Patel and Nehru: Mental Models for Constructive Rivalry

Jan 24 / Network Capital
For many years after India’s freedom, it faced continual threats from within and outside. This was exacerbated by the rivalry between two of the most influential politicians at the time – Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had several clashes in the first few months after independence but Gandhi ji’s death reunited them temporarily. The truce did not last.

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The truce did not last. Differences resurfaced towards the later part of 1949 and 1950. 

Nehru and Patel were polar opposites in many ways. Nehru loved food, wine, art, travel and literature. Patel was a non-smoker, vegetarian, teetotaler. Basically a hard task master with little time for play. 

Nehru believed that India needed a healing touch and a secular policy of reconciliation among different religions. Patel was also secular but was far more forgiving of religious displays in public life. Even in terms of economic outlook, Patel was more market oriented while Nehru strongly believed in state control of the economy. 

They clashed (mostly privately) several times and it began to wear them both out. That said, Patel and Nehru were also strong allies. They pushed each other to think better and spent their lives working towards the same goal – unleashing India’s full potential.

Nehru’s biographer says that what forestalled an open rupture was mutual regard and Patel’s stoic decency. Patel remembered his promise to Gandhi to work alongside Nehru.

To Nehru, Patel a friend, rival and thought partner. Relationships are complex, aren’t they?

When two strong people work together, rivalry is understandable but not inevitable. In fact, constructive rivalry can be precious and your biggest rival could be your strongest ally. 

If you want to get better at anything – public service, investing, thinking, speaking, debating, writing – you need to train with the best, those who challenge you. Often our direct competitors are the people who push us the hardest and elevate our game.

We make the cardinal mistake of thinking that life is a zero sum game with binary outcomes.

It isn’t. In fact even if you consider competitive sports where either you win or lose, rivals have an immensely important role. Let’s explore Shalane Flanagan, one of the greatest distance runners in American history. She consciously trains with her rivals and they actually help each other during races

Rivalries can get ugly but constructive rivalries make history books interesting, expand the market (think of Pepsi-Coke, Apple-Microsoft, McDonals-Burger King) and create memorable friendships (Nehru-Patel). 

While in many cases teaming up with the rival makes sense, simply being aware that a rival exists is enough to lift our game. It is important we don’t get consumed by rivalry and keep our eyes firmly on the goal. For Nehru and Patel, there was never an ambiguity about their end objectives. For Shalane Flanagan, although she trains with her rivals, her goal is always to get better than her previous self. Her goal is not to outdo her rival. It is to outdo her performance working with the best which happens to be her rival. There is a subtle but important difference between the two approaches. One is focused on bettering ourselves and the other obsesses over our rival. 

It is hard to sustain your motivation for the long haul of life if your primary goal is just to beat somebody else or to crush your competition. Nehru and Patel show how intense rivalry, vastly different world views and close friendships are all possible at the same time. You can’t just “survive” rivalries. You can enjoy them, learn from them and celebrate them as treasured gifts.

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