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NETAJI VERSUS PANDITJI - What if Subhas Chandra Bose had returned after the war?

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  • Published 10.10.09

I have been reading Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, a magnificent novel by a magnificent novelist. This sets up an intriguing counter-factual: what if, in the American presidential election of 1940, the celebrated aviator, Charles Lindbergh, had stood against the incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? And what if he had won? Proceeding on the assumption that this is indeed what happened, the novelist sketches a portrait of what America would have looked like under a Lindbergh presidency. The story is told — as so often with Roth —from the perspective of a little Jewish boy growing up in the town of Newark, New Jersey. The novel moves deftly between the life of a single family and the life of the nation as a whole. Personal anxieties are juxtaposed with political transformations, as Lindbergh — in this imagined ‘history’ — makes a pact with Hitler, keeps America out of the war, and induces feelings of paranoia among the Jews of the eastern seaboard.

Roth’s plot encouraged me to think of comparable counter-factuals in the Indian case. I hope, in future columns, to try out a few hypothetical scenarios, to imagine what our country would have looked like if this or that individual had lived longer or made a different political choice. Let me begin here with a question which doubtless has often been asked by Indians, and not all of them Bengali. What if Subhas Chandra Bose had returned home sometime after the conclusion of the World War II?

It is believed that Bose died in an aircrash over the island of Formosa (as Taiwan was then known) on August 18, 1945. What if the plane had not crashed? Earlier in the same month, atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompting the Japanese to surrender to the Allies. Had Bose not taken that plane or had it safely landed, what would he have done? Surely, he would have come back to the country for whose freedom from British rule he had dedicated his life. Perhaps he would not have returned straightaway, choosing to seek temporary refuge in a non-Western country, such as Russia or China. But sooner or later, he would have wended his way back home.

By the late summer of 1945, the British were in no mood to prolong their stay in India. They were exhausted and drained by the war — besides, a Labour government committed to Indian independence had replaced the regime of the arch-imperialist, Winston Churchill. The viceroy, Lord Wavell, had brought the Congress and the Muslim League to the hill town of Simla to discuss the modalities and means of the transfer of power. The question that was now on the minds of the politically alert was — when precisely would the British quit the subcontinent, and when they did, would they leave behind a single nation, or two?

After the defeat of Japan, many members of the Indian National Army did return home. Ordinary soldiers were allowed to return to their villages, but some senior officers were accused by the raj of being deserters, since they had left the service of the British Indian army to join the enemy. The trial was conducted in the precincts of the Red Fort, and attracted much attention, not least because leading Congressmen, including Jawaharlal Nehru, had volunteered to defend them.

What if Bose himself had come back in 1945 or 1946? The British could not have charged him with desertion, since he never was part of their army. Would they have accused him then of ‘treason’? That, for instance, was the charge levelled against John Amery, who had fought on the Axis side despite being the son of a senior British politician. The younger Amery was hanged for betraying his country — could the same have happened to Bose? This is unlikely, for, as a colonial subject, Bose was emphatically not British. (At the same time, he wasn’t legally ‘Indian’ either, since India did not then exist as a nation.)

Had Bose returned to India at the conclusion of World War II he would have placed the British in a bind. The rulers had at first wished to make an example of the INA officers — to sentence them to long prison terms or even to deportation for life. But a massive public outcry forced a retreat. In the end, the officers and soldiers were released. However, the British persuaded Nehru and other nationalist leaders to disallow former INA men from joining (or rejoining) the regular Indian army.

Would the British have tried Bose? Unlikely, for Bose was a patriot who already commanded the admiration of millions of his compatriots. A trial would have merely increased his popular appeal. Perhaps he would have been allowed to quietly re-enter politics. Would he then have rejoined his old party, the Congress, or would he have sought instead to renew his newer party, the Forward Bloc? The decision would have depended as much on personal equations as on political calculations. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi would have effected a reconciliation, persuading Bose to work alongside Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel in dealing with the British and the Muslim League. On the other hand, Bose might have not have forgiven the slights and wounds of 1939, when he was forced to give up the presidency of the Congress and left with no alternative but to leave the party itself.

The return of Bose is unlikely, however, to have materially affected the transfer of power itself. The British would have still left India in 1947, and Partition would still have happened. Now comes perhaps the most intriguing question — what, in an independent India, would have been the politics and programme of Subhas Chandra Bose?

Even if, in our hypothetical scenario, Bose had returned to India and rejoined the Congress, it is unlikely that he could have remained long in that party after Independence. He was too proud and independent-minded to have conceded the top spot to Jawaharlal Nehru. What then might he have done? He could have started — or re-started —his own party, or he might have joined with other former Congressmen in nurturing a left-wing alternative to the ruling party. Such an alternative was in fact forged in the 1950s, when Acharya Kripalani, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Rammanohar Lohia came together to form a new party of socialists whose raison d’être was that they were more egalitarian than the Congress as well as more patriotic than the Soviet-inspired Communist Party of India.

In history, as it actually happened, the socialists could not make a dent in the Congress hegemony. In history, as it might have happened, a Bose-led Socialist Party would have mounted a serious challenge to Nehru and his colleagues. The legacy of the freedom struggle would still have carried the Congress to victory in the first general elections, and perhaps even the second. But after that the voter would have begun to look for alternatives. Now Subhas Chandra Bose had greater countrywide appeal than Kripalani, Lohia, et al. A party led by him might, by 1957, and definitely by 1962, have given the Congress a real run for its money. The fact that Bose was a full eight years younger than Nehru would have also worked to his advantage.

Whether Bose would have made a better prime minister than Nehru we do not know. What we can say is that had his plane not crashed in August 1945, the history of our country would possibly have been very different, and certainly more interesting.