In the late 1800s, an American mathematician named Augustus de Morgan expostulated that anything that can possibly go wrong, usually will. I am not sure how, but that adage came to be known as ‘Murphy’s Law’. If de Morgan had been here now he could pen another epigram, stating that pro-democracy movements usually unravel and leave behind a far larger mess than before.

This might seem like sacrilege but I find a similarity between Nelson Mandela and Netaji Subhas Bose’s pro-democracy movements. Both were in different ways, extremely naive.

Let’s take a look at Netaji Subhas Bose first. Bose, in his well-meaning nationalism, didn’t think twice about joining hands with two of 20th century’s most brutal regimes, the Nazis and the Japs, in the mistaken notion that, if the Axis won the 2nd World War, somehow they would just step back and look on benignly, while he ruled India as he saw fit. Photos of him in a natty double-breasted jacket, downing schnapps and grinning with the likes of Heinrich Himmler as late as in 1942/43 are freely available on the net. They make me sick to my stomach and want to scream at him, “How could you?”


Netaji (black suit) with Heinrich Himmler (1943)

In spite of cooling his heels inside a Berlin hotel for more than a year (where he waited for an audience with Hitler), Netaji had chosen not to take cognizance of the gas chambers and ovens dotting the European countryside at the time, some of which incinerated 25000 innocent Jewish lives a day. He had also decided that those thousands of Chinese and Korean ‘comfort women’ who were forced to service Japanese soldiers since the turn of the century, simply did not exist. Being in denial would have to be an understatement for Netaji. Blinded by dreams of absolute power over 300 million Indians would probably be a more apt analysis of his state of mind at the time.

If the Axis had prevailed in the war and consequently Japan overran India, I might have been born in a ghetto, with slanting eyes, speaking Japanese tinged Bengali, my mother employed in the ‘services’ sector and my Dad would probably be disfigured, making Zyklon-B inside an ill-ventilated Indian subsidiary of the German chemical giant, Degussa. I am trying hard not to identify Netaji’s naivete by another name – stupidity.

What is astonishing is that Netaji appears to have passed on his naivete-befuddled genes in perpetuity, to most of his fellow Bengalis and their descendants. He is revered in Bengal even now, by the hoi-polloi and literati alike. Every big city in Bengal has a main thoroughfare called Netaji Subhas Avenue which has somewhere on it, a Netaji Subhas memorial or a statue. I have many Bengali Facebook friends who sing paeans on his birth anniversaries.

It is difficult to understand how the blind adulation toward Bose took root, in the otherwise highly enlightened people of Bengal. His zipping around in German U-Boats and Japanese Mitsubishi bombers, combined with his dashingly handsome features and his fiery rhetoric must have made him look like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn to the ordinary Bengali. Have I got my facts as regards his wholehearted collaboration with the Nazis and the Japs wrong? I would like to be corrected if I have. Personally, I think I understated the depth of his close relations with both.

Now let’s look at the parallel that I drew with Nelson Mandela. It relates only with Netaji’s naivete and not his quest for power. Mandela did not hanker after power. The unraveling of the pro-democracy movement against apartheid was carried out with finesse, under the veneer of transitional negotiations. It started within the white National Party of South Africa around the late 80s, when the sanctions and embargoes against the apartheid regime began biting real hard.

Somebody in the party suggested that it was time for a new way of looking at the whole thing. He proposed that white South Africa could make it seem like it had forsaken apartheid and handed over the reins to the blacks, with a black man as the face of the new ‘liberated’ South Africa while they, the whites, continued holding the purse strings, the mines, the banks, the defense industries and the armory. That way, they just might lick this whole international boycott thing.

If the plan worked, then instead of white guards with rifles and whips at the mines, they could then have their own chosen black guards there. In place of white policemen gunning down demonstrators in Soweto, there could be black policemen doing much the same thing. Sure, once in a while they’d throw a bone. They’d release funds to build a school building here and dig a well there, just so the ANC could claim that they had bettered the living conditions of ordinary blacks, after coming to power. The apartheid label and the economic sanctions would disappear. South Africa Inc. would be back in business, this time unfettered.

Thanks to Mandela’s naivete in thinking that true redistribution of wealth would happen merely through his sense of justice and fair play and his spirit of reconciliation, the ploy worked. His initial demands for complete nationalization of the mining and resources sector softened in the interests of tranquility and peace. He failed to realize that you don’t negotiate with evil, you exterminate it. South Africa remains a deeply divided country, it’s whites living inside luxurious gated communities from where they run virtually every economic enterprise and control more than 85% of the private equity.

As for India, fortunately Mahatma Gandhi prevailed over Netaji. Gandhi, a no-nonsense guy, made it very clear to the British that there would be no compromise, no Brits left to own and run institutions, after independence. “But how will you run the vast bureaucracy? The railroads, the institutions, the banks, the heavy industries? You just don’t have the expertise. Don’t you realize it’ll all descend into chaos?” said the Brits to him. And to that, came Gandhiji’s now famous retort,” Yes, but it shall be our chaos. We will learn to sort out that mess by ourselves.”

India is probably the only nation where a pro-democracy movement has succeeded in achieving at least some degree of stability and social justice, growth and prosperity, education and enlightenment.

South Africa, in spite of Nelson Mandela, still remains a nation imprisoned inside a far more real apartheid, an economic one.