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Friday , November 14 , 2014
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Fallible men

- A restrained and even-handed chronicle

Nehru & Bose: Parallel lives By Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Viking, Rs 599

In this finely judged book, Rudrangshu Mukherjee sets out to chronicle the fraught political relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, friends and rivals in the Congress-led struggle against colonialism in the first half of the 20th century. "Chronicle" is apt, because Mukherjee tells his story sequentially. With a historian's respect for linear narrative, he walks us through their story as it unfolds. He establishes a time-line, blocks in the necessary context of Congress high politics, and allows his protagonists to speak for themselves through their letters and memoirs. Some of the best moments in the book are the occasions when the author intervenes (like a discreet editor) to point up the difference between the version of events his protagonists chose to remember and the historical record that he has scrupulously established.

This is a self-denying way of telling a story because it rations authorial commentary for the sake of narrative momentum. But in letting his story speak for itself, Mukherjee does his subject a service. The movie begins at once, and though you vaguely know the story, you're constantly surprised by the details of these juxtaposed lives. It hadn't occurred to me that both Bose and Nehru headed municipalities - Calcutta and Allahabad - at around the same time. Nor that they had both written their books during Raj-enforced intermissions in their hectic political lives: Nehru in prison and Bose in European exile. Or that bereavement brought them together. In December 1934, Nehru in prison recorded the death of Bose's father and angrily noted that "the man couldn't be free while he was in mourning". Less than a year later, an exiled Bose escorted a terminally-ill Kamala to Prague and, a few months after that, he travelled to Lausanne to be with Nehru when Kamala died. It's a moment of almost cinematic poignance: two lions in a Swiss winter, brought together by exile, death and friendship. With the restraint that characterizes the whole book, Mukherjee lets the scene do the talking.

No man, however, is a hero to his valet. The unobtrusive author has something in common with the great Jeeves. It's almost as if Jeeves had decided to write the definitive account of Bertram Wooster's relationship with Gussie Finknottle by consulting the club book at the Junior Ganymede. There are passages in the book that stage without comment, Nehru's developed sense of entitlement. For all his self-deprecation and his often-aired anxieties, Nehru was unself-conscious about using his standing as Motilal's son and Gandhi heir to glide from one privileged position in the Congress to another.

Nehru was elevated to the presidency of the Congress in 1929 despite getting fewer votes than Gandhi and Patel. Motilal had been pushing for the Congress presidency for his son for a couple of years by then. Gandhi withdrew his name from the race and nominated Jawaharlal... and it was done. Jawaharlal was mortified, of course, to be seen as Gandhi's creature, but not so mortified as to turn the presidency down. And after one turn at the job, he asked for another year and got it. The contrast with Bose is instructive. Bose won the presidency of the Congress despite the fact that Gandhi had reservations about his temperament, and when he sought and won another term in the face of the Congress right-wing's resolute opposition, Gandhi nobbled the Congress Working Committee and forced Bose into resigning.

Mukherjee is an even-handed chronicler. He records Bose's early infatuation with military discipline, army uniforms and drilling. He is particularly good at reconstructing the way in which Nehru and Bose were introduced to the masses whom they routinely invoked as representatives of the Congress Left. Bose tried to mediate in a workers' strike in Jamshedpur in 1928. The agreement he negotiated was rejected by one section of the workers as a sell-out. Bose was booed when he tried to address the workers and had to make his speech to them under police protection. "It will not be unfair to conclude," notes Mukherjee, deadpan, "that his efforts in Jamshedpur were not marked by any great success."

There were times when the rivalry between the two men, descended into the purest farce. Bose and Nehru, exasperated by the All Parties Conference's timorous decision to compromise on the goal of complete independence, decided to float a ginger group called the Independence for India League. But political radicals in Bengal who resented upcountry domination, prevailed upon Bose to found a rival league, called, wait for it... the India for Independence League!

But this is not a debunking book. Mukherjee puts the pettiness and narcissism in context. The book reminds us that Nehru and Bose served their first terms in prison as early as 1921 as young men. They would go on to log many years in jail through their political careers. Bose nearly starved himself to death in a Burmese jail to press for better prison conditions. He was beaten senseless during another prison term. Nehru endured imprisonment through much of his wife's terminal illness. As a satyagrahi, he suffered his share of lathi blows. Bose spent years in precarious exile, cut off from his country and his family because of his nationalist convictions. These were fallible men, but they paid their dues.

Mukherjee reserves his greatest effort at empathy for Bose's links with the Axis powers during World War II. Brought up in a Nehruvian household, he says in his preface that writing the book was also a way of coming to terms with Bose's cooperation with fascist states. Was this just a function of tunnel vision: a single-minded focus on the liberation of India and therefore a realpolitik willingness to take the aid of any State willing to help him achieve his life's goal? Or were his links with the fascist powers connected to an ideological admiration for their authoritarian efficiency?

The author records Bose's curious keenness on creating a new ideological regime that was a meld of communism and fascism, his admiration for the organization and efficiency that had gone into the Nazi conquest of Europe, and his silence on anti-Semitism despite living in Austria and Berlin at a time when the campaign against Jews had taken a concertedly vicious turn. He notices Bose's admiration for Mussolini in his avatar as a generalissimo. But he also records Bose's self-conscious pluralism as the leader of the Indian National Army, his freedom from any sectarian or communal prejudice in the context of Indian politics, and Nehru's unwavering belief in Bose's essential generosity of spirit, however daft he thought his political positions sometimes were, and seems to come to the conclusion that Bose's unwavering commitment to the national cause left no room in his mind for the cause of liberal internationalism.

At the end of this excellent book, I was left with one objection. Surely, it should have been called Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives ( with Gandhi in the Middle). Gandhi haunts the book. He is everywhere; when Bose and Nehru challenge the old guard over complete independence, when Bose is manoeuvred out of the presidency of the Congress, when Nehru rails at the Right... and recants, when Nehru and Bose begin to sound dangerously communist to nervous businessmen, it's Gandhi who consoles, persuades, cajoles, pulls strings and, when the need arises, is implacable. It's a tribute to the two named protagonists of this book, that they grew out of his shadow to become great public men.

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