On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hoisted the Indian flag on Delhi’s Red Fort to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose’s proclamation of the Azad Hind provisional government. “In an effort to highlight the role of one family, efforts were made to deliberately ignore and forget contributions made by others in the independence struggle and later in creating a new India,” said Modi, wearing the cap made famous by Bose’s Indian National Army. “But our government is changing all that.”

It was another significant move by Modi to connect with the historical legacy of Bose. In 2016, the Modi government had declassified papers related to Bose, who is popular among the Hindutva circles for his unabashed militarism. Unlike Mohandas Gandhi, Bose did not believe in pacifism and took up arms against the British Empire. But he was also a self-described leftist who stood firmly against the politics of religious identity. This makes Bose’s appropriation by Modi and his Hindutva camp rather incongruous.

Leftist and socialist

Mentored by CR Das, the radical nationalist and founder of the Swaraj Party, Bose made his name in Kolkata politics of 1920s. In the 1930s, he acquired a reputation, nationally, as a radical leader, often taking a different line from Gandhi’s pacifism, and far more influenced by Western ideas. Bose was never a doctrinaire communist but he did self-describe as a leftist and a socialist. In his 1935 book Indian Struggle, Bose describes a hypothetical “left-wing revolt” within the Congress that would reshape it as a party that will “stand for the interests of the masses, that is, of the peasants, workers, etc, and not for the vested interests, that is, the landlords, capitalists and money-lending classes”. This party would also believe in Soviet-style central planning “for the reorganisation of the agricultural and industrial life of the country”.

Bose had no patience for communal politics either. In the same book, he criticises the Hindu Mahasabha, one of India’s two largest communal organisations along with the Muslim League. Bose writes:

“The Hindu Mahasabha, like its Moslem counterpart, consisted not only of erstwhile Nationalists, but also of a large number of men who were afraid of participating in a political movement and wanted a safer platform for themselves. The growth of sectarian movements among both Hindus and Moslems accentuated intercommunal tension. The opportunity was availed of by interested third parties who wanted to see the two communities fight, so that the Nationalist forces could be weakened.”

While “privately a religious Hindu”, Bose was secular in his politics, his biographer Leonard A Gordan writes:

“Each [person] should privately follow his religious path, but not link it to political and other public issues. Throughout his career, he reached out to Muslim leaders, first of all in his home province of Bengal, to make common cause in the name of India. His ideal, as indeed the ideal of the Indian National Congress, was that all Indians, regardless of region, religious affiliation, or caste join together to make common cause against foreign rulers.”

Reimagining the Congress

In 1938, Bose achieved a major victory for the nascent left wing within the Congress by winning the party’s presidentship. In 1939, he stood for reelection, polarising the Congress, with Gandhi and other members on the party’s right such as Vallabhbhai Patel opposing him.

Apart from personal rivalry, what divided the left and the right of the Congress was ideological disagreement over cooperation with the British Raj. With the Second World War looming, should the Congress sign on to a new Indian constitution as defined by the Government of India Act, 1935, which offered democratic government at the provincial level but left the Centre in British hands? Or should the party launch another phase of mass agitation for Purna Swaraj, or complete freedom?

While the conservative right wanted to see how cooperation with the Raj could go, the radical left wanted no truck with the British and asked to leave the Empire for good.

Incredibly for the left, Bose’s programme of opposing the Raj was enough to defeat Gandhi’s candidate 1,575 to 1,376 votes in the 1939 election. This democratic victory was churlishly not accepted by the old guard. “‘The lion becomes a king by birth, not by an election in the jungle,” remarked Patel. The entire Working Committee of the Congress – a kind of shadow cabinet – resigned to show loyalty to Gandhi. The only person who remained was Bose’s elder brother and mentor Sarat Bose.

Outmaneuvered, Bose resigned as the president and launched the Forward Bloc, a pressure group within the Congress. (Today, it is a part of the Left Front in Bengal.) He also started the “Left Consolidation Committee”, an umbrella group of all leftist forces within the Congress.

To counter Bose and clip his wings further, the Congress passed a resolution stating that no partyman could launch a mass movement without the express permission of the Working Committee, which was staunchly loyal to Gandhi. Bose, whose radical left wing desired to confront the Raj, protested this move and was promptly removed as president of the Bengal Provincial Congress in July 1939 and also disqualified from holding any Congress post for three years.

At this, Bose bitterly remarked that the “right consolidation” had won even though “the cause which we leftists represent is a just cause”:

“I welcome the decision of the Working Committee virtually expelling me for the Congress for three years. This decision is the logical consequence of the process of right-consolidation…By trying to warn the country about the continued drift towards Constitutionalism and Reformism, by protesting against resolutions which seek to kill the revolutionary spirit of the Congress, by working for the cause of left- consolidation and, last but not least, by consistently appealing to the country to prepare for the coming struggle ­­– I have committed a crime for which I have to pay the penalty…I feel no doubt in my mind that the cause which we leftists represent is a just cause.”

Committed to secularism

Bose’s last few months in India – he would escape to Germany in January 1941 and seek a military alliance with the Nazis against the British Raj – saw him consolidate his position among Bengal’s Muslims in order to build a secular alliance. He struck a seat-sharing deal with the Muslim League for election to the prestigious Calcutta Municipal Corporation, a Congress stronghold. He also launched a movement to remove the Holwell monument, which commemorated the death of British soldiers in the “Black Hole prison” of Siraj-ud-Daula, the last Nawab of Bengal – a strategic move aimed at uniting Hindu and Muslim Bengalis against the British. Alarmed that a joint Hindu-Muslim mass agitation could harm its war effort, the colonial regime arrested Bose a day before the movement was to start.

Bose’s radical leftist politics was derided as hot-headed but his plan to not cooperate with the Raj proved prescient. In October 1939, the Congress dissolved its provincial administrations, frustrated the Raj had declared war without so much as consulting the party. In 1942, embittered that the British had offered nothing in return for Indian cooperation with the imperial war effort, the Congress launched a civil disobedience campaign that Bose had argued for in 1939. However, both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha as well as sections of the Congress right – notably Tamil leader C Rajagopalachari – continued to cooperate with the Raj all through the war. SP Mookerjee, the Mahasabha’s tallest leader in Bengal at the time, would later found the Jana Sangh, the forerunner to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP was founded long after Independence, so it is not surprising that it would appropriate Congressmen to create a historical narrative. The principal figure adopted by the BJP is Patel, a leading light of the Congress right. Now, the BJP feels the need to tap more popular leaders. It has zeroed in on Bose, but he remains an unusual choice given his clear leftist ideology. That the BJP is so constrained for choice shows how small a role its Hindutva thought has played in modern India’s history.