A man of robust common sense and tremendous foresight, Patel was also perhaps the most misunderstood figure of the freedom struggle era. Many leaders like Acharya Kripalani and Jayprakash Narayan regretted years later that they failed to understand the Iron Man in his lifetime. The misunderstanding crept in from a wrong perception having gained ground about Sardar that he was a ‘dicatator’, due to his habit of plain-speaking and the no-nonsense manner in which he dealt with important and sensitive issues.
Despite strong opposition to Nehru’s idea of according special status to Kashmir, Sardar Patel let the resolution on Article 370 get approved as he did not want to create an impression of him having overruled the PM, who was abroad.
As for the Kashmir, one can only say that India is still paying a heavy price just because Sardar Patel was not listened to on this sensitive issue. When ‘kabailees’ (tribesmen) attacked Kashmir soon after independence and were pushed back in a swift operation, Sardar was of the view that India should take over entire landscape of Kashmir and Pakistan was to be left free to complain to any country or international agency (read UN) to put its viewpoint. He was also against the idea of special status accorded to the state. Even then, Sardar showed the courtesy to let the resolution about Article 370 get approved in the parliament as Nehru was abroad and Sardar did not want to create an impression that he had overruled Prime Minister in his absence. Yet, he is said to have conveyed a message to his close associates: Jawaharlal pachhtayega (Jawaharlal will regret this bitterly).
Besides diplomatic acumen, Sardar was also known for economy of speech. He spoke in few words, but those could be hard-hitting, depending upon the occasion.
Once while passing through Vadodara station in train, he noticed very few people were there on the platform to greet him. The reason, he was told, was the awe-inspiring authority of the Gaekwad rulers. Getting to know this, Sardar shot back, “Oh, glad to see that Vadodara has at least this many of men”.
Similarly, while nawab of Radhanpur was playing truant when it came to signing Instrument for Accession, Sardar is said to have warned him, “Radhanpur is just a barely-visible spot on the map of India. Signing the document is the best – and only - option you have.”
Contrary to the misleading impression, Sardar Patel was quite a disciplined leader from the pre-independence era. He let go the opportunity to become first Prime Minister of independent India just because Gandhiji wished otherwise.
His feat as the man who brought political unification of India, especially his tactful handling of the vexed issue of accession of Nizam-ruled Hyderabad, is too well-documented to repeat here. But the manner in which he managed to suppress violent pro-Telangana agitation, incited by the communists soon after the independence, was one more example of him being a leader who could not be blackmailed or forced into submission with threat of violence.
Sardar Patel is rightly called the Iron Man, but he was not the ruthless dictator that a section of intellectuals have sought to portray him. On the contrary, he was one of the most disciplined among the prominent leaders of freedom struggle. “I have locked my brains and the keys are with Gandhiji”, this is what he used to say quite often. It was not just a word play. History is testimony to the fact that Sardar let go the opportunity to become first Prime Minister of independent India – despite tremendous support from other Congress leaders and party workers - just because Gandhiji wished otherwise.
“What would Sardar Patel have done, had he been alive today?” – Well, this imaginary question is exciting but of little use. A discussion on ‘ifs and buts’ of history offer speculations only, instead of real answers. But there is no denying the fact that towering icon is being badly missed most today when India is faced with security challenges from across the border as well as from within the country. The very question of ‘what would Sardar Patel have done in today’s scenario?” bears testimony to the fact that Iron Man figures in the galaxy of select world leaders who have retained relevance even half-a-century after demise.