His Majesty’s Opponent
Rs699 pp 388
Subhas Chandra Bose's greatest tragedy was not the unfulfilled potential of his conventional political career. It was not even his death, 17 months before he turned 50. The greatest disservice contemporary India does to the man it reveres as 'Netaji' is to remember him in the context of a conspiracy theory and a mystery born of nothing but wilful denial.
Bose has been doubly unlucky. The mythology around Nehru has meant the establishment has always been less than comfortable with him. Others have attempted to locate Bose as the Great Other, the Anti-Nehru, the Redeemer who was never allowed to play his part. In this fine, nuanced book, Sugata Bose quotes Gopal Gandhi when he writes, "Netaji serves in a sense as 'an alter-ego to the nation's power structure'."
Yet Bose is more than merely a 'what if?'". In many respects, Nehru and he were the Congress leaders most conscious of international currents. In other respects, as Sugata points out, Bose was closer to Gandhi in that he did not share Nehru's antiseptic disdain for religiosity and was conscious of placing the nation-building project in that context.
His Majesty's Opponent is a template biography. It is arrestingly written, provides personal details the author is obviously privy to — being the son of Netaji's favourite nephew, Sisir. It is sympathetic but dispassionate and evokes in the reader just the right mix of emotion and regret that Bose's brilliant but truncated life deserves.
Bose's domestic politics, his differences with the Mahatma, his apprenticeship under CR Das, the factionalism in the Bengal Congress are well known. Less acknowledged are the details of Bose's travels abroad, his understanding of the Irish liberation movement and his conversations with Éamon de Valera. "When to fight and when to negotiate," Sugata writes, "was something that Bose was constantly trying to learn from the example, both positive and negative, of Irish history."
What was Bose's political philosophy? The Raj saw him as a betrayer, the apostate who walked out of the Indian Civil Service and joined hands with Hitler. The Americans painted him as an accomplice of Japan's mission to dominate Asia. In India, there is a belief he had a dictatorial streak. One of his most repeated quotes seems to call for a synthesis of fascism and communism. Sugata explores such criticism, and sees it as an insufficient reading of Bose.
He offers tantalising glimpses of Bose's discomfort with the (coming) excesses of Hitler and his cryptic warning to Kitty Kurti, a Jewish friend in Berlin, to escape to not Prague but America. The warning saved Kurti's life, and she later recalled Bose's "deep contempt for the Nazis". Bose's personal relationships are handled with remarkable sensitivity. His love for Emilie Schenkl, his loyalty to Das, his proximity and yet distance from Nehru, and his complex equation with Gandhi: the biographer doesn't put a foot wrong.
The final chapter ('A life immortal') is particularly moving. Sugata writes on the Indian National Army, which achieved a Hindu-Muslim compact unheard of in India since the early 1920s or even 1857. "As the partitioner's axe was about to fall," Sugata speculates, "the Mahatma may have missed the rebellious son whom he had cast aside in 1939 in favour of more obedient followers ... The saint and the warrior acting in concert may have had a better chance of averting the catastrophe that engulfed the subcontinent in 1947. But this was not to be."
Could they have? Could Bheesma and Karna have set aside their misgivings, optimised their mutual admiration and prevented Kurukshetra? The likely answer is 'No'. Yet India will forever wonder. And forever think of Subhas with that teardrop in her eye.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.