Gandhi’s first choice as president for the next session at Tripuri was Abul Kalam Azad as Gandhi felt that a Muslim as the head of the Congress could ease the communal situation. Azad’s candidature was, in fact, announced at a Working Committee meeting held at Bardoli. Azad had not voiced his objections there but he later withdrew his name. He did not want to contest against Subhas Chandra Bose because both of them came from Calcutta where Subhas’s popularity was high and growing daily. After Azad’s withdrawal, Gandhi wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘Maulana Saheb does not want the crown of thorns. If you want to try again please do. If you won’t or he [Subhas] won’t listen, Pattabhi [Sitaramayya] seems to be the only choice.’ Jawaharlal Nehru had no desire to be president again and so Sitaramayya became a reluctant contender. According to him, he was not even asked if he wanted to be a candidate.
Subhas’s desire to be the president a second time had the support of Rabindranath Tagore who expressed his desire to have a ‘modernist’ in the post. In his opinion there were only ‘two genuine modernists’ in the Congress high command—Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru. Tagore also wrote to Gandhi to say that Subhas should be given a second term. Gandhi responded to Tagore by saying that in his personal opinion Subhas ‘needed to be free from the Presidential work, if he was to rid Bengal of corruption’.
After the withdrawal of Azad from the race, Subhas issued a statement on 21 January. This produced a counterstatement from the Working Committee against Subhas’s candidature. This joint statement, as Vallabhbhai Patel told Jawaharlal, was issued at Gandhi’s insistence. Jawaharlal cabled his inability to sign the joint statement. He admitted that he would have preferred Subhas’s not standing but a joint statement raised ‘difficulties and questions of principle’. Gandhi expressed to Patel his disappointment at Jawaharlal’s refusal to sign and Patel conveyed this to Jawaharlal. The latter decided to issue a public statement on his own on 26 January, the same day he expressed his inability to sign the joint statement.
There was another context to Jawaharlal’s statement. This was about the statement that Subhas had given to the press on 21 January. There Subhas said that the issue was not a personal one but one of policies and programmes. According to Subhas, ‘[T]he progressive sharpening of the anti-imperialist struggle in India has given birth to new ideas, ideologies, problems and programmes. People are consequently veering round to the opinion that as in other free countries the Presidential election in India should be fought on the basis of definite problems and programmes so that the contest may help the clarification of issues.’ Subhas felt that under these circumstances, an election contest ‘may not be an undesirable thing’.
Although in this statement Subhas did not spell out any policy or programme, he did mention ‘the prospective fight over Federation’. In their joint statement, Vallabhbhai Patel and six other members of the Working Committee countered Subhas’s claims. The Working Committee members said that all of them shared Subhas’s opposition to federation and this opposition was a part of Congress policy. They went on to state, ‘[T]he Congress policy and programmes are not determined by its successive Presidents.’ The statement elaborated that the position of the president was akin to that of a chairman, and that the policies and programmes of the Congress, ‘when they are not determined by the Congress itself, are determined by the Working Committee’. The office of the president carried great honour because, according to the signatories, ‘the President represents and symbolizes as under a constitutional monarchy, the unity and solidarity of the nation’. The statement deeply regretted that Azad had pulled out of the contest and urged Subhas to reconsider his decision and allow Sitaramayya to win uncontested.
Subhas issued a rejoinder on 25 January to this statement of Patel and other members of the Working Committee. He said in his view it was unfair of the members of the Working Committee to take sides when two of their colleagues were contesting the election. More importantly, he pointed out that the candidature of Sitaramayya had not been discussed in the Working Committee. He did not add that his own candidature had not been agreed upon by the Working Committee, since the committee’s chosen candidate was Azad. Subhas admitted that he had not wanted to be a candidate but had been compelled to do so by friends and supporters from several provinces. He was willing to withdraw if ‘a genuine anti-federationist’ like Acharya Narendra Deva was accepted as president.
Subhas’s more substantive objections concerned the position of the president. He argued that it was ‘altogether wrong to liken the Congress President to a constitutional monarch’.
When Jawaharlal had issued his statement on 26 January from Almora, he had not seen the statement made by the members of the Working Committee and the second statement of Subhas. Jawaharlal declared that he was not against an election contest since that would help to clarify matters relating to policies and programmes. But he asked what the different programmes in conflict were in the elections that were about to take place. Jawaharlal found that reference had only been made to federation and from this he assumed that there was no debate on other issues. But even regarding federation, Jawaharlal said he was not aware of any conflict. On this subject, according to him, ‘the Congress attitude is definite and clear’. To Jawaharlal, ‘it [seemed] to be monstrous for any Congressmen to think in terms of compromising on Federation’. He believed—and he had told Subhas this—that Subhas should not stand for re-election. He added, ‘his [Subhas’s] and my capacity for effective work would be lessened by holding this office [the presidentship] at this stage’.
There were further statements by Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Sitaramayya himself. All these denied the prospect of a compromise with the British government on federation. They reiterated that the Congress was bound by the policies and resolutions it had adopted on this subject. Subhas issued two more statements—making his tally four before the elections—but in none of this could he substantiate the charge that some Congress leaders belonging to what he called the Right were trying to strike a deal with the British on federation. In this atmosphere the presidential election was held on 29 January. The results showed that Subhas had polled 1580 votes to Sitaramayya’s 1377. The bulk of Subhas’s votes had come from Bengal, Mysore, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madras. He had scored a clear victory.
Gandhi’s reaction to Subhas’s win was uncharacteristically devoid of grace. In a public statement he said that since he had prevailed upon Sitaramayya not to withdraw from the contest, the latter’s defeat ‘was more mine than his’.
Jawaharlal and Subhas met in Santiniketan in early February and chatted for an hour over recent events. No record of this conversation is available in the papers of either but the contents can be gathered from an exchange of letters that followed between the two. Jawaharlal wrote on 4 February to say that their talk had failed to clear up the situation. He confessed to Subhas that he was uncertain about his future course of action because he felt ‘entirely at sea’ regarding what Subhas wanted the Congress to be. He said none of the vital questions concerning leftists, rightists, federation and so on had been discussed ‘by us’ during Subhas’s presidentship. (What Jawaharlal meant when he wrote ‘by us’—between Subhas and himself or in the Working Committee, or both—is not clear.) He considered Subhas’s use of the term leftists and rightists to be ‘wholly wrong and confusing’. Subhas’s use of these terms seemed to imply that Gandhi and whoever was part of his group belonged to the right, and those who were opposed to Gandhi were of the left.
He requested Subhas to particularly develop his suggestion about giving an ultimatum to the British government: ‘How exactly do you wish to proceed about it and what will you do afterwards?’ Jawaharlal admitted that he did not ‘appreciate this idea at all’.
It is clear from Jawaharlal’s letter to Gandhi that immediately in the aftermath of Subhas’s victory, Gandhi had mooted the idea of the Working Committee stepping down. On 8 February 1939, Patel had written to Rajendra Prasad that ‘[I]t was impossible for us to work with [Bose] and he also really desires that he should have a free hand.’ In spite of Jawaharlal’s letter to Gandhi, this is exactly what happened when the Working Committee met at Wardha on 22 February. Subhas was unable to attend because of illness and he had written to Gandhi proposing a postponement. At the behest of Gandhi, Patel and other members of the Working Committee, barring Jawaharlal and Sarat Bose, resigned. Subhas had tried his best to avoid a confrontation. He had travelled to Wardha to meet Gandhi and have a face-to-face discussion. But no solution resulted in the talks held on 15 February.
Jawaharlal’s reaction to the resignation of the Working Committee members was uniquely his own and ambiguous. He could not get himself to side with those who resigned but neither could he see himself in agreement with Subhas. So he did not join the collective resignation but resigned on his own. He thus pleased no one, neither Gandhi and his group nor Subhas. He may not even have pleased himself.
Subhas, defying doctors’ orders, travelled with a raging fever to Tripuri near the Narmada. Gandhi did not attend the session, held between 10 and 12 March, as he had undertaken a fast in Rajkot. But his men—all those who had resigned from the Working Committee—were present. The showdown occurred when Govind Ballabh Pant moved a resolution which affirmed the Congress’s firm adherence to the fundamental policies of Gandhi; it also expressed its confidence in the work of the Working Committee that had functioned for the last one year; and it requested ‘the president to nominate the Working Committee in accordance with the wishes of Gandhi’.
Subhas failed to secure the total support of the left which he claimed he represented. The largest leftist group within the Congress, the Congress Socialist Party, decided to abstain. Some other leftists offered amendments to the resolution, but these failed to be carried. The supporters of Gandhi naturally spoke very strongly in favour of the resolution. Rajagopalachari, who had actually drafted the Pant resolution, said, ‘There are two boats . . . One is an old boat . . . piloted by Mahatma Gandhi. Another man has a new boat . . . Mahatma Gandhi is a tried boatman who can safely transport you. If you go into the other boat, which I know is leaky, all will go down, and the river Narmada is indeed deep. The new boatman says, “If you don’t get into my boat, at least tie my boat to yours.” This is also impossible. We cannot tie a leaky boat to a good boat, exposing ourselves to the perils of going down.’
The Pant resolution was passed. This left Subhas in an unenviable position: he was the elected president who was bound to the wishes of Gandhi, someone who had taken the defeat of Sitaramayya as his personal defeat. Rajagopalachari’s words were an indication of the rigid position he and his group had adopted. This was also revealed by the fact that when Sarat Bose told Patel that Subhas and his supporters would support the resolution provided certain changes were introduced, he got no response from Patel. Sarat Bose complained to Gandhi that Patel wanted that ‘not a word, not a comma should be changed’. Patel and his group obviously believed that there was only one solution to the impasse: Subhas had to abandon his new boat and come aboard on Gandhi’s as a part of the crew. But these signals of intransigence did not deter Subhas from trying to find some kind of middle ground with Gandhi. He embarked on this effort through letters while convalescing in a place near Dhanbad.
When the AICC met, Subhas was in the odd position of being the president of the Congress who had no Working Committee. He realized that this was not a tenable position. Left with no options, Subhas did the honourable thing: he tendered his resignation. The statement he made to the Congress was of necessity short—he had had very little time to prepare… The statement was dignified and without any recriminations. It merely presented the facts that had led to his failure to form a Working Committee.
The hostility to Subhas’s re-election, the Pant resolution in Tripuri, Gandhi’s obduracy and what happened at the AICC seem to be linked by a common thread. Jawaharlal, probably because he knew from experience how Gandhi and his men thought and acted, had apprehended this when he had written to Gandhi about the error involved in pushing Subhas out of the office of president. Gandhi proceeded to do exactly this, assuming all the time the moral high ground that he wanted Subhas to have a completely free hand in forming the Working Committee. Gandhi could not have been unaware that Subhas was actually tied down by the Pant resolution that had been conceived, drafted and presented by Gandhi’s close associates and had then been passed by the Congress. Subhas was, in fact, completely hemmed in and outmanoeuvred by superior ring craft.
Gandhi emerges from this episode at his worst: petty and given to machinations, the archetypal Tammany Hall politician, his moral posturing notwithstanding. At one level, Gandhi seriously differed with Subhas’s analysis that conditions in India were ripe for an ultimatum to the British and a mass campaign. At another, there was the question of control over the Congress. Here, Gandhi could not ignore the feelings of the people who were politically close and unquestioningly loyal to him. These men were united in their antipathy to Subhas and his views. They were also acutely aware that Gandhi had less influence on Subhas than he had on Jawaharlal. In 1936, they had depended on Jawaharlal’s close emotional ties with Gandhi to tame him. But with Subhas there was no such guarantee: Jawaharlal, in spite of differences, loved Bapu; Subhas respected Gandhi.
This excerpt from ‘Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives’ by Rudrangshu Mukherjee has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.
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