On 29 January 1939, as Subhas Chandra Bose sipped tea at a party in Calcutta celebrating the wedding of his eldest nephew, his mind was elsewhere. As the Bose family engaged in festivities, votes were being counted across the country for the election of Congress Party’s Presidency. For Bose, it was a make or break moment. He had positioned himself as a challenger to the party establishment and gone against some very powerful people. The electoral contest had been bitter, with dirty tricks and harsh invectives being hurled by both sides. By the day of the election, it had become a nail-biter. As early trends poured in, Bose allowed himself to relax. Province after province began to turn his way – Bengal, United Provinces, Assam and a sweep of the South. To those who called in to congratulate, he happily declared, “we are winning”.
Two thousand kilometers away, on the other coast of India, Mahatma Gandhi was meeting with peasants of Bardoli, Gujarat, as election results trickled in. This frail-looking man dressed only in loin cloth was the most powerful politician in India. For the last two decades, he had single-handedly picked men to run the Congress Party. Although his modesty would have never allowed him to admit it, often a mere nod from Gandhi had been enough for leaders to become Party Presidents unopposed. Now, however, it seemed that the unchallenged hegemony of Bapu was coming to an end. His name did not appear on the ballot, but everyone had known that this election was between Bose and him. And the people wanted Bose. By the end of the day, Bose had won the election with 1,580 votes against his opponent’s 1,375. There are no records of this, but one can easily imagine Gandhi going about his daily chores after hearing the news, not showing any signs of distress. Yet it is likely that he knew that this battle was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning.
While the Congress Party had existed since 1880s, the broad-based nationalist movement that it embodied in 1930s had been a creation of Gandhi alone. Ever since taking its helm in the late 1910s, he had built and led Congress through his charisma, mystical spirituality and sometime-autocratic temperament. During this period, the party had witnessed emergence of the next generation of leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad, who sometimes disagreed with his direction. But his stature in the country and his personal father-like relationships with them ensured that the younger leaders did not cross some particular lines. It was one thing to spar with Bapu over ideological issues in personal letters, it was quite another to publicly challenge his express wishes to try to take over the party that he had created.
Until now, Bose’s political career had been meteoric. Emerging in 1920s, Bose had quickly become the most prominent Bengali leader in the country and earned a reputation for being more radical than other mainstream Congress leaders. As a result, he spent most of early 1930s in prison and exile, returning to India only in 1937. Gandhi, always on the lookout for new talent and eager to promote young blood, immediately recommended Bose to be the Congress President in 1938. While there was some grumbling from leaders like Patel who saw Bose as too extremist, as usual Gandhi got his way. In January 1938, Bose assumed the presidency under much fanfare.
Pretty soon, he was at loggerheads with the party’s old guard. The fundamental question of contention was something that had dogged the party for years – how aggressively should it be pushing the British Government to grant India freedom. For the past two decades, Gandhi had been performing a balancing act of national agitation. His Nationalist Movement had been consistently pressurizing the British to grant more autonomy to India while at the same time making sure that the movement does not go out of control and turn violent or invite heavy-handed government oppression. It was a high-wire act of incredible political instincts. Invariably, it had invited criticisms from both sides – from conservatives who thought Gandhi was going too far and from radicals who thought he was not going far enough. Even Nehru had threatened to split Congress in mid-1920s over this question. However, so far, Gandhi’s capacity to compromise and persuade had kept the party unity intact.
Bose proved harder to persuade. Soon after becoming the President, he let it be known that he was spoiling for a fight with the British and would welcome a movement of mass agitation. Gandhi, on the other hand, thought that Congress was not yet ready for a major campaign. There was too much potential for violence in the country and in such a political climate a mass movement may end up proving counter-productive. As Gandhi put it, he could “smell violence in the air”. He told Bose that he was “an old man, perhaps growing timid and over-cautious”, while Bose had the “reckless optimism born of youth”. The two positions could not be easily reconciled.
Congress had another, less philosophical, reason to avoid a showdown with the British. In 1937, India had organized its first provincial elections resulting in a landslide victory for Congress which had ended up forming the government in most of the provinces. It was the party’s first taste of real power. A mass movement at this point would have meant giving that up. For party boss Vallabhbhai Patel, who had orchestrated this victory, such a move would have been a step backward.
The other point of contention between the Gandhian camp and Bose was economic ideology. Bapu himself was an avid adherent of a village-based, pre-industrial utopian Indian economy that ran unfettered by undue government interference, as he had envisioned in his famous tract Hind Swaraj. This vision gelled well with free-market capitalist class. Over the years, most of India’s big industrialists had come to support the Congress Party and reinforce its Right Wing led by Patel. By late 1930s, Congress’s Right had become an ambiguous amalgam of cotton-spinners and industrialists.
On the other side were leaders who embraced the idea of socialism. These included die-hard Left wingers like Jayaprakash Narayan, who had formed his own Congress Socialist Party. Many socialists had been taking potshots at Congress’s Right Wing for years, to the extent that Patel sometimes used the terms “socialists” and “anti-Gandhian elements” interchangeably. Some of the party’s more prominent leaders, particularly Nehru, flirted with the socialist ideology without directly going against the Right.
However, with Bose’s ascension, it seemed that the party was ready to tilt towards Left. Eager to prop up his own socialist credentials, the new President established a National Planning Committee within the party. Its task was to develop a plan for the Indian economy after decolonization (eventually this idea would become the Planning Commission in independent India). In an effort to gain allies and placate the Right, Bose nominated Nehru as the chairman of the committee and included industrialists and scientists in its membership. Nevertheless, the idea of government-controlled planned economy was more than what the Right Wing could swallow.
And so the battle lines were drawn. By the time Bose’s presidency wound down in 1938, it was apparent that the party establishment was not keen on him running again. By the end of the year, Gandhi also made it clear that his endorsement for Bose would not be forthcoming. Yet the Bengali radical believed that his hour had come. It was time to drag Congress out of the Mahatma’s shadow. And so it was that he decided to do something unthinkable – go against Congress’s patriarch’s express wishes. Bose ran for the presidency again in January 1939.
Patel, the insider of the party and fierce Gandhi loyalist, had never liked Bose. During his last presidency, he had called Bose “a President who does not know his own job”. With Bose’s announcement to go against the Mahatma, it was Patel who now decided to fight it out with the young firebrand. However, the old guard’s efforts ran into trouble from the get go. To begin with, the blue-eyed political powerhouse of the party, Nehru, decided to sit the fight out, refusing to take sides. Then, the candidate that the Right wanted to run against Bose – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – balked and refused to contest the election. In the end, Gandhi camp had to back an unknown leader, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, who was of little political consequence on the national stage.
The election became unprecedented for its acidic tone and acrimonious atmosphere. While Gandhi was simply too big a political entity to be attacked directly, Bose camp could and did fire at Patel and the Right Wing, accusing them of willing to cut a deal with the British to give away the Princely States in a scheme to federalize India. Gandhi camp fired back, calling Bose’s re-election “harmful to country’s cause”. The British Government also jumped into the fray. Its intelligence officials shared with Gandhi and other leaders the details of a meeting between Bose and German officials which suggested that he might be willing to work with the Nazis against the British Empire. For Bose, the Right Wing seemed to be the “anti-democratic” party establishment guilty of “moral coercion”, while for the Gandhian camp, Bose’s men were “the wild guys”.
Bose’s victory in January was a result of the twin facts that there was considerable enthusiasm for his radical agenda and that no one had heard of Sitaramayya before the election. With his victory secured, the “rebel” President seemed poised to change the direction of the party. However, he was still pitted against the tag team of Gandhi, India’s most brilliant political strategist, and Patel, the smartest political tactician in the country. The first salvo came soon after the election, when Gandhi declared that “the defeat was more mine than his [Sitaramayya’s]”. In doing so, Bapu seemed to be personally jumping in the ring against the new President. As one ally of Bose accurately guessed, this statement was “a declaration of war”.
Next, the Congress Working Committee resigned en masse under Patel’s leadership, leaving behind only one member – Bose’s brother. Nehru, still reluctant to get involved, resigned separately from the rest of the committee. The recalcitrant President still tried to push for his agenda of calling for a mass agitation at the party’s annual session at Tripuri. However, the message was soon lost as the session turned into an open power struggle between Gandhians and Bose. Gandhi had absented himself from the conference, but his followers were there in full force. In a calculated blow, they passed a resolution calling for reconstitution of the Working Committee but with a caveat – the nomination of the new members must be “in accordance with the wishes of Gandhiji”. The message was clear – Bose may be the President but he would still have to abide by Gandhi’s direction.
Bose was willing to concede, offered to work with Gandhi to draw up a list of new committee members. But the Mahatma, in his characteristic passive-aggressive manner, refused to suggest any names, saying that doing so would be an “imposition” on Bose. Two months of back and forth followed between the two, sometimes mediated by Nehru, but Gandhi would not budge. Bose was left in an impossible position since he could neither ignore Bapu, nor get him to cooperate. Finally, recognizing that he had been outfought, he resigned in April. Gandhi and, through him, the Right Wing had won and retained the control of the party, at least for the time being.
No one came out of this affair clean. The Right Wing was condemned by many as undemocratic and controlling. Gandhi appeared to be petty. Even Nehru came under fire for seeming “indifferent” to the power struggle. “When the crisis comes,” Bose wrote to him, “you often do not succeed in making up your mind one way or the other”.
As for Bose, his career in the party imploded soon afterwards. After resigning, he undertook a whirlwind tour of the country, attracting massive crowds wherever he went. His resignation had made him a martyr (at least in his own mind) and earned him popularity. But without Congress’s infrastructure, he could not translate this momentary popularity into lasting political support. The Right Wing had been quick to take back the control of the party, passing a resolution which expressly forbade party members from offering satyagraha or inciting mass protests without the approval of the leadership. Relying on his popularity, Bose challenged the resolution. Within days, he was unceremoniously cashiered out of the party.
If he expected massive public outrage against his departure, he proved to be wrong. He would never again enjoy the popularity he had experienced at the height of his power in 1938. He formed his own party, Forward Bloc, but it failed to generate much enthusiasm. He remained a secondary figure in Indian politics for the rest of his life, although he became a major historical figure when he joined hands with Japan to raise an army to unsuccessfully invade India during the Second World War. But that is a story for a later article.
Historians assert that Bose was outwitted by more seasoned political operators and that is certainly true. His sympathizers present it as a story of a lone rebel going against the party establishment and put down by undemocratic means. His detractors tell the story of an extremist trying to put on fire the established order in his ideological zeal, and rightly destroyed for it. Either way, the story of Bose evokes unbridled passion. Even Sarvepalli Gopal, an otherwise temperate historian, could not help it when he uncharacteristically wrote, “Bose was a born loser”.
Perhaps there is something to that. Perhaps, Bose wanted to lose his fight with Gandhi. After all, his victory could never erase Gandhi’s looming shadow over the party and his presidency. For a man who reveled in playing the role of the radical, it would have been preferable to be martyred at the hands of the establishment than get into the muddy business of political maneuvering and compromise. A resignation would be cleaner, more heroic and more romantic. If so, then Bose was like many politicians one encounters in Indian political history – men who would rather fail in pursuit of a perfect cause rather than succeed in achieving a compromise.
Sources: Bose, Sugata. His Majesty’s Opponent. Harvard University Press, 2011; Gandhi, Rajmohan. Patel, a life. Navajivan Pub. House, 1990; Gopal, Sarvepalli. Jawaharlal Nehru; a Biography Volume 1 1889-1947. Random House, 2015.