A G Noorani on Prasad’s Presidentship – A fact check

I am a little hampered by the fact that my copy of the original book – *Rajaji – A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi*  is no longer with me. Had lent it to a cousin who has taken it with her to the US. This is from the condensed edition published by Penguin books published in 1997.

 Recently Frontline / A G Noorani has come out with a Cover Story on Sardar Patel which is extremely one sided and quotes selectively. I will try and address each major issue – The CR / Rajendra Prasad Controversy first.

 To quote from Rajmohan Gandhi (Page 307 onwards):

 From 26 January 1950 – so the Constituent Assembly, had decided – India would be a Republic and need a President to replace the Governor General. He would be elected, in this first instance, by the Constituent Assembly.

 It had seemed clear that the Assembly would be guided by the wishes of Nehru and Patel. In June 1949 their wishes, as yet unannounced, were that C.R. should continue as head of state. True, the name of Rajendra Prasad, who had presided over the Constituent Assembly, had been mentioned; true, moreover that when Patel and C.R. hinted to Prasad that a statement from him scotching rumours that he was interested in the post would be helpful, he confined himself to declaring that ‘there can be no question of any rivalry between Rajaji and myself for any post or honour.’

 Still, it looked likely that the Congress members predominantly in the Assembly would carry out a joint recommendation by Jawaharlal and Patel in C.R.’s favour. By the end of September, however, it was clear that there would not be a joint proposal, that Prasad was interested in the position, and that a majority in the party preferred Prasad.

 While eager to install Rajaji, Nehru overestimated his capacity to succeed. He also committed two tactical blunders. The first was to send a letter to Prasad indicating a preference for C.R.’s name. Sent without consulting Patel, the letter only made Prasad keener on the Presidentship.

 Nehru’s second mistake was to move – against Patel’s advice – a resolution proposing C.R.’s name at a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party. He was leaving for the United Sates and wanted the question settled before his departure. When several speakers opposed the resolution, Jawaharlal looked for help from Patel, who, however, merely proposed that the question be deferred until the end of Nehru’s American trip.

 Returning from America, Nehru offered Prasad the chairmanship of the Planning Commission that was envisaged. When Prasad did not bite this bait, Jawaharlal wrote to him of the need for the ‘five of us, you, Rajaji, Vallabhbhai, Maulana and myself’ to tackle together the deterioration that had assailed Congress – ‘the cracking up, with great rapidity, of the noble structure that Bapu built,’ as Nehru put it – and threw a hint about Prasad taking up the Congress Presidentship. Finally, he said:

 It is patent that there are only two persons who might be chosen as the President of the Republic – yourself and Rajaji. There is no other. One of the two, it seems to me, should take the initiative of declaring that he will not stand…… Rajaji himself was anxious to retire to his village and the only consideration for him was whether his colleagues and his duty demanded something else. He would gladly issue a statement about retiring himself, if his colleagues so desired.

 However, not only was Prasad unwilling to retire, Patel by this time was definite that he should not. Not that he preferred Prasad to C.R. Morarji Desai and Ghanshyamdas Birla, both of whom enjoyed Patel’s confidence, have recalled that Vallabhbhai felt that C.R. would be as good a President as Prasad. Nor did Vallabhbhai swallow the line that Nehru wanted C.R. ‘as a prop against his deputy Prime Minister.’ According to Dwaraka Prasad Mishra, another of Patel’s close friends, Vallabhbhai ‘believed that once elected as President C.R. would not blindly support Nehru disregarding national interests.’

 Patel changed his attitude when he saw the feeling in the party and also a chance to bring Nehru down a peg. His only worry now was about Prasad backing out at the last minute. To him he sent the message. ‘Agar dulha palki chhod kar bhag na jaye to shadi nakki.’ (‘Provided the bridegroom does not dessert the palanquin, the marriage is assured.’) However, as Mishra recalls, ‘the bridegroom was firmly sitting in the palanquin and the marriage party need not have been anxious.’ Prasad was ready, in fact, to be ‘harder than a diamond.’

 He informed Nehru that a withdrawal by him would be interpreted as ‘dictation’ and ‘a betrayal.’ The ball was now in the court of C.R., who promptly announced his retirement.

 Why was the party not keen on C.R., whose success as Governor-General had been unquestioned? That he had come from outside the Hindi belt and was not fluent in the language were perhaps factors.  ‘The protagonists of Hindi favour Rajendra Babu,’ Nehru told Patel. But the biggest reason was C.R.’s 1942 role.

 Most members of the Constituent Assembly had  taken part in Quit India. Prasad had gone to prison with them while C.R. was proposing accommodation with the British and the League. If one of the two had to be the first President, they would choose Prasad, unless Nehru and Patel jointly urged them to the contrary.

 C.R. did not try to charm the Members the way he had charmed the diplomats. He enjoyed high office but a patient and tactful effort to keep it was beyond him. Nor was it in him to ask for Patel’s favour, though one word to Patel, with whom C.R. had personal and idealogical links of long standing, might have fetched him the Presidentship.

 

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