In June 1916, Vallabhbhai Patel was playing bridge and smoking cigars - his favorite pastime at that time - at the Barrister's club along with his friend Chimanlal Thakore, when somebody invited the members of the club to meet and listen to one M. K. Gandhi who had come to expound his ideas about an Ashram and a national school. As Patel went on with his game, he remarked, "I have been told he (Gandhi) comes from South Africa. Honestly I think he is a crank, and as you know, I have no use for such people." Gandhiji talked - and Patel smoked. But slowly Patel got interested as he realized that "this man was not a mere windbag - he was out for action." Patel himself says that in those early days "I was not concerned with his principles or with himsa and ahimsa. All that mattered to me was that he was sincere; that he had dedicated his whole life, and all he had, to the cause he served, that he was possessed with a desire to free his country from bondage, and that he knew his job thoroughly. I wanted nothing more." This marked the beginning of a relationship that not only brought a revolutionary change in Vallabhbhai's life, but was perhaps the greatest single factor responsible for the success of our political struggle.
Gandhi and Patel made a strong team as the Chairman and Secretary of the Gujarat Sabha and they undertook many programs for the welfare of the masses in Gujarat - whether it was to provide relief to the plague affected, or abolition of forced labour or in the no-tax campaign when crops were destroyed in Kaira District. It was at this point that Vallabhbhai gave up his European dress for the dhoti/ kurta outfit and toured the villages of Kaira District along with Gandhiji.
Although he has often been accused of being a "yes" man of Gandhi, he differed from his Guru in approach. He was earthy and practical and a strict disciplinarian. He never expected the impossible from his people. He differed from Gandhiji in his views on industrialisation in that he did not see it as a harbinger of destruction in the same way that Gandhi did. He also knew that Industrialists and private enterprise must co-exist.
After the historic trial and imprisonment of Gandhiji in 1922 the leadership of the Congress fell on Patel and the way he reorganised Gujarat was marvelous. The Bardoli Satyagraha in 1928 resulted in success for the people because of the great fight under the leadership of Patel. The letters of Gandhiji to Patel during that historic Bardoli struggle speak volumes of his great love and regard for him. A letter dated 3 June 1928 says, "The battle in Bardoli is going on very well. Long live the Sardar to fight many a good fight."
But perhaps the high water mark of their relationship was the period spent in Yeravda Jail for 16 months from January 1932 to May 1933. Mahadev Desai who was also with them in jail recounts in his Dairy, in inimitable style, the point-counter-point banter and repartees that the two leaders always indulged in.
Patel served Gandhi like a true disciple. He would prepare his datan, lemon and honey water and did odd jobs for him. He tried to identify his life with that of Gandhi. He gave up tea, as well as rice and took to boiled vegetables and milk and bread twice a day.
The man who was later to become the Iron Man of India, regaled Gandhi with his cheerful talks and pungent sense of humour. He did not even hesitate to make fun of him. Once while preparing his datan he commented "Bapu has only very few teeth left, nevertheless he keeps on brushing them." Gandhiji once dictated a long letter in reply to Lord Sankey's mischievous article published in Newsletter. Patel simply said at the end "Why do you write such a long letter? Why not simply tell him that he is an utter liar?" About Gandhiji's habit of complaining to the Government, Patel commented, "Every few days Bapu must send some complaint or other to the Government. I suppose he does this lest they begin to think that he is a spent force." On one occasion when Gandhiji threatened to go on fast a second time on Harijan issue, Vallabhbhai got angry and said, "I wish you would let people have some peace. Let those who have gathered there do what their wisdom tells them to do. Why do you want to hold a pistol again to their head and worry them. People will feel that this man has nothing to do and he keeps on talking of fasting in season and out of season." Patel was sorry to learn that the Government had decided to sell Bardoli Ashram. But he overcame his depression and said, "When we assume Government, these buildings will anyhow be returned to us. Until, then, have we not taken possession of their properties i.e. jails, instead?"
On his release on 8 May 1933, Gandhiji said, one of the greatest joys of my life was that I had the opportunity of staying with the Sardar. I knew of his invincible courage and his burning love for the country but never before had I the good fortune of spending so much time with him as I was able to do during these sixteen months. His affection and love overwhelmed me and reminded me of my dear mother. I would never have imagined he possessed such qualities of maternal affection. If I was in the slightest degree indisposed, he would immediately be by my side and would pay personal attention to the smallest of my needs....I hope the Government will believe me when I say that whenever we discussed political matters, he was one person who realized the difficulties of the Government."