Before the 2014 elections, supporters of the BJP used Vallabhbhai Patel as a stick to beat Jawaharlal Nehru with. More recently, they have added a new weapon, the legacy of Subhas Bose. This raises questions of ideological consistency as well as historical accuracy. Can one simultaneously affirm both Patel and Bose while denouncing Nehru?
Only if one ignores the evidence of history. For Vallabhbhai Patel’s relationship with Subhas Bose was shot through with tension. It rapidly deteriorated after the death of Vallabhbhai’s elder brother, Vithalbhai, in 1933. Bose had nursed Vithalbhai during his last illness. In his will, the elder Patel left three-fourths of his estate to Bose, to be used ‘preferably for publicity work on behalf of India’s cause in other countries’. Vallabhbhai now cast aspersions on the authenticity of the will. A long legal battle ensued, which ended in a triumph for Vallabhbhai, with Vithalbhai’s next of kin getting the money instead of Subhas.
Five years later, Vallabhbhai opposed Gandhi’s decision to propose Bose’s name for the presidency of the Congress. Gandhi over-ruled his objection, and Bose became president anyway. In 1939, when Bose sought a second term, Patel opposed him again. In a public statement, he warned Bose that even if he were elected, his policies would be vetted and if required vetoed by the working committee (peopled by Patel loyalists).
As Rajmohan Gandhi writes in his biography of Vallabhbhai, he ‘held a poor opinion of Subhas’s efficiency’; moreover, ‘his disagreements with Subhas were profound’. Patel wanted the Congress governments elected in 1937 to continue in office, whereas Bose wished ‘to pull out all the Congress Ministries and war with the Raj, a course that appeared unwarranted and unwise to Patel’. Rajmohan further notes that ‘another difference was over Gandhi, who was dispensable in Subhas’s eyes but absolutely necessary to the Sardar’.
When Bose canvassed leading Congressmen to support his re-election, Patel was appalled. ‘I never dreamt,’ he wrote to Rajendra Prasad, ‘that he [Subhas] will stoop to such dirty mean tactics for re-election’. Sugata Bose (in his book His Majesty’s Opponent) quotes Patel as saying that Subhas’s re-election would be ‘harmful to [the] country’s cause’. Bose, in return, accused Vallabhbhai of using ‘moral coercion’ to stop him from contesting once more.
As is well known, despite opposition from Patel and Gandhi, Bose won re-election, defeating Pattabhi Sitarammayya. This was deeply embarrassing for the Congress bosses. ‘It is impossible for us to work with Subhas,’ wrote Patel to Rajendra Prasad. The Gandhi-Patel camp worked to undermine Bose’s presidential powers, forcing him to resign from his post and later from the party itself.
Rajmohan Gandhi’s superbly researched account of this controversy makes clear the mutual antipathy between Patel and Bose. Thus Rajmohan remarks that ‘the bitterness of the Bose partisans seemed reserved for Patel, even though Gandhi’s line towards Subhas was at least as hard’. Bose’s brother Sarat charged Vallabhbhai with facilitating a ‘mean, malicious and vindictive’ propaganda war against Subhas.
Patel, for his part, was equally unforgiving. When Bose referred to him as ‘undemocratic’, he angrily retorted: ‘The lion becomes a king by birth, not by an election in the jungle.’ Rajmohan comments that ‘the ungracious remark was also, in the light of Subhas’s subsequent courage, inapt, but entirely understandable in the context of Congress’s internal struggle of 1939’.
Years later, in 1946, Patel made partial amends for these cruel remarks by assisting the personnel of the Indian National Army when they returned to their homeland. Rajmohan observes that ‘there was expediency in this role, for Subhas’s prestige was at its height, but also heart’. For Patel ‘did admire Subhas’s bravery’ in exile.
Beyond their political disagreements, Patel and Bose also had profound ideological differences. Bose was a great believer in socialist planning, whereas Patel was more sympathetic to private enterprise. Bose was also far more committed to Hindu-Muslim harmony than Patel. In his book The Indian Struggle (first published in 1935), he sharply criticised the Hindu Mahasabha. He repeatedly called them ‘reactionary’, the mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism, playing into the Raj’s hands by undermining the Hindu-Muslim unity sought to be fostered by Gandhi and by Bose himself.
Bose writes that ‘the Hindu Mahasabha, like its Moslem counterpart, consisted not only of erstwhile Nationalists, but also of a large number of men who were afraid of participating in a political movement and wanted a safer platform for themselves’. The charge was justified; for, unlike Bose, Nehru and Patel, each of whom spent many years in prison, the Hindutvawadis of the 1930s and 1940s chose not to challenge the British in any way. One of these collaborators was Dr SP Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh and an icon of the BJP.
Like their counterparts in the Left, Hindutva ideologues invariably place dogma over truth. Even so, their latest moves mark a new low. For on some matters, such as planning and secularism, Bose and Nehru were on the same page. On other matters, such as loyalty to Gandhi and the view that the Axis powers were more evil than the Allies, Nehru and Patel stood shoulder to shoulder. But, apart from a shared desire to see India become free, in political, personal or ideological terms Bose and Patel had virtually nothing in common.
If one believes that Muslims have to prove their loyalty to the Republic, one can, at a pinch, fire over Patel’s shoulder at Nehru. If one believes that the Japanese were less brutal colonists than the British, then one could invoke Bose against Nehru. But using Patel and Bose at the same time to attack Nehru is both politically opportunistic and (what may be worse) intellectually incoherent.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal