Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple 'Nakie Fakir' as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a Fakir and that naked--a more difficult task. I therefore regard the expression as a compliment, however unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for sake of your people and mine and thorugh them those of the world.It's an arresting anecdote, precisely the sort of story you'd expect Arthur Herman to deploy Gandhi & Churchill: the Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. The trouble that the letter was lost in the mail, never delivered, or at least not until its punch had passed. The story thus illustrates Herman's key structural problem in assembling this dual biography. That is: Gandhi and Churchill never really engaged with each other directly. Aside from the missent letter, they had only one other direct contact: a personal meeting back in 1906 when Churchill was /Secretary of State for the Colonies and Gandhi achieved an audience with him in his role as advocate (supplicant?) for the causeof overseas Indians in South Africa; Churchill pretty much cleaned his clock.
Of course they came to know of each other as Gandhi evolved into his role as the principal symbol of the campaign for Independence and Churchill, as its most energetic and vociferous opponent. Even here, Herman offers no evidence to suggest that Gandhi ever personalized his campaign on Churchill. Churchill for his part did personalize his campaign on Gandhi--"this malignant subversive fanatic," Churchill once called Gandhi. Yet it was a strangely abstract sort of hostility. As detailed by Herman, Churchill's public record makes it tolerably clear that Churchill never understood Indian politics, nor Gandhi's place in it. All the more credit, then, to Herman for assembling such a readable and informative account, on a premise that might not work.
Still even with its inherent limitations, the comparison is instructive. It helps one to see, for example, how Churchill and Gandhi were in many ways more alike than either would have liked to believe. They were both romantics,in the sense that the had vividly imaginative and fully articulated pictures in their mind of the political worlds for which they strove. Gandhi's, what with his cotton dhoti and his spinning wheel, was surely more personal and eccentric (hardly anybody, even in the independence movement, came close to sharing it).
Churchill's vision was, of course Empire--but not just any empire. The thing about Churchill was it his view of Empire was so benign. For all his excoriating rhetoric, he had an odd streak of generosity about him; he also seems genuinely to have believed that one of the evils of the independence movement is that it would victimize the underclasses.
And here is another, perhaps even more important,, point of convergence: both Churchill and Gandhi entertained a vision of an empire that worked--where the human spirit could flourish and soar. Indeed Gandhi in his younger years (like so many of the Indepence elites) was an insatiable Anglophile. He had lived just shy of three years in London in his youth: he trained as a barrister and was called to the bar. It was there that he established his affinity for British culture (and there also where he encountered so many of the crack-brained ideas that would come to dominate his political thinking: vegetarianism, theosophy, and suchlike).
Gandhi thus did not begin as a separationist: his primary purpose in his early years (as an advocate in South Africa) was to insist that the British live up to its own high standards of justice and good order. But even after he went back to India and began to play a role in the indepencence movement, he continued to operate on the premise that there were some things that a well-brought-up Britisher simply would not do. "Without this implicit moralcontract betweenruler and ruled," Herman observes shrewdly, "Gandhi's career would have been nasty, brutish and short."
One of the admirable aspects of Herman's book is the degree to which he avoids imposing any air of inevitabilityon the career of either man: he makes it clear how each career was riven with false stars, wrong turnings and perhaps lucky accidents. Of Churchill, perhaps we know this; there are many accounts of his impulsiveness, his opportunism and his long sojourns in the political wilderness. Of Gandhi, so often bathed in hagiography, the point needs more insistence. Indeed for purely structural reasons (though not for marketing), Herman might have done better to abandon the Churchill theme and to adopt the theme that he almost adopts: the story of the conflict between Gandhi and so many in his own country who would have gladly seen him out of the way or dead (in the end, of course, it was Hindu nationalists who did him in).
Among such competitors, three stand out in Herman's account. One was the brilliant, ambitious, impulsive Subhas Chandra Bose. It was Bose who distinguished himself during World War II by casting his lot with the Nazis and, later, the Japanese. He died (perhaps?) in a plane crash in 1945. I have heard Indians alive today wonder aloud what their life might have been like had he lived. I think this is a fanciful vision. Bose got little enough thanks for his choice: the Germans ignored him and the Japanese abused him. And in the end, he picked the losing team. But his memory persists.
A second was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, remembered now as the founder of modern Pakistan; most of his political career was based around creating a separate base (or state) for Muslims, against Gandhi's (and other's) dreams of a single unified India.
The third is perhaps most interesting of all--Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a figure almost entirely forgottenin the west, though still present in the memory of Indians. Unlike Gandhi (or indeed, almost any other Indian political figure), Ambedkar's roots were among the poorest of the poor: he was a Dalit, an untouchable (and a 14th child in the bargain). Ambedkar's is a story you hear from time to time in India--a child of no resources who shows promise and finds himself taken up by powerful protectors. Ambedkar at last earned a PhD degree from Columbia University and emerged at home as a powerful and influential advocate of the untouchables from whence had sprung. Gandhi, of course, had his own view of the India's poor--and to the likes of Ambedkar, it was patronizing nonsense. Ambedkar spent the rest of Gandhi's life resisting Gandhi's program, and is one of perhaps few leading Indian voices who found it hard to say a generous word about him in death (it intrigues me that we always picture Gandhi in his dhoti; in the only statues of Ambedkar I have seen, he is wearing a suit).
These rivalries are pretty well forgotten now, at least outside India (I wonder how many in India have any exact knowledge of them?). Herman serves them all well by bringing them back to life. But one is left to wonder: was it an "epic rivalry?" Not really; there is too little direct engagement. Did it "destroy an Empire?" A curious might-have-been. Herman does apper to believe that Churchill played his hand badly, and may have played a role in the calamatous transition to independence in 1947--but it was going to happen one way or another, sooner or later. "Forged our age?" Well, yes. However inevitable indepence may have become; however artificial may be supposed rivalry between Gandhi and Churchill, still the world could easily have been a different place without the stamp of their personalities.