Ideological peers: New book says Nehru was more clear headed than Bose

  • Sankar Ray, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 07, 2015 12:47 IST

While Jawaharlal Nehru is one of the most unfortunately misunderstood political leaders of modern India, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is worshipped as an uncompromising patriot for heading the Indian National Army that set up the first short-lived 'provisional government of free India' in 1943.

The two were the Indian National Congress' young Turks in the late 1920s and fought together against the conservative top brass. The camaraderie did not last long but though the relationship was not smooth, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in his fairly well-researched Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives writes that it was 'poignant'.

The Bose quote from 1939 - 'Nobody has done more harm to me' - that the publisher has chosen to use on the cover flap may attract buyers but is misleading. In the same year, Bose, in a letter to Nehru, described him as 'politically an elder brother and leader'. A week before, a forlorn Nehru had written to his friend, eight years his junior: 'I am an unsatisfactory human being who is dissatisfied with himself and the world.' Mukherjee aptly describes Nehru as Bose's 'ideological peer'.

In seven chapters - Growing up, Baptism in Politics, Immersion in the Congress, Two Women and Two Books, Party Presidents, The End of the Friendship, and Friendship Regained - Mukherjee chronologically builds up a narrative on how the two most radical Congressmen became friends due to their Leftist stand while also shedding light on their fundamentally different ideas on organizational imperatives. Unlike another historian, I wouldn't brand them as 'two swashbuckling nationalists'. They were leftists inside the Indian National Congress.

Sticking to the canons of historiography, the author has boldly evaluated Nehru, whom numerous authors have tendentiously slandered. Nehru was ideologically more clear-headed than Bose, who wavered at times on political principles. Nehru too was sometimes week-kneed (mostly in his relationship with MK Gandhi) and often compromised, though never for political careerism. Also, unlike Bose, Nehru was never factional. Factional adherence even silenced Bose on financial aberrations. In the 1920s, his political mentor Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das, then Mayor of Calcutta, accepted a kickback of Rs 75,000 from M/s Kar and Company for the Swaraj Party in lieu of awarding a Rs12.75 lakh contract for the Palta Water Works extension scheme. Bose, as chief executive officer of the Corporation of Calcutta, kept mum.

The two principal radicals had basic differences on Gandhi. Bose frequently differentiated himself from Gandhi despite his great admiration for him. The two fought together against a resolution endorsing Dominion Status. Nehru told Gandhi that the idea 'suffocates and strangles me'. The resolution was penned by Motilal Nehru at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress, 1928. Bose wrote that DS 'does not make the slightest appeal to our countrymen'. His statement was endorsed by Nehru who said, Dominion Status was 'meant for those who originally belonged to Britain but established colonies elsewhere'.

Sadly, Gandhi prevailed over Nehru and persuaded him to a compromise resolution, the Delhi Manifesto. Jawaharlal signed with tearful eyes; Bose refused to sign. Though Gandhi praised Bose for embracing imprisonment in 1930 and said, 'Bengal's bravery and self-sacrifice can never wane', he also spotted him as his 'political opponent'. Yet, Gandhi was not averse to Bose's elevation to the post of INC president in 1937. In a letter to Sardar Patel he said, 'I have observed that Subhas is not at all dependable. But there is nobody but he who can be the President.'

Nehru had no faith in capitalism. Until Bose and Nehru had worked in India, the latter was against capitalism though he made no bones about his filial commitment to it. In 1921, in his autobiography, Nehru wrote, 'My politics had been those of my class, the bourgeoisie' to explain why he was 'ignorant of labour conditions in factories or fields'. Nehru's opposition to capitalism is brilliantly explained in Bipan Chandra's paper entitled Jawaharlal Nehru and the Captalist Class,1936, (cited in this book) that appeared in EPW in August 1975. Jawaharlal's 'ideological distance from Gandhi', Mukherjee writes, was due to his 'attraction to socialism and communism'. Alongside grew his 'intellectual conversion to the Marxist way of looking at history'.

Still, Bapu had an unflinching reliance on Jawaharlal. In an interview to Madras Mail in 1933 he said that Jawaharlal 'is a firm believer in socialism, but his ideas on how best the socialist principle can be applied to Indian conditions are still in the melting pot. His communist views need not, therefore, frighten anyone.' Gandhi proved to be prophetically precise. He pushed Nehru ultimately to a state of compromise. At Bardoli in 1941, Bapu said, 'Not Rajaji but Jawaharlal will be my successor…'
'When I am gone, he will speak my language,' he further stated on 15 January,1942. According to Mukherjee, Gandhi knew that, unlike Subhas, Jawaharlal would never disobey him. Nehru had been an unflinching opponent of Fascism but Bose was not. In his first address as the Mayor of Calcutta on 27 September, 1930, he suggested 'a synthesis of what Modern Europe calls Socialism and Fascism.'

'We have here the justice, equality, the love which is the basis of Socialism, and combined with that we have the efficiency and the discipline of Fascism as it stands in Europe today,' he said. Bose reiterated this even after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union (1941). In a lecture at Tokyo University in 1944, he enunciated his philosophy as 'a synthesis between National Socialism and Communism.' He was, all along, an admirer of Mussolini.

In a letter to his nephew Ashok Bose in 1934, he described Mussolini as his 'big boss'. Nehru was annoyed with him for his softness towards the Italian dictator: 'Subhas... writing a deal of nonsense… can only think in terms of being himself a Mussolini.'

This sleek 265-page treatise deserves critical appreciation.

Note: Sankar Ray is an analyst on Left politics and the environment. He lives in Kolkata.

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