As a technique, it is a good forcing mechanism to think through and assign the relative importance of a particular event to influence the course of actual history.
An interesting counterfactual that was posed recently was by the Indian historian Ramachandra Guha. Writing in the Telegraph, he posed a the intriguing question- What if Netaji had returned home to India after WW2- how would the course of Indian history been different?
His conjectures are pretty interesting, he states that Netaji would probably have started his own party which would have evolved as a leftist alternative to the Congress, posing a formidable electoral challenge. (Read the full article at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1091010/jsp/opinion/story_11578156.jsp)
Extending the counterfactual- I surmise the following about the policy direction that India would have evolved towards:
- Economy: More free market capitalism with an emphasis on wage goods, as compared to planned State directed economy
- Foreign policy: Less "internationalist" and more pragmatic & militarist
- Social fabric: Continued to be secular, with social welfarist measures targeting disadvantaged groups
- Governance structure: More unitary system- with no linguistic states
- Political system: A weak and faltering democracy
I feel that a viable leftist alternative to Nehru, would have reduced his own influence within the Congress, pushing it to a slightly right of center party. We forget that unlike its modern avatar- the Congress (I), the INC at the time of independence was a party with vigorous internal debate and multiple points of view. Nehru was undoubtedly the most popular leader, but it was because he was unchallenged as a vote getter, that he was able to shape the Congress into a leftist party with little resistance. With a charismatic Netaji as an opposition force, it would have been far more difficult for Nehru to completely takeover the Congress policy agenda. Right leaning leaders such as P.D. Tandon and Rajaji, would have carried more weight than they did. Also, right leaning Congressmen and the royal classes who left the Congress to form the Swatantra party, would have continued within, due to the real threat of a complete socialist takeover by Subhas Bose, creating further pressure for the Congress to be right of center. This would have led to a Congress party that is more private sector and free-market friendly. This coupled with the likely militarist posture of Bose given his INA-background, would have also probably led to a foreign policy that was more "pragmatic" and "nationalist" than "internationalist" ( as any move to be dovish would have been easily allowed Bose to present himself as a strong, decisive military leader, particularly after the China war).
Given that both Bose and Nehru had a secular outlook, it is unlikely that social policy would have been radically different. In terms of governance structure, I think the lack of viable pan-India alternative to the Congress, facilitated the capture of the opposition space by regional/linguisitic forces. The map of modern India culd have looked very different if 2 national parties were present as alternatives for voters.
However, the Nehruvian takeover prevented anti-democratic tendencies from gaining ground on both the right and the left. As Pavan Verma explains in his superb book "Being Indian", democracy flourished in India initially paradoxically due to the anti-democratic ethos of the elites!- since they allowed it to take root with the hubristic notion that they would have access to power far more easily than the poor. A strong leftist alternative, would have scared the ruling classes into proactive measures to secure their fiefdoms, challenging democracy.
A stronger challenge would have probably arisen from the left in the form of Bose himself- unlike the Anglophile Nehru, it is unlikely that Bose had a deep philosophical commitment to democracy itself (after all he did seek to forge alliances with the Axis powers). A restless Bose might have mounted a direct challenge to the democratic structure, with a combination of revolutionary leftist politics and military muscle (with a band of loyal INA soldiers).
Like all counterfactual history- this is very speculative. However, it actually underlines how central Nehru was to the evolution of modern India- with just one viable alternative leader- the nature of the Indian state could have looked very different.