Subhas Chandra Bose was in prison when Jawaharlal Nehru became the Congress President in 1936. He was prohibited from having any correspondence with Gandhi even on issues like Khadi and Harijan upliftment. At the time of his release on 17 March 1937, the elections under the Government of India Act of 1935 were underway and the Congress performed exceedingly well. It was also the time to decide about the next presidentship of the Congress party.
Gandhi noted: “I have observed that Subhas is not at all dependable. But there is nobody but he who can be the President”. Despite considering him undependable, Gandhi chose him as Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and C Rajagopalachari were busy with government formation.
Gandhi also persuaded Subhas to go to Europe to take some rest and be completely fit. Subhas however was eager to present a more moderate image. He wrote his autobiography The Indian Pilgrim (1937) to demonstrate the interconnections between religion, politics and economics. It was hastily written and remained incomplete.
As the President of the Haripura Congress (1938), Subhas’ speech was a long one. He was sure that India’s independence was imminent and therefore delved into issues of economic reconstruction. He proposed a planning commission and made it clear that post-Independence reconstruction would be primarily by industrialisation. He accepted the seamier sides of industrialisation but clearly stated there were no other mechanisms for modernization and poverty alleviation and as such it would have to be accepted with all its limitations.
It was a mild criticism of Gandhi, but the overall tone was conciliatory. Rudrangshu Mukherjee comments “at the beginning of 1938 Subhas’ path to political freedom was very much determined by the methods of Gandhi”. Subhas had totally forgotten his earlier critique of Gandhi which he had articulated in the early 1930s and publicly proclaimed his acceptance of Congress and Gandhi’s creed including Khadi. His attempt seemed to be to assure the old guard that his earlier radicalism and unilateralism were over and that he was a firm believer in moderation and consensus.
His socialistic rhetoric was ambivalent, and his critique of capitalism was opaque unlike Jawaharlal’s frontal attack at the Lucknow Congress in 1936 which sent shock waves among the capitalists, Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Rajaji. Subhas attempted a new consensus between the left and the right wingers within the Congress. A working committee was formed without a socialist representative by Gandhi and Patel.
Nehru was critical of Subhas’ act which he said was more like that of a speaker than a president. NB Khare even went to the extent of calling Subhas “a puppet in the hands of Mahatma Gandhi”. Subhas on his part tried his best to achieve what he had promised in his presidential address. In order to secure Gandhi’s support, he pledged his assistance to developing cottage industries stressing that this was not at variance with large scale ones. The most remarkable achievement of the Subhas presidency was the setting up of the National Planning Committee on 17 December 1938 with Jawaharlal as its President. Both Subhas and Jawaharlal were careful to emphasize that cottage industries and Khadi would not be neglected.
However, there was a serious setback to the apparent reconciliation between Gandhi and Subhas as the former rejected the proposal for a coalition government in Bengal. Sarat, elder brother of Subhas who was active in Bengal politics and Subhas wanted a coalition between the Congress, Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Praja Party and some other minor groups to form the government. But Gandhi rejected it without consulting the Bose brothers. Subhas regarded Gandhi’s unilateral decision to be completely fallacious and stated that he could not be a party to such a decision. He wanted the installation of a Congress government as that would considerably enhance its prestige and help to bargain better with the British government.
The reasons behind Gandhi’s action were unclear. Subhas could not accept Gandhi’s decision which was taken without a detailed discussion with the Congress President. It was the beginning of the parting of ways between the two leading to Gandhi’s direction to Subhas not to contest for the second time which the latter refused.
Subhas wanted a second term and felt he too would be given one considering Jawaharlal had one at the end of 1936 as the latter pleaded that one year was insufficient to revitalize and galvanize the party. Patel was unhappy with Subhas’ conduct as the Congress President and felt that the latter did “not know his own job”. There were personal differences between the two as well. He was unhappy with Subhas’ attitude in the working committee where he spoke rarely.
After Gandhi announced the name of Pattabhi Sitaramayya for the presidentship of the Congress, Subhas announced his intention to run for the second term and in this he received full and enthusiastic support from Tagore, a rationalist and a pluralist.
Gandhi’s Congress was an umbrella party with many shades of opinion. However, the core power structure like the working committee was rigidly controlled by Gandhi and his close associates. Despite the undue emphasis placed on consensus it was Gandhi’s preferences that mattered the most. For instance, Jawaharlal could become the Congress president four times, first time because Motilal Nehru wished it, second after the death of Kamala Nehru and third when Jawaharlal wanted a second term. The fourth was just before independence to consolidate and elevate his position as the future prime minister.
Subhas’ claim was not acceptable to Patel and six other members of the Working Committee. Subhas was willing to withdraw if ‘a genuine anti-federationist’ like Acharya Narendra Dev was accepted as the president as that was absolutely imperative since he suspected that right-wingers within the party could compromise with Britain on the issue of the federal structure. Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Sitaramayya denied any such plan. (To be Concluded)