Netaji Bose vs Nehru: Political rivalry or historical myth?

both Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were committed men with strong views.
both Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were committed men with strong views.

The blurb declares ‘their lives could have no tryst’. Unfortunately such were the lives of two great men of India and as the author confesses in the introduction, this was not an easy book to write for him, and it would have been so for anyone to attempt even. The two lives were too great to be brought to ordinary level of comparison. Born less than eight years apart and involved in the most crucial period of the struggle for freedom, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were committed men with strong views.

The author takes the reader through the different phases of the lives of these two men in the seven chapters of the book that are arranged so as to understand the logic of the persons concerned in arriving at their conclusions and choosing their paths. Thus this book provides material for scholars perusing the history of the Indian freedom struggle and that of its principal actors.

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In Growing up the author analyses the early years of the lives of Nehru and Subhas bringing to the reader the possible reasons for their later differences. Subhas was interested in Swami Vivekananda and his mentor Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and was in his spiritual quest while Nehru had already acquired an undergraduate degree from Cambridge. Though an average student, Nehru was interested in English literature and poetry. A brighter student by comparison, Subhas was influenced by Aurobindo’s passion for the motherland. Subhas went to England in 1919 to pursue his studies and secured 4 rank in the ICS examination. Yet, his conscience did not allow him to serve the British. The author notes, “He found the idea of serving an alien bureaucracy thoroughly repugnant.” Thus Subhas had already chosen his path when the older Nehru had not.

Baptism in politics deals with the two entering politics. Nehru met Gandhi for the first time in 1916. The 1919 Rowlatt Act and its aftermath had left a deep impression on Nehru. Nehru understood the power of Ahimsa as taught by Gandhi and was totally drawn into Gandhi’s ways of fighting against oppression. On arriving in India Subhas met Gandhiji on July 16, 1921 and had a long discussion when Gandhi patiently answered all his questions. Later Subhas was to note that after the meeting he left ‘depressed and disappointed’. Thus the two had different views about their leader in the beginning itself.

Nehru and Subhas jumped into the struggle for freedom and were imprisoned and the their lives ran parallel and the author notes, “Jawaharlal’s first imprisonment took place on December 5, 1921, only five days before Subhas’s.” Nehru was released in March 1922, he was arrested again six weeks later and had to spend eighteen months in prison. Subhas was in prison till middle of 1922. It was then a development took place that affected Subhas deeply. Lord Reading sent Madan Mohan Malaviya as an emissary to C. R. Das, father figure of Subhas, who was also in prison with a message that if the Congress withdraws its boycott against the visit of Prince of Wales, all prisoners would be released and a round table conference would be arranged to discuss the future of India. While Das favoured the idea Gandhi rejected it; Das felt that a good chance was lost. It was then Subhas thought that Gandhi ‘had committed a serious blunder’.

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Gandhi had announced a non-payment of taxes movement but before that could take place, the Chauri Chaura massacre happened, when a police station was set on fire on February 5, 1922. Gandhi had to call off the non-cooperation movement. This brought about a distinct division in Congress. After their release, Swarajists led by C. R. Das in Bengal captured the Calcutta Municipality and Subhas took over the administration. Unfortunately, the author notes, quoting from Rajat Ray, that corruption became rampant during this period in the Municipality when Subhas was the Chief Executive Officer.

Immersion in the Congress analyses the way the two perceived the party itself. There were times they came together but there were differences as well. In March 1933 Subhas visited Vienna. When Gandhi withdrew the Civil Disobedience Movement, Subhas, with Vithalbhai Patel in Vienna issued a statement saying that ‘as a political leader Gandhi has failed’. According to him the national movement needed militancy. While Nehru was attracted to socialism and communism, Subhas having met Mussolini had taken a liking to his views.

When his wife died Nehru was devastated. Subhas offered his assistance at the time of this loss. The author says in spite of the differences in views, they both had always nurtured mutual respect for each other. When Subhas arrived in Bombay on April 8, 1936 and promptly arrested, as president of the Congress, Nehru arranged May 10 as All India Subhas Day, again showing his regard to Subhas. When Nehru was in prison, he Government of India Act was passed in 1935. Nehru saw the Act as attempt to strengthen the reactionary and vested interests in India. However there was a lobby within Congress that wanted to accept office under the Act. The author takes pains to explain the situation Nehru faced in this chapter.

In 1938, Subhas took over the reins of the Congress. In his address he quoted Lenin, the author notes, showing clearly his views politically. During this period Nehru was in Europe meeting labour leaders and the author notes, ‘creating a ground for smooth transfer of power’.

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In the Chapter Party Presidents, the growing difference between the two is brought out clearly. By middle of 1939, the differences became sharper and clearly Gandhi was not in favour of Subhas’s ideas. “Subhas respected Gandhi but not without reservations”, says the author, while Jawaharlal could yield completely to Gandhi even when their views differed.

In The End of the Friendship the author shows how the differences grew sharper between the two. “This led to Subhas resigning and organising to start Forward Bloc, a forum within the Congress where all radical elements could come together.”

In subsequent chapters, the author takes the reader through the phase when the friendship was to some extent regained, However Nehru’s devotion to Gandhi and Subhas’s dependence on foreign powers for freedom make the point very clear as the author ends saying their views could never meet. In spite of the fact that Subhas did make a statement to his nephew that no one has done greater harm to his cause than Jawaharlal, he had invited Nehru to discuss the situation. And Nehru’s response was he could not say ‘no’ to Subhas.

The author concludes that this does not give the impression of a relationship laced by bitterness and hostility, though especially in Bengal a picture of great divide between the two was painted. “The political differences between Jawaharlal and Subhas revolved around their radically different attitudes to fascism, represented in the early 1940s by the Axis powers. Jawaharlal was opposed to fascism…” says the author. The limiting point of their relationship was their opinion of Gandhi.

It is an excellent analysis of two great people and the course of their friendship, done with surgical precision.


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