by M J Akbar
In Third Eye: India Today Column
November 1-7, 2010
Three Bengalis could have become Prime Minister of India. Each was staring at the summit, ready for the final ascent, when he discovered that his oxygen supply had been cut off – not by the enemy, but by the team leader.
Subhas Chandra Bose was undermined by Mahatma Gandhi with a rare pious savagery. We are familiar with savagery in politics, and piety is not unknown, but this deadly combination was unique. Bose had the temerity to challenge Gandhi from a Left platform at the Tripuri session in 1939. The reasons have become archaic, but the quiet ruthlessness of Gandhi’s response is still relevant to any student of Congress intrigues. Bose’s big mistake was to win, by 1580 votes to 1377, against Gandhi’s nominee, Sitaramayya. Gandhi declared that it was his defeat, not his candidate’s, and forced 13 out of 15 members of the working committee to resign in the gap between the election on 29 January and the Tripuri session on 8 March.
Bose resigned from the Congress on 29 April 1939 and formed the Forward Bloc on 3 May. The rest is known: escape from Calcutta in January 1941, a wartime alliance with Germany and Japan, the great Azad Hind movement, and death in a mysterious air crash. It was the British effort to put Bose’s soldiers on trial for mutiny that sparked off massive demonstrations, including in the armed forces; historians believe it was the final blow which delinked Empire from Britain.
If today’s Congress was a party with any form of inner democracy, which clearly it is not, it is obvious that Pranab Mukherjee would win in any secret ballot for the leadership, even if his opponent was Sonia Gandhi’s nominee. The party’s ideal combination would be a partnership between Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh, but with roles reversed; that is, with Dr Singh as finance minister. Mahatma Gandhi could not afford Bose for the same reason that Sonia Gandhi will not tolerate Mukherjee. Bose would have publicly deferred to Gandhi, but implemented his own agenda; Mukherjee, likewise. Neither Bengali would have permitted either Gandhi to dictate terms.
The Congress lost Bengal in 1939, not 1967, when the United Front came to power. It is not an accident that Jyoti Basu and Pranab Mukherjee were both in the United Front, along with the Forward Bloc. The Marxists inherited the Bose mantle, because Bose’s party withered in the absence of his charismatic leadership. Congress has been unable to return to centre stage in Bengal even when the Marxists are falling through the cracks. Bengalis prefer a gutsy if cantankerous woman, Mamta Banerjee, as their alternative.
But the real paradox is quite extraordinary: Bengalis will not elect Mukherjee as Chief Minister because the Congress will not make him Prime Minister. The Mahatma chose Jawaharlal over Subhas, and Sonia preferred Singh over Mukherjee, because Bengali sentiment was secondary to their individual requirements.
The baffling anomaly is that the CPI(M), a party that has ruled Bengal for more than three decades through a thesis that reconciled the antithesis between Marx and religion, stopped its pre-eminent Bengali leader, Jyoti Basu, from becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister. The Durga-Communist CPI(M) exists in Kerala and Tripura but lives in Bengal. When their miracle-moment arrived, and Basu was named the unanimous choice for Prime Minister by a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition, the CPM politburo sabotaged the proposal. Being Communists, they found all sorts of convoluted theoretical reasons for a colossal political blunder.
Sentiment is the cement of India. Marxists, however, think, therefore they are. Their head gave them all manner of instructions on the evils of collaboration with bourgeois parties, not to mention pseudo-socialists and neo-opportunists. They forgot to check with the Bengali heart. Jargon so often becomes a substitute for ideology, expanding into a mist that obscures reality.
Bengal is the only province to offer three credible potential Prime Ministers: the Nehru-Gandhis never were ethnically from Uttar Pradesh, and are even less so now. Bengal’s loss has not been India’s gain.