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What would have happened if, on August 17, 1945, Subhas Chandra Bose had taken a ship from Thailand to Bengal rather than a Japanese plane to Taipei? MJ Akbar conceives an alternative destiny for one of India’s most compelling political figures

Politics has been trapped so firmly between personality and party that we tend to overlook the role of geography in shaping the electoral destiny of a nation. Political commentary, sometimes animated by literature rather than history, enjoys binary tensions. So much attention has been consumed by the debate about two men identified by 1930 as the potential leaders of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, that we have ignored the truly radical consequences of a meteoric Bose trajectory across the Indian horizon. Both had their merits, but there was one striking difference: Nehru became luminous in the glow of Gandhi; Bose shone in his own radiance.

It may be useful to register a second point. Charisma comes with a manufacturing defect. It is temporary. Geography can become vulnerable to seismic tumult, but it is generally more stable. What would have happened if Subhas Bose had, on August 17, 1945, taken a ship from Thailand to the nearby coastline of Bengal rather than a Japanese plane to Taipei, en route to Russia in the belief that the Soviet Union was now the only power in post-war Europe capable of confronting the British Empire, as he had said in a speech on May 25, 1945? It is true that the British were determined to put Bose on trial if they arrested him, as Sir Evan Jenkins, private secretary to Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, wrote to Sir Francis Mudie, the home member on the Viceroy’s council, on July 28, 1945. They were livid, in particular, at the fact that Bose had broken the unity and discipline of the British Indian Army by raising the Indian National Army (INA).

But there was a wide gap between British desire and British capability. Bose’s influence had spread far beyond the INA into the regular Army, and no one could predict when the passion for independence would touch tipping point in the armed forces and police. On June 15, 1945, Wavell sent London a ‘Note by Military Intelligence (Extract)’ which was based on the interrogation of an unnamed officer who had commanded a ‘guerrilla’ regiment against the British. Officers and men of the INA, he said, were sincere in their war for India’s independence; no compulsion was used. They were ready to suffer every hardship, as they did in the Manipur campaign. They were convinced that they lost only because of lack of equipment; and when they returned to India there would be a rapid permeation of nationalism throughout the Indian Army.

General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the Army, admitted, in a top secret and personal note sent on November 24, 1945, that a death sentence against any INA officer or solider following a court martial would lead to greater unrest than in 1921 and 1942, and recommended that the charge of waging war against the King Emperor be dropped in favour of leniency; a ‘considerable’ number of Indian troops were calling the INA patriots, not traitors. When, on January 3, 1946, Captain PK Sahgal, Captain Shah Nawaz Khan and Lieutenant GS Dhillon were sentenced to death, Auchinleck reduced it to merely ‘cashiering’ and ‘forfeiture of pay and allowances’, with Wavell’s concurrence.

Subhas Chandra Bose (c) with Mahatma Gandhi (l) and Sardar Patel at the 51st session of the Indian National Congress at Haripura, Gujarat, Feb. 1938

If such were the passions that a trial of INA officers could arouse, we can barely imagine the fire that would have swept across India if Bose had been put on trial. Moreover, what could he have been accused of? He did not belong to the Indian Army, so how could he be court-martialled? Which police force could write a charge-sheet in 1945 against nationalism?

Bhulabhai Desai, the best advocate of his time, cited ‘modern international law’, which recognised the ‘right of subject races’ to fight for liberation, during his defence of INA officers. In a brilliant legal riposte, Desai asked whether Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces were legal when they declared war against the German occupation of France. If the Free French was legal, so was INA.

In fact, putting Bose on trial would only endear him in every home in every village across the subcontinent, giving his party, the All India Forward Bloc, an instant nationwide platform. On November 20, 1945, the director of the Intelligence Bureau told the British government that there ‘has seldom been a matter which has attracted so much Indian public interest and, it is safe to say, sympathy…If there is punishment [of INA officers] the result attending it will be racial [meaning Indian]bitterness which will last down through the ages…sympathy for the INA is not the monopoly of those who are ordinarily against Government. It is equally clear that this particular brand of sympathy cuts across communal barriers’. He added: ‘…the threat to the security of the Indian Army is one which it would be unwise to ignore.’

No one could predict when the passion for independence would touch tipping point in the armed forces and police


This was the deep and pervasive popularity of Bose which Congress leaders feared.

I am not going to suggest that Bose could have won the first General Election in 1952. Gandhi’s influence, the emotional impact of his martyrdom, and the sheer strength of the Congress organisation created by Gandhi, particularly in the Hindi heartland, would in all likelihood have prevailed with the electorate. But the Forward Bloc would have been a formidable presence in the first free Parliament, and by 1957 Subhas Bose would have been in a position to stake his claim for the leadership of India.

With Bengal as his base, and the east as its main artery, Bose could have fashioned a Coastal Coalition as the foundation of a national majority; moreover, he would have cracked apart the Inland Consolidation of Congress with serious inroads into Bihar, the Northeast, Rajasthan, minority pockets and urban India, through his ideology and popularity.

In addition to charisma, Bose had courage and imagination. He was never overawed, not even by Gandhi. He had the ability to think through a strategy before he took his first step. Nothing could be better evidence of meticulous planning and tough bravery than his journey into the unknown which began on January 17, 1941 when, dressed in a Pathan’s wear and a fez, he left his home in Calcutta and headed for Kabul by car, train, mule and foot; and from there, in the disguise of an Italian pseudo-named Orlando Mazzotta, he went on to Moscow and Berlin. Such a mind, with a grip on reality and driven by vision, was certain to deliver exceptional dividends in electoral politics.

Bose (l) with Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1935

Coastal India speaks Bengali, Odiya, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Konkani, Marathi and Gujarati. Bose’s command over Bengali affections needs no reiteration. He would have won every seat in Bengal in 1952. What is forgotten is that he was born in Cuttack and had family affinity to Odisha.

A complementary factor would have helped politically: Odisha was packed with princely states. Gandhi never extended his mass movement to the princely states, on the sound logic that they were ruled by Indians, and when the British left their acolytes would perforce join the Union of India or be driven out by the people. Ergo, Congress did not have a very strong organisation in these states, and only did well electorally as long as an alternative party did not emerge. This was apparent when the people’s faith in Congress began to decline after 1962; by 1967 opposition parties had made important gains in princely domain. Bose would have capitalised on this Congress weakness through his own organisational reach.

Tamil Nadu, either directly, or more likely through its regional party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), would have responded to a leader from a non-Hindi state with alacrity. The shift away from Congress became vocal by 1957, when DMK won 15 Assembly seats. In the 1962 Assembly elections, DMK’s tally jumped to 50. Fear of ‘Hindi imposition’ still affects voters in Tamil Nadu, although it has calmed down considerably.

In Telangana, Bose’s strong anti-poverty policies could have helped his party fill the vacuum left by the waning communist movement and the thin Congress base in the old Nizamate. Kerala’s Socialists might have proved more enduring in their strongholds, but Bose would in all likelihood have enticed them into an anti-Congress coalition. In 1967 the Forward Bloc was part of the anti-Congress alliance in Bengal; in 1957 Bose would have been the natural leader of any such group.

For reasons mentioned earlier, Congress would have been vulnerable in the Mysore state area of Karnataka. While Bose might have faltered in Maharashtra, Congress would never have enjoyed the kind of electoral sweep that it commanded till 1977. In Gujarat, Bose’s personal magnetism and an alliance with local leadership could have been productive. Congress won only 16 seats in Gujarat state in the 1962 parliamentary elections; Swatantra Party got four, and smaller parties one each. Gujarat was a state waiting for an anti-Congress leader.

The Bose factor would have worked in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the Northeast, where alienation against Congress began much earlier than in the rest of the country, even if this was not immediately translated into votes. The reason is uncomplicated. In the 1950s and 1960s, Congress took Tribal communities both in the hills and plains for granted, on the arrogant assumption that they had no independent political mobilisation, nor the ability to do so. All that Congress governments had to do was keep their authority-compliant leaders happy through comparatively minor levels of corruption.

Bihar is the one state in the Hindi heartland which would have welcomed Bose. The east and northeast of Bihar have cultural overlap with Bengal; but more than that, Bihar has a strong socialist streak, nourished by idealists like Jayaprakash Narayan. The firmly anti-Congress socialist ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia always had more followers in Bihar than anywhere else. In 1939, when Bose challenged Gandhi and went on to become an elected president of Congress for the Tripuri session, he got surprising support from Bihar’s delegates.

One can visualise the core theme of a Bose campaign in 1957: poverty. Jawaharlal Nehru had been in power for a decade, and yet the needle had barely shifted on the poverty index. India was not only as poor as the British had left it, but seemed lost on the froth of economic theories which dwelt on promise rather than delivery.

The extent of economic despair was soon to find expression in the rise of both social and political violence, culminating in the Naxalite movement of the mid-1960s. It is not surprising that the original triumvirate of Naxal leaders included Jangal Santhal, the Tribal leader, and it was marginalised Tribal communities who sustained this uprising long after its urban or semi-urban supporters had abandoned the cause. A Bose election campaign would have resonated across caste, communal and ethnic lines, because of its concentration on the economic divide. The twin poles of the Bose manifesto would have been social harmony and economic equity.

Power is a strong adhesive

Which brings us to one of the key factors for Congress success between 1952 and 1971, and the party’s partial revival in the first decade of this century. Suffice it to say that Congress has won a simple majority in Lok Sabha only when it has got overwhelming Muslim support. In 1952, Congress got 364 seats and 45 per cent of the vote; in 1957, 371 MPs with 47.8 per cent. If you minus the Muslim vote, the percentage falls to the mid-30s, with seats tumbling in its wake. Look at the results of the 1967 General Election, when Muslims turned away from Congress in large numbers.

In 1920 and 1921 Muslims accepted Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the non-cooperation, or, in their terminology, Khilafat, movement with rare fervour. Their first doubts about Congress arose when Gandhi abruptly suspended non-cooperation after the attack on a police station at Chauri Chaura in February 1922, a time when the British government had begun to display serious signs of disarray and potential retreat. While admiration for Gandhi the saint never weakened, trust in Congress the political party never strengthened. In 1937 Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to win their affections through a ‘mass contact’ programme. He failed comprehensively. Muslims did not take Nehru seriously. The pre-eminent Congress Muslim patriarch, Maulana Azad, blames Nehru bitterly for sabotaging a coalition government with a then toothless Muslim League after the 1937 elections; he describes it as the mistake which led to the Partition crisis. No Muslim voter was with Congress in 1946.

From the first General Election of independent India, Congress had one message for Indian Muslims: you have nowhere else to go. This is not something anyone prefers to hear in a democracy. If there is no choice, there is no democracy. With Subhas Chandra Bose offering a legitimate and attractive alternative, Muslim support for Congress would have crashed in 1957rather than 1967. Bengal’s Muslims would have voted for Bose in 1952, along with the rest of Bengalis; in another five years, Bihar would have followed, along with minorities on the Gangetic plains and in the Coastal Coalition. Congress might still have remained the largest single party in Lok Sabha, but Bose would have been prime minister of the first United Front at the national level.

In 1957 Nehru was a tiring 68-year-old, while Bose would still have been a youthful 60. In fact, after the 1957 elections an exhausted Nehru gave serious thought to resigning from office. If he had followed through on this instinct, his memory would have been untarnished by the military defeat of 1962 against China, the famished conditions of the people and the economic gloom of the 1960s. But power is a strong adhesive.

With Bose as prime minister, we can be certain that India’s defence capability would not have been compromised by a woolly conviction in multilateralism soaked in nonalignment. Mao Zedong would have thought twice before ordering a military offensive against the man who had raised an army out of prisoners-of-war and led troops on some of the toughest battlefields of a deadly conflict. We cannot be equally certain about how effective Bose’s economic policies might have been, but Bose was a stronger believer in strategic logic in the pursuit of objectives. He used doctrine; he was notenslaved by it.

If Bose had turned towards home in 1945, rather than seeking to continue his liberation struggle from a European vantage point, we would have seen the emergence of a conscious youth vote in 1957. By 1945, Bose had become the unrivalled hero of the young. It was they who made Bose’s war cry, Inquilab Zindabad!, the battle cry that echoed through cities and towns.

Gandhi recognised the Bose phenomenon much earlier than his disciples, and acknowledged it even though Bose had opposed his philosophy and was living in Germany. In June 1942 Gandhi told the American journalist Louis Fischer in a recorded interview: “I regard Bose as a patriot of patriots. He may be misguided. I think he is misguided. I have often opposed Bose. Twice I kept him from becoming President of Congress. Finally, he did become President, although my views often differed from his.”

Four years later, on February 15th, 1946, Gandhi was mesmerised: “The hypnotism of the Indian National Army has cast its spell upon us. Netaji’s name is one to conjure. His patriotism is second to none…His bravery shines through all his actions. He aimed high but failed [during the war]. Who has not failed?…My praise and admiration can go no further… The lesson that Netaji and his army brings to us is one of self-sacrifice, unity irrespective of class and community, and discipline. If our adoration will be wise and discriminating, we will rigidly copy this trinity of virtues, but we will as rigidly abjure violence.”

Subhas Chandra Bose was an advocate of war against an imperial power, and a fountainhead of peace between Indians. Mahatma Gandhi realised this. If Gandhi had been alive, he might have voted for Congress in 1952 and Subhas Chandra Bose in 1957.

MJ Akbar is an Indian MP and the author of, most recently, Gandhi’s Hinduism: The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam

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