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Herr Bose?


Netaji's ideological grounding was weak and his lack of political acumen only compounded his mistakes
TSI | Issue Dated: February 3, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Netaji | Subhash Chandra Bose | Netaji's ideology |

The ideological commitment of any individual is best tested when he or she is pushed to the wall. Because it is here that the option to take an easy way out or strike a compromise appeals the most. And it is in such circumstances that one of India’s most prominent nationalist leaders Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose made some of the biggest strategic mistakes of his life.

Bose's tryst with Nazism and Fascism has always remained a matter of debate. Experts have variously called his decision a “tactical folly”, “lack of political acumen” and “genuine flirtation”. The truth – as always – lies somewhere in between.

Let's consider Bose's initial tryst with the ideology. Throughout the 1930s and even later, Bose's basic ideology was grounded in socialism. Sugata Bose – grandnephew of the INA leader and professor of history at Harvard – writes that Bose's differences with MK Gandhi were primarily because he thought that the latter had no plan in place whatsoever for a post-independence India. Besides, Bose’s idea that the independence movement “should depend, for its strength, influence and power on such movements as the labour movement, youth movement, peasant movement, women's movement, student's movement” was abominable to right-wingers like Vallabhbhai Patel.

Bose tried to reach out to the leaders of both Fascist and Nazi regimes in the late 1930s but without much success. Some suggest that he secretly entertained middle-rung Nazi leaders in Bombay in 1938 when he was president of the Indian National Congress (INC) for a brief period. However, his efforts to connect with Nazi forces till then were mostly based in and around the principle that an “enemy's enemy is my friend”. He certainly displayed no particular liking for the Nazi or Fascist ideology as a whole. The admiration was selective. And that was not unnatural because even Gandhi had praised Mussolini’s “care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanisation, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labour”.

Around the same time, Hitler, who was clearly in awe of the British Empire and definitely wanted to have a respectful share in its sphere of influence rather than  substituting it with a German empire, saw little strategic value in entertaining Bose. “The land for us, the seas for England,” visualised Hitler. However, he did see the tactical benefit in using Bose as a chip to bargain with the British. On the other hand, Bose was sceptical of Hitler's hatred for the Soviet Union and was uncomfortable discussing it. Hitler was shrewd enough to judge that and advised him to reach an agreement with the Japanese to avoid "psychological mistakes".

Ideologically speaking, they did not particularly admire each other – at least it was not the kind of mutual admiration that Mussolini and Bose shared. In fact, during his initial tryst, Bose tried hard to have Hitler's racist references to Indians excised from further editions of Mein Kampf. The relationship grew worse as Bose had by then little appetite for racism and went as far as to rebuke Hitler at a press conference in Geneva after yet another rabid racist speech by the latter. Some historians claim that he even asked for a trade boycott against Nazi Germany.

But then, something changed in 1939. After his unceremonious exit from INC due to ideological differences with Gandhi, Bose was left without many options. It was during this phase in his life that he was impressed by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (a peace pact between Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) and began believing that Stalin style Communism could co-exist with Fascism. “Fascism and Communism were entwined in a cynical and awkward embrace,” he observed. Two books that helped him build this idea were Francesco Nitti’s Bolshevism, Fascism, and Democracy and Ivanoe Bonomi’s From Socialism to Fascism. This, many suggest, was the start of his flirtation with Fascism. But Bose’s poor knowledge in international statecraft forced him to see a simple tactical deal as a strategic alliance. Patriot and a remarkable leader that he was, such nuances of realpolitik were out of his grasp. It was because of such mistakes that Nirad C Chaudhuri – former personal secretary of Netaji – had a poor opinion of Bose's political acumen as far as international affairs was concerned. Bose in fact was deeply affected by the initial successes of the Axis powers in the European and African war and became convinced that Germany and its allies would have the final victory. But then, he was not alone in this thinking.

Bose however must take his share of criticism as far as his tryst with Nazism is concerned. On a personal level, he was always less vocal in his criticism of the Holocaust and other despicable crimes committed by the Nazis. By the early 40s, he had realised the he had put all his eggs in one basket and so he completely stopped criticising the Nazi regime. The only criticism that came from him was that it was a folly on Hitler's part to start the War on both fronts. On Jews he remained silent. Not one word of protest or condemnation, not even in private. Even after the horrors of concentration camps were laid bare by the Soviet victorious forces, Bose chose to remain silent. If that was not bad enough, he also argued with Nehru over the latter's decision to grant Jews asylum in India.

A man becomes complete only with his follies. It is imperative that Indians remember one of their favourite heroes for what he was: in totality, humanised and complete with all his mistakes.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017