A great article in the Times of India here. Well done Anvar Alikhan – humorous, subtle and apposite.
Counterfactual history is always good fun, and it is a fairly democratic sport, in that most people can have a go at it. The downside is that, of course, the conclusions are always provisional and sometimes outright insane. Most obviously what happens is that people use the technique to reinforce their existing prejudices; no one’s mind is ever changed. So articles like the above serve less to stimulate elevated historical discussion than to act as barometers of current popular opinion. And this one has unleashed the residual admiration, even yearning, for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who never ruled India and did very little for anyone apart from himself throughout his life. His ego was fragile and his judgement poor. But many Indians to this day forgive his failings and his failures because he was indisputably, in their eyes, a patriot.
And here he contrasts very favourably in the popular imagination, as expressed in the scores of comments that the subject of Netaji always provokes, with the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, who stands accused of lack of patriotism, corruption, the imposition of English education, wrecking the economy, inventing dynastic politics, permissiveness etc. etc..
Here we immediately see the contrast between a man who never had to deal with the practicalities of government and one who did, between a man who strode around in uniform claiming he could solve all India’s problems – by his very being – and one who actually wrestled with the daunting task of governing a cash-starved country full of conflicting interests. Bose dodged all the difficult decisions, and instead repeatedly backed losers, yet for his patriotism alone he is stll revered as a figure somewhere between King Arthur and Santa Claus.
Nehru’s own patriotism, which was subtler, was nevertheless sufficiently deep and sincere to drive him to spend over three thousand days in prison, not being saluted by anyone. That is forgotten, and the sins of his daughter have been held against him.
It should also be pointed out, as I seek to do in my latest book, that it was not Nehru that imposed English on India. He was keen to be rid of it in favour of Hindi, and only the reaction of the non-Hindi-speaking states ensured its preservation as a link language. It was not Nehru that instituted corruption; it was a combination of long-term factors that led a small, over-powerful bureaucracy into the heart of commerce. It was not Nehru that turned the Congress into an organ of patronage; that was the result of the stampede of India’s existing social elites into the party for their own purposes. At most he can be reproached for doing too little to stop any of these things from happening; he did not actively connive in any of them.
If Indians are glad they live in a democracy, they have more to thank Nehru for that they ever would have had reasons to be grateful to Bose.
Sometimes I wonder whether I should have written Rope Trick. At times like this I am glad that I did.