x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

Skipped by history

Sure, Gandhi and Churchill were great men - but, Arthur Herman argues, the world refused to bend to their will.

The Great Man theory of history has it, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." The theory suggests that every aspect of our age as we know it has been moulded by these titanic personalities, their influences channelling the raging currents of power, politics and economy. In the 20th century, personalities did not come more titanic than Mohandas Gandhi and Winston Churchill, men who held sway over many millions of lives, bathed in popular appeal and irretrievably defined the destinies of their countries.

The conclusion to Arthur Herman's new book, Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, is thus a bold one. "The world," Herman writes in his final chapter, "refused to be reshaped in either Churchill's or Gandhi's image… The world remained obdurate in the face of their personal crusades to change it. History stayed on its steady oblivious course." He means, one presumes, that their most beloved ambitions - for Churchill, to keep the British Empire together, and for Gandhi, to achieve a wholly peaceful Indian independence - were ultimately thwarted. To call history oblivious to them, however, is almost certainly an overstatement.

Herman's suggestion of an epic personal rivalry is similarly contentious. His subjects met exactly once - in London in November 1906, when Gandhi visited Churchill, then colonial under-secretary, to protest the treatment of Indians in South Africa. They corresponded rarely, received news of each other only through third parties, and often waged fiercer domestic battles with their own countrymen than with each other.

Gandhi & Churchill thus raises an interesting question. Were these two men rivals, or were they simply two among many points of collision as waning British imperialism ran into waxing Indian self-determination? Herman suggests the former, but the narrative of his book really hints at the latter; it reads, more than anything else, as two parallel biographies. Herman is effective at shrinking vast detail into pertinent biographical sketches. With Gandhi, he hugs the arc of a life that began in Hindu orthodoxy and moved through Victorian New Age thought, a renewed individual spirituality and a slow disillusionment with the British Empire. In South Africa, practising as a lawyer, Gandhi began to involve himself with the Indian fight for rights and to experiment with his concepts of civil disobedience and non-violent struggle. By the time he finally moved back to India, in 1915, Gandhi's worldview and philosophies had been firmly cast; over the next 33 years, he would pitch those philosophies into the Indian independence movement.

While Gandhi went first to Britain and then to South Africa, Churchill went first to India - as a lieutenant in the Fourth Hussars - and then to South Africa, reporting on and occasionally fighting in the Boer War. His conviction in the benefits of the Empire, for the rulers as well as the ruled, was inherited from his father, Randolph, and this tasting menu of overseas imperialism only strengthened that conviction. Like Gandhi, he returned home with a resolute political stance, though he too was to find determined opponents even on home turf.

At a remove of over half a century, it is easy to forget that Gandhi and Churchill, in their time, did not stride unfettered into history as the iconic national leaders we recognise today. Rather, they were ambitious and sometimes divisive politicians, caught in the hardscrabble of shifting allegiances, self-interested lobbies and multiple constituencies. The best sections of Herman's book are the rich, detailed reminders of Gandhi and Churchill's wars at home.

Even at the peak of his popular veneration, in the late 1930s and the 1940s, Gandhi faced fierce detractors among his own people. He had to pick his way through Mohammad Ali Jinnah's demand for a separate Muslim nation, through Subhash Chandra Bose's appeal for more bellicose tactics against the British, through socialists and capitalists, through BR Ambedkar's agitations on behalf of the frustrated Hindu untouchables, and through the Hindu Mahasabha's criticisms of his concessions to Muslims. He had to fight to persuade even the Indian National Congress and his closest disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru, to adopt his strategies. As Gandhi once wrote to Jawaharlal's father, Motilal Nehru, "We have to do battle both within and without."

Churchill's domestic challenge lay in cobbling together support in Parliament for an imperial creed that seemed increasingly untenable. He scoffed at the very notion of holding equal talks with Indian leaders, so when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the Conservative Party first considered Dominion status and then independence for India, Churchill rebelled furiously. He believed that "the loss of India will be the death blow of the British Empire" and that the Indian races were incapable of governing themselves, even when political and public sentiment had swung away from the concept of Empire and towards the self-determination of peoples.

In a way, both Churchill and Gandhi remained enraptured by visions of a glorious national past - Churchill with his British Empire, and Gandhi with his bucolic India of the villages. As leaders, both refused to compromise on those visions, and on the principles inherent in them. Both were destined to be disappointed. Churchill's one consolation was that he was not prime minister when India gained independence, while Gandhi watched in despair as India heaved and broke with the communal violence of Partition.

But Herman is so eager to unite Gandhi and Churchill in grand disappointment, and to portray them as men woefully behind their times, that he narrates their careers as long litanies of failure. He dwells for half a chapter on Churchill's strategic mistakes in planning the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War I, but he barely mentions his monumental successes, such as the evacuation of Dunkirk or the Battle of Britain.

Similarly, describing the violent demonstrations in the wake of a public trial of Indian freedom fighters in 1945, Herman writes: "Ironically, the one Indian mass protest movement that [Gandhi] did not start did the most long-lasting damage to British rule." For a track record like Gandhi's, that commentary severely strains the bounds of credulity. What of, for instance, Gandhi's 1930 Salt Satyagraha, in which he implored Indians to buck the salt tax and surrender peacefully to the police, and which led to the arrest of 90,000 people? It inflicted, Churchill said, "such humiliation and defiance as has not been known since the British first trod the soil of India". The following year, as a direct outcome, Gandhi signed a pact with Lord Irwin, the British viceroy in India. The pact itself would hold little material benefit for the Indians, but it was the first official symbol of Indo-British parity. "Psychologically," the Mahatma's grandson Rajmohan Gandhi wrote in his biography Mohandas, "it was a revolution."

Indeed, it is the psychological that Herman seems to overlook in his comparative biography. Gandhi and Churchill's biggest similarity was their ability to rise to their epic struggles on their own principles, and to pull with them, through sheer force of character, entire nations. For all their fractious domestic politics, they became the embodiment, through the seismic decades of the 1930s and 1940s, of the spirit of their countries. To that, history was anything but oblivious.

Samanth Subramanian, a New Delhi-based journalist, has written for Mint, The Hindu, The New Republic, and the Far Eastern Economic Review.