Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Subhas Chandra Bose: The leading nationalist

His nationalist credentials largely explain Bose's continued popularity

In the pantheon of nationalist freedom fighters, the name of Subhas Chandra Bose is among the most fondly remembered. The layer of intrigue to the circumstances of his death has added to his immortality. Two of the most authoritative biographers—Leonard Gordon and Sugata Bose—have concluded, on the basis of available evidence, that Subhas Chandra Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan in mid-August 1945. However, it is only fair to register that several alternative theories exist, including some attributing a long life to Bose after 1945.

The fog over his death has become so dense that for a long time the Indian government refused to take Bose’s ashes from the Renkoji temple in Japan because the mere act would have implied acceptance of his death in the plane crash. In such a scenario, his birth anniversary is a much safer bet to remember Bose’s contributions to Indian nationalist thought. This week (23 January) marked his 120th birth anniversary, and also the completion of one year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi started the process of declassifying files pertaining to Bose. The revelations so far have been unflattering to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nehru government, it has been found, spied on Bose’s family for long after the latter’s “death", further fuelling the narrative that Bose didn’t die in the crash.

In his excellent book Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives, Rudrangshu Mukherjee explores the deep and complex relationship between the two towering personalities of the Indian freedom movement. Nehru was, Mukherjee reminds us, a close ideological comrade of Bose in the Indian National Congress. The leftward radicalism of Nehru and Bose was counterbalanced in the Congress by the rightwing guard of Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari and Vallabhbhai Patel. M.K. Gandhi was the tallest leader for both groups.

The difference between Nehru and Bose was the latter’s alacrity in departing from Gandhian ideals of non-violence to pursue the cause of Indian independence. Bose, as opposed to Nehru and Gandhi, was also ready to take the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to dismantle the British empire in India. Gandhi’s machinations in instigating Bose’s resignation from the Congress presidency after Bose had legitimately won a second term in 1939 only hastened Bose’s departure to Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

Bose’s views on the economy were almost identical to those of Nehru. It was under Bose’s Congress presidency that a national planning committee—the predecessor to the post-independence Planning Commission—was formed and Nehru took over as its first chairman. An economic modernist, Bose believed in rapid industrialization, with a special emphasis on heavy industries. Bose was all for scientific advancement of agricultural practices but he saw a large-scale industrial revolution as the only solution to the problems of poverty and unemployment. Impressed with the Soviet model of a planned economy, Bose said: “We can at best determine whether this revolution, that is industrialization, will be a comparatively gradual one, as in Great Britain, or a forced march as in Soviet Russia. I am afraid that it has to be a forced march in this country."

The national reconstruction of India, in Bose’s vision, would be carried out with the primary role marked for the public sector and a planning commission at the helm. The capital for the socialist state, Bose argued, “will have to be procured… through internal or external loans or through inflation". Rajagopalachari, Bose’s ideological adversary, would have argued that there is no difference between deficit financing and inflation, as the former leads to the latter.

As far as political governance is concerned, Bose envisaged a strong central government but with a “large measure of autonomy" allowed to the minority communities and the provinces. As a great proponent of national unity, Bose argued for Hindustani in Roman script as a lingua franca for India. To further the cause of unification, Bose was in favour of a role for the Congress party in India on the lines of “the Communist Party in Russia, the Nazi Party in Germany, the Fascist Party in Italy and Kemal’s Party in Turkey".

Once he had left India to seek the help of Axis powers, Bose’s commitment to democracy seemed to have waned. In a speech delivered at Tokyo University in November 1944, Bose said, “… modern progressive thought in India is in favour of a State of an authoritarian character, which will work as an organ, or as the servant of the masses, and not a clique or of a few rich individuals."

The Indian National Army (INA) he formed with captured British-Indian soldiers fought alongside the Japanese army against the Allies. The INA’s military forays proved to be disastrous but not futile. The subsequent trials of INA prisoners of war triggered a mutiny in the British Indian armed forces. The writing, then, was on the wall for the British Raj.

Bose never came back, at least never—even if one were to believe in some of the conspiracy theories—in public life to claim his due in post-independence Indian politics. The Congress party dumped him altogether. His socialist views notwithstanding, Bose’s nationalist credentials allow Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to make a bold bid to appropriate him. And his nationalism also largely explains Bose’s continued popularity.

Could Subhas Chandra Bose have challenged Jawaharlal Nehru’s dominance in post-independence Indian politics? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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