Civil disobedience meeting, Bombay 1930: Historians have overstated the role of Congress direct action in securing Indian indepdence (credit: popperphoto/getty images)
"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially." Imagine those famous words spoken "at the stroke of the midnight hour", not by Jawaharlal Nehru as leader of a partitioned Indian republic, but by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as prime minister of a confederation of the whole subcontinent, with Dominion status and the British monarch remaining as King Emperor. The new federation has a weak centre and strong, autonomous provinces like undivided Punjab and Bengal. Its constitution is based on the Cabinet Mission Plan, proposed by the British government in 1946 and accepted by both the predominantly Hindu Congress Party and the separatist Muslim League.
To persuade Jinnah, already dying of tuberculosis, to abandon his largely tactical demand for Pakistan, an independent state carved out of India's Muslim-majority provinces, Mahatma Gandhi, the presiding deity of Congress, has given him the premiership of a coalition national government. Nehru, whose arrogance and insistence on the top job had alienated Jinnah, has been slapped down in a realignment of the Congress leadership. Gandhi has joined forces with anti-Nehru conservatives such as Sardar Patel and the south Indian leader Rajaji. Nehru had been collaborating closely with Lord "Dickie" Mountbatten, sent out as viceroy by the new Labour government to "cut and run" as quickly as possible. But the Nehru-Mountbatten axis is seriously discredited by a scandal about Nehru's love affair with Lady Mountbatten, including insinuations that bisexual "Dickie" was a willing participant in aménage à trois.
Mountbatten is packed off home in disgrace, while his perspicacious predecessor, Lord Wavell, returns as viceroy, resuming negotiations for a more gradual transfer of power to a united subcontinent. The result is the new national unity coalition between Jinnah and Congress conservatives. With Jinnah as his Muslim prime minister, Rajaji, a Hindu brahmin, succeeds Wavell as the first Indian governor-general of the new Dominion.
Hindu-Muslim tension, ratcheted up by the Pakistan demand and Congress opposition, now subsides. Jinnah's main power-base, the influential Muslim minority of India's central Hindi belt, is delighted with the power-sharing deal. For them, Pakistan was always a tactical rather than a practical demand, because it would uproot them from their homes in a partitioned India. The two largest Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab are equally pleased, because they remain undivided with powerful, devolved governments of their own. A year later, Jinnah dies, and his successors as leaders of the Muslim League, lacking either his charisma or ambition, accept the role of second fiddle to Congress. Gandhi's gamble has paid off, and he lives happily on for another decade, instead of falling victim to a fanatical Hindu assassin.
This historic Hindu-Muslim compromise avoids the estimated 2 million deaths and 12 million refugees caused by a violent partition and the ethnic cleansing it would involve. It also has profound international implications for the balance of power between the West and the Soviet bloc and for the future of global Islam. A united, pro-Western India, unhampered by wars with Pakistan and a nuclear arms race, acts as a major bulwark against Russian and Chinese expansionism in Central Asia. The world's largest Muslim population — now 500 million — peacefully assimilated into a secular Indian democracy, avoids the jihadism of future generations in Pakistan and Kashmir. It dramatically shifts the Islamic centre of gravity from the turbulent Middle East, preoccupied with the issue of Palestine, because Indian Islam, with its far more tolerant and eclectic Sufic traditions, permeated by indigenous Hinduism, is a potent antidote to the fundamentalism of both Arab Wahabism and Iranian Shi'ism.