Gandhi and Nehru both advised Bose not to contest again [for Congress presidentship in 1939]. Patel and Gandhi tried hard to convince [Abul Kalam] Azad to take on the role but he refused. Gandhi then proposed the name of a relatively minor Congress leader, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, and top leaders of the Congress Working Committee, including Patel and Prasad, supported Sitaramayya. If only Patel had contested with Gandhi’s blessings, there was a fair chance that Bose would have withdrawn but now he faced a man who was no match for him, but one who had Gandhi’s blessings and the support of the top Congress leaders. By choosing to contest, Bose was also shattering recent Congress protocol of having presidents elected unopposed to show unanimous choice and avoid intra-party disputes, at least overtly, on presidentship. He wrote to the Congress leader:

“If the Right-wing really want national unity and solidarity, they would be well advised to accept a Leftist as president. They have created considerable misapprehension by their insistence on a Rightist candidate at any cost and by the unseemly manner with which they have set up such a candidate who was retiring and who had been surprised that this name had been suggested for presidentship.”

Countered the Sardar: “For me, as for those with whom I have been able to discuss the question, the matter is not one of persons and principles, nor of Leftists and Rightists. The sole consideration is what is in the best interest of the country.”

All of this would not be enough to stop Bose.

Netaji’s charisma was enough to beat the charmless Sitaramayya. Congress delegates spurned Gandhi and Patel’s appeals and voted for Bose. The Bengali leader won the second time by 205 votes.

Gandhi had been defeated, as had the all-powerful party boss Patel. Gandhi, of course, would not take his defeat lying down, and he did the only thing that could have turned the tide against Bose. He made the defeat about him, and not about Sitaramayya. “The defeat is more mine than his,” Gandhi declared in a letter, and left it to Bose to “choose a homogenous cabinet and enforce his programme without let or hindrance...after all Subhas Babu is not an enemy of his country.”

The subtext was immediately clear. It was a threat. Gandhi was telling the Congress to choose again – this time between him and Bose. By telling them that Bose was not the enemy of the country, Gandhi was ascertaining that the Congress leaders understood that Bose was an enemy, but of the Congress as envisaged by Gandhi.

Even though the party had ignored Gandhi’s advice, the Congress was not ready to break away from Gandhi. And any middle ground between Gandhi–Patel and Bose had long since disappeared. The young Bengali leader was too aggressive – in fact, too reflective of the mood of the country.

At the Tripuri session of the Congress, where Bose’s older brother Sarat represented him because Netaji was ill, a majority of the Congress Working Committee resigned.

Govind Ballabh Pant proposed a new resolution demanding a different Working Committee that was approved and guided by Mahatma Gandhi. “The die was cast. All the subsequent attempts made at compromise were a cry in the wilderness.”

To weaken Bose’s position, Gandhi even issued a public statement advocating “unconditional cooperation with Britain in the prosecution of the war”. Bose, as president, demanded a mass civil disobedience, instead, against the British Raj.

After Tripuri, a furious Sarat Bose wrote to Gandhi:

“What I saw and heard at Tripuri during the seven days I was there, was an eye opener to me. The exhibition of truth and non-violence that I saw in persons whom the public look upon as your disciples [targeting Nehru, Patel, Azad and company] and representatives has to use your own words, ‘stunk in my nostrils’. The election of Subhas was not a defeat for yourself, but of the high command of which Sardar Patel is the shining light.”

Sarat Bose uses the harshest words for Subhas’ opponents in this and the choicest abuses are directed towards Patel.

‘The propaganda that was carried on by them against the Rashtrapati [president, i.e. Subhas] and those who happen to share his political views was thoroughly mean, malicious and indicative and utterly devoid of even the semblance of truth and non-violence.’

Sarat Bose accused Gandhi’s closest acolytes of having shown none of the Gandhian sense of fairness.

At Tripuri, those who swear by you in public offered nothing but obstruction and for gaining their end, took the fullest and meanest advantage of Subhas’s illness. Some ex members of the Working Committee went to the length of carrying on an insidious and incessant propaganda that the Rashtrapati’s illness was a ‘fake’, and was only a political illness.

An anguished Patel responded:

“It pains me to find that he could use such language and attribute such personal motive and charges against his colleagues with whom he happened to differ in politics and thereby bring down the entire Congress politics to the lowest possible level where difference of principles or policy have no place whatever. It would be easy to answer the letter in the same strain but it would be of no advantage to anybody to imitate the tone and temper of the letter which is evidently written more in anger than in reason. After all what answer one can give to such a passionate and abusive denunciation?”

In the end, it became impossible for Bose to lead a Congress that was full of leaders who were determined to frustrate his programme. No matter how much support he could garner from ordinary, especially younger, followers and members of the party, the machinery of the Congress was against him. Even though he had won the election fair and square, he could not find a path of compromise with Gandhi. Bose resigned.

Excerpted with permission from The Man Who Saved India, Hindol Sengupta, Penguin Random House India.