea of a fantasy or science fiction novel.

Similarly, we have no idea of the kind we would have with Patel as the first prime minister, or with Ambedkar a more powerful political figure. We do know the country that Gandhi and Nehru shaped — and we can critique or appreciate their work and decisions. We critique those who have governed us on their actions, and those that have not governed (or not as much) on their ideas. This is an unfair comparison because ideas often sound better in theory than in practice.

Such speculations are an avoidance of the hard business of politics. The search for a “perfect” leader who could have fixed our past ignores two vital issues. The first is that no matter how perfect a leader, his or her ideas would only be implemented by imperfect people, through imperfect systems. One person can change only a few things. Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent resistance to injustice continues to inspire people even now. Maybe someone else in his place would not have achieved this. We just don’t know what history would be like without him.

The second and harder thing to accept is that politics is “the art of the possible” — which means it will never be about perfect outcomes, only compromises. This is a bitter pill to swallow in an unjust world. So we dream of the perfect hero and the perfect outcome. These are good dreams to have when they help us imagine changes for the good. But, sometimes, it seems that the challenge is too big, and our dreams work backward. Unable to accept the present, or hope for the future, we lose ourselves in dreams of “what if...”. It gives us nothing but empty talk and a world that is just as broken as before.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas. Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on February 20, 2020

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