While the clamour for declassification of Netaji files are gaining pitch, historian Ramchandra Guha points to the irony of BJP supporters finding in Subhash Chandra Bose a Vallabhbhai Patel-like figure with which to denounce the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru.
In an interesting editorial published in the Hindustan Times, Guha asks if Patel and Bose can be equated on a political plane.
He writes that the relationship between Bose and Patel was not a rosy one at any level. In fact, Guha writes, it rapidly deteriorated after the death of Vallabhbhai’s elder brother, Vithalbhai, in 1933.
Vithalbhai had left around three-fourths of his estate to Bose because the latter had nursed him during his illness. Sardar contested the will and won. The bitter acrimony generated from this legal tussle continued through their respective political careers.
Guha says that Vallabhbhai was staunchly opposed to Gandhi’s decision to propose Bose’s name for the presidency of the Congress.
Though Bose became president, Patel again opposed when Netaji sought a second term in 1939.
Referencing to Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography of Vallabhbhai, Guha recalls that Patel ‘held a poor opinion of Subhash’s efficiency’.
Guha’s version of Patel-Bose acrimony can be corroborated from ‘Collected Works of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Volume VIII)’, edited by historian P.N. Chopra.
The book tells us that there were sharp differences of opinion between Bose and Patel. In fact, on Bose’s decision of re-election, Patel along with Rajendra Prasad, J.B. Kripalini and other leaders said, “Hitherto presidential election had been unanimous. Subhasbabu has set up a new precedent.”
The book informs us that they asked Bose to allow Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s election in his stead be unanimous. On January 24, 1939, Bose advised Patel not to divide the Congress by putting up Sitaramayya as a candidate.
According to the volume, Patel wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru the very next day asking the latter to issue a statement against Bose, if possible.
When Bose won the election, Patel wrote to Rajendra Prasad that it was impossible for him and his camp to work with Subhash, writes Guha.
Guha writes that it was the Gandhi-Patel camp that forced Bose to resign from his post and party by undermining his authority.
Bose’s brother Sarat charged Vallabhbhai with facilitating a ‘mean, malicious and vindictive’ propaganda war against Subhash.
Patel was also critical of Bose’s meeting with Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, although Netaji had communicated his views to Mahatma Gandhi immediately after the meeting.
In fact we learn from the volume that Patel was often critical of the top leaders of the day, including Mahatma Gandhi.
According to Rajmohan Gandhi, Patel and Bose could not see eye to eye on political matters. When Bose referred to him as ‘undemocratic’, Patel angrily retorted: ‘The lion becomes a king by birth, not by an election in the jungle.’
Guha takes us further into the Bose-Patel conflict. He writes that the two had profound ideological differences.
“Bose was a great believer in socialist planning, whereas Patel was more sympathetic to private enterprise. Bose was also far more committed to Hindu-Muslim harmony than Patel.”
Here he introduces the Hindutva angle and refers to Bose’s 1935 book ‘The Indian Struggle’, where he had criticised the Hindu Mahasabha and called them ‘reactionary’ – the mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism.
Guha asserts that Bose’s allegation that the Hindutva brigade was afraid of participating in a political movement and wanted a safer platform for themselves was justified.
In his op-ed, Guha writes that apart from a shared desire to see India become free, in political, personal or ideological terms Bose and Patel had virtually nothing in common.
He concludes that attacking Nehru using Patel and Bose at the same time is both “politically opportunistic and (what may be worse) intellectually incoherent”.
But P.N. Chopra’s biography, ‘The Sardar of India’, on Vallabhbhai presents a different picture of Patel.
Chopra’s biography, as historian Anirban Ganguly puts, is the only one other than Rajmohan Gandhi’s where the writer met and interacted with his subject.
Chopra wrote that there were political differences between Patel and Bose, but the former held the latter’s patriotism in a very high esteem.
The historian claimed that it was Patel who “played a significant role” in providing succour and relief to the soldiers of the INA after Bose’s ‘death’.
“Sardar Patel was perhaps the only great national leader who took such a keen interest in the relief and rehabilitation of INA personnel. For him patriotism and sacrifice in the cause of the country, irrespective of differences on principles with individuals, deserved the highest recognition.”
The above is corroborated from Rajmohan Gandhi’s account where he states that “there was expediency in this role, for Subhash’s prestige was at its height, but also heart”. He wrote that Patel “did admire Subhash’s bravery”.
In fact Patel was also deeply concerned about “the distress of his [Bose’s] wife and daughter in far off Austria even at the cost of risking displeasure of Nehru”, wrote Chopra.
He wanted the entire amount left in the INA Committee Trust should go to Netaji’s wife and daughter in Vienna. The proposal was shot down by Nehru.
The book also tells us that Sardar’s hold on political affairs considerably weakened after his first heart attack on March 5, 1948.
Rajmohan Gandhi has confirmed this:
“His [Mahatma’s] going removed the equality and made Nehru the Sardar’s chief. Vallabhbhai’s heart attack and the four months of enforced rest underscored the new relationship.”