By M.V. Kamath
Gandhi, Bose, Nehru and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind by Reba Som; Penguin Viking; 259 pp; Rs 350.00
The first half of the twentieth century was remarkable in many ways. The first generation of national leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta had slipped into history and another generation had come into being, with men like Motilal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai, C. Rajagopalachari and above all, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
After the 1920s the Indian National Congress was for all practical purposes under the command of Gandhi. What this book focuses on is the leadership therefrom: Gandhi, his ?beloved disciple? Jawaharlal and his ?rebel son? Subhas Chandra Bose.
No three men could have been more dissimilar. Each had his own peculiar mind-set, conditioned by diverse family backgrounds and education; and divergent temperaments and regional compulsions. The usual belief is that Gandhi and Nehru worked together whereas Bose was invariably at odds with the Mahatma. Of the three Nehru was temperamentally the weakest. He often differed from Gandhi but would succumb to his master'sdictates in the end. Bose was made of different stuff. Where he disagreed with Gandhi he stood by his vision, risking everything, including presidentship of the Congress. Nehru was frequently Hamlet-like, never sure of himself.
Thus, even while he supported Bose in his youthful challenge of the conservative Gandhian Congress, he would never encourage any divisive move that would break its unity.
When Bose fell out with Gandhi, it was Jawaharlal who tried to plead with Subhas not to contest the Congress presidential elections. Intellectually Nehru resented Gandhi'spressure tactics to make Bose buckle under and yet he could not go along with Subhas in his defiant and rebellious path. In a way, Gandhi was a tyrant.
The Mahatma never approved of anyone else adopting fasting as a bargaining tool. As Reba Som writes: ?His (Gandhi?s) disapproval of Jatin Das'sfast and his silence after his premature death left the younger generation of political leaders hurt and confused? Subhas questioned how Gandhi could disapprove of others adopting a strategy that he himself had perfected.? Gandhi had no answer.
In the matter of handling Britain when the Second World War broke out, Nehru was one who was willing to support Britain in the belief that one had first to destroy Nazism and fascism before taking on British imperialism. But Subhas was rearing to fight Britain when it was at its weakest. Gandhi had to fight hard to convince Nehru of the wisdom of convening the ?Quit India movement?, but Bose, by then out of India, welcomed Gandhi'sstand unconditionally.
Nehru at best was an agnostic and had little emotional closeness to Hinduism. But both Gandhi and Bose were deeply embedded in their faith. Even in personal matters, Gandhi and Bose had something in common. In the Gandhi household, Kasturba, the wife had at least in the early years, to play a subsidiary role. Bose, by encouraging his European wife, Emilie, to have a career in freelance journalism, was insistent about correcting and ultimately rewriting every draft she wrote for The Hindu. As one of his close political associates, S.A. Iyer was to write: ?He (Bose) was a democrat at heart and a dictator in effect?? And much the same could have been said of the Mahatma who could be most unforgiving when it came to enforcing his orders.
Again Reba Som writes: ?Gandhi and Subhas shared certain abiding values and strands in thinking which made them essentially more similar to each other in mind-set than is apparent at first glance. In contrast, Nehru and Subhas although closer in age, and intellectually similar in education and training had less in common. What is surprising is that Jawaharlal put up with Gandhi for so long.
Gandhi'ssensational decision to fast unto death over the communal award decision by Britain'sPrime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1932 was an anathema. In a note written soon after, Nehru confessed that there was hardly any common ground between him and Gandhi and that he had been wrong in subordinating their differences to a larger loyalty for the cause of national freedom. He lamented: ?Our objectives are different, our ideas are different, our spiritual outlooks are different and our methods are likely to be different.? And yet, Jawaharlal stuck by Gandhi like a leech. Was he a hypocrite? Was he afraid that without Gandhi'ssupport and backing he would lose his place not only within the party but also on the national political scene?
One has also to notice what happened following Gandhi'sassassination. Gandhi had envisioned India not as a modern State but as a nation of self-sufficient villages. Nehru went in for modernising India in a big way, a way that would have invited Gandhi'sinstant disapproval. As Reba Som puts it: ?Nehru'spractical view of life and his disinterestedness in the metaphysics of religion, made him a marked contrast to Gandhi??
What is significant, however is the fact that-and this is what the book is all about-these three men, in their separate ways helped fashion the modern Indian mind. That may be too large a claim and one that may even be seriously challenged, but there is little doubt that we are heir to what Gandhi and Nehru specially preached and practiced in their times and by which so many swear even to this day.
(Penguin India, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)