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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 27 New Delhi June 25, 2016

Patel and Bose: The two had nothing in common

Sunday 26 June 2016

by Praveen Davar

No two leaders in the freedom struggle were closer to each other ideologically, and personally, than Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. Nehru and Bose had much in common when it came to their views about the social and economic reconstruction of India. Both believed in variants of socialism and were deeply committed to secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity. It was only in 1939, less than two years before Subhash escaped to Germany, that the duo fell out. No two leaders of the Congress differed more with each other in their political views than the ‘Rightest’ Sardar Patel and the ‘Leftist’ Bose. This article attempts to explain the circumstances which led Bose to resign from the Gandhi led, and Patel controlled, Congress and chart out his own destiny.

Following Jawaharlal Nehru’s two conse-cutive terms in 1936 and 1937, Subhas Bose was elected President of the Congress in 1938, with Gandhiji’s goodwill. But he and his group of Leftists were not in tune with Gandhiji’s principles and policies without being clear themselves about what was to be done under the prevailing circumstances. However, in selecting members of the Working Committee Subhas did not deviate from the old pattern when important decisions were taken by the Working Committee as a body. The President was only the first among equals. As the year 1938 was coming to a close, the question as to who should be the next President had to be decided.

Subhas wanted a second term but Gandhiji had made it clear to him that he would not support him. Subhas was determined to stand again. His name had been proposed. The question of the next President was discussed by the Working Committee held in Bardoli. Subhas did not attend this meeting. Four candidates, whose names had been proposed by different provinces for the election of the next President, were Subhas, Maulana Azad, Vallabhbhai and Pattabhi. The Maulana wanted to withdraw his nomination but Gandhiji and others induced him not to do so. He acquiesced. Vallabhbhai thereupon withdrew his name. From Bardoli the Maulana went to Bombay and four days later he sent a letter of withdrawal from the contest. He gave no reason for changing his mind.

Vallabhbhai having withdrawn from the contest, there remained only Subhas and Pattabhi in the field and the time for the nominations was past. Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Gandhi and Nehru urging them to select Bose. As Tagore saw it, there were only two modernists among the Congrerss leaders: Nehru and Bose. As Nehru was already the serving Chairman, National Planning Committee, Tagore wanted to see Bose once more as the Congress President. Gandhi was unimpressed by the poet’s foray into politics and chose to ignore his recommendation. Bose prefered a Leftist like Acharya Narendra Dev. But with no one unanimously acceptable, he decided to contest himself. He justified this on the ground that he held strong views in favour of reviving civil disobedience on a mass scale, for with a war on the horizon this was an opportune time to do so. He also urged that his re-election would enable him to check the tendency of the Working Committee to compromise on the scheme of a federal structure at the Centre.

 This was a direct attack on the Working Committee and Sardar took up cudgels on behalf of it. He regretted that Subhas Bose was trying to split the Congress over the election of the President, a post which as a symbol of the unity of the people had been normally filled without contest. Why did he want to defy Gandhiji and his own Working Committee ? ‘Because he felt he was big enough to challenge them and was confident that he alone could lead the Congress to victory.’ Sardar declared that Subhas Bose’s bid for re-election raised grave issues. The statement issued by him clearly showed that he had an inflated idea of the role of President. He should know that he was not the leader of the Congress but only a presiding officer. Actually, he was one among equals. On many occasions in the past, the President had had to carry out the decisions of the Working Committee, though they were contrary to his personal views.

Sardar was amazed that Subhas Bose had also attacked members of the Working Committee below the belt by accusing them of the intention to betray the Congress. The decision to reject the federal scheme had already been taken by the Congress, and there was no question of the Working Committee’s going back on this. Bose was, therefore, misleading the electorate by posing as the saviour of the Congress. He was aware of this, and was using his office to further his ambition to secure mastery over the Congress. Gandhiji and Jawa-harlal Nehru appealed to Subhas Bose to withdraw his candidature in favour of Pattabhi Sitaramayya, who had been nominated by the Working Committee. But Subhas Bose was filled with the zeal of a crusader and insisted that the people should be given freedom to make their own choice.

This created a delicate and unique situation in the Congress. Since the time Gandhiji assumed leadership of the freedom struggle, the Congress President had been unanimously elected with his goodwill. Now, the organisation was divided into two groups. Intense canvassing went on either side. Subhas, who was a very able organiser, had during the term of his office quietly been working for his re-election. He won the election. On his re-election, those members of the Working Committee who had backed Pattabhi thought it proper to submit their resignations. They sent a joint letter of resignation to Subhas. Jawaharlal submitted his resignation in a separate letter. He did not want to be identified with the members of the old Working Committee.

A meeting of the AICC was called at Calcutta to take stock of the situation created by the resolution which was passed at Tripuri and to find a way out of the impasse. The members who had resigned from the Working Committee could not possibly join the new executive. Apart from the fact that they had resigned from the Working Committee as soon as it was announced that Subhas was re-elected President, they were also unable to join as they found that they differed from Subhas in certain vital matters. Letters and telegrams were exchanged between Subhas and Gandhiji about the formation of the Working Committee. In his last letter addressed to Subhas from Sodepore, Gandhiji wrote: “Knowing your own views and knowing how you and most of the members differ in fundamentals it seems to me that if I gave you names it would be an imposition on you.” After receiving this letter which confirmed the position taken by the old members of the Working Committee, Subhas thought it best to resign. The pity of it was that most of the socialists and radicals who had supported his re-election were no more with him.

But Subhas Bose continued his flank attack on the Congress by openly deriding the Congress Ministries in the provinces. The Working Committee warned him to desist from such activities. But Bose was a stubborn fighter. The Working Committee took up the challenge and disqualified him from holding any elected post in the Congress for three years. Bose resigned from the Congress and formed a new party, the Forward Bloc. According to a biography of Sardar Patel: ‘Vallabhbhai heaved a sigh of relief at the exit of a would-be dictator from the fold of the Congress — wherein he had functioned as a breaker rather than as a maker. Sardar had skilfully undone the mischief of the election of Bose. He had re-established Gandhij’s supremacy over the Congress.’

Along with a sense of conviction in their life’s missions, both Gandhi and Bose were tempera-mentally very strong-willed and admant about their judgement of priorities. In vain did Nehru try to mediate between the two headstrong men, during the Tripuri crises over the re-election of Subhas as the Congress President. The election drama brought into the open the differences in approaches, priorities, methods and mindsets of the three leaders. As Jawaharlal put it, behind the political issues there were psychological issues and these were much more difficult to resolve. In this crisis, both Gandhi and Subhas had acted from their convictions and were driven by their inner compulsions although they were at cross-purposes. Subhas had been asked by Gandhi to ‘cheerfully submit’ to party discipline, and when he declined, he was edged out. However, his determination to chart out an alternative course to the Gandhian line led him to form his own party, the Forward Bloc, which despite its loud rhetoric, could never provide a viable alternative to Gandhi. The reaction of Jawharlal to this crisis demons-trated a totally different philosophical mindset and a contrasting response.

From the beginning, although Nehru had supported Subhas in his youthful challenge of the conservative Gandhian Congress, he would never encourage any divisive move that could break its unity. He, therefore, pleaded with Subhas not to contest the elections and tried to demystify the position of the Congress President, having held it several times himself. At the same time, his democratic temperament was unhappy with the Congress resolution with its insistence on a homogeneous Working Committee and asking the current members to resign. He pointed out that it had been a Congress tradition to allow several points of view to be represented in the apex body, and that although some homogeneity was needed, it should not be narrowly interpreted. Therefore, he did not resign with the others but acted as if he had. This was Nehru’s quandary: intellectually, he resented the pressure tactics of Gandhi to make Subhas buckle under and yet he could not go along with Subhas in his defiant and rebellious path. Instead, he tried to play the role of the mediator. He prevailed upon Subhas to meet Gandhi and mend fences while he persuaded Gandhi to be more charitable towards Subhas. He succeeded with neither.

With the German attack on Poland in September 1939 marking the start of World War II, the focus now changed. Congress Ministries were asked to resign. In the discussions on the war situation which Viceroy Linlithgow had with the Congress, Subhas Bose was also invited to participate. Subhas did not sympathise with the fate of Britain, reiterating instead his earlier views about utilising the war situation to India’s advantage. Without anyone to share his views, Subhas now turned back to Bengal where he stole some of the limelight by beginning an agitation for the removal of the Holwell Monument in the summer of 1940. The monument, which had been built in mid-eighteenth-century Calcutta as a memorial to the victims of the so-called Black Hole tragedy, was an eyesore for both communities of Indians, Hindus and Muslims. Arrested along with others, Subhas was, however, not released even after the government decided to do away with the monument and his co-prisoners were set free.

Sensing that the British Government was planning to keep him in detention for the period of the war and realising that his political options within the country were limited, Subhas now hatched his sensational plan of escape, first from the British prison and then from the country. Commencing a fast unto death in protest against his unjust imprisonment, he frightened the jail authorities into letting him out in a few days as his indifferent health posed hazards. From under house arrest he wrote to Gandhi about the need for a mass movement. Gandhi replied that their paths had to be different for they were sailing in different boats. On January 16, 1941, Subhas escaped house arrest and subsequently left India, taking the British authorities and his countrymen by total surprise. He will never return and, despite the veracity of his aircrash, will never be allowed to die.

The author, an ex-Army officer, is a member of the National Commission for Minorities. The views expressed by him here are personal.

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