He has taken on the might of the Congress single-handedly. And is in no mood to back off. Ashok Malik chronicles the rise, fall and resurrection of this one-man army
THERE’S AN old story about Subramanian Swamy that even if apocryphal and probably untrue still merits retelling simply because it’s part of urban folklore in Lutyens’ Delhi. One day, a powerful editor with a blackmailing tendency walked into Swamy’s basement office in his south Delhi residence, and threw a sheaf of papers on the table. “Dr Swamy,” he thundered, “I have a file on you.” Unperturbed, Swamy reached out for a folder in his bottom drawer, placed them on the desk and said, calmly, with the chilling certitude so typical of his voice, “Mr Editor, I have a file on you.”
Years ago, Swamy was asked whether this story was true. He laughed it off. Maybe it wasn’t, but it was too delightful and too awe-inspiring for him to deny it. It only embellished his reputation as the man who keeps a dossier on everybody. No wonder, to his friends and fans, he is Sherlock Holmes; and to his foes, he is Professor Moriarty.
Whichever way you look at him, Swamy has spent the past year, the past month and the past week doing what he most relishes: making news. Almost at the same time, he has:
• Appeared before the 2G spectrum trial court and sought to give evidence to establish Home Minister (then finance minister) P Chidambaram was prima facie guilty of civil misconduct and of allowing a swindle to take place. He has now been given time to produce more papers
• Negotiated a possible place in the NDA, with senior leaders in the RSS and elements of the BJP backing the entry of his one-man Janata Party into the alliance
• Been removed by Harvard University as a visiting professor of economics because of an article he wrote in a Mumbai newspaper following the July terror bombings, and where he asked Muslims to acknowledge their Hindu ancestry or lose voting rights
In a sense, 2011 has marked Swamy’s comeback. He hasn’t been in Parliament since 1999, when he was instrumental in ensuring the fall of the first NDA government. For a long while, he was shunned by mainstream parties, and seen as too clever and wily for his own good. His most audacious achievement — how many people can claim to have ended a five-year Lok Sabha after only one year and pushed a country of a billion into fresh elections? — had also become his undoing.
After a period in the wilderness — in 2001, he was free enough to resume going to Harvard for a two-month visiting professorship every summer — Swamy fought his way into the limelight. He cultivated the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the religious right in the Sangh Parivar, orphaned as the BJP sought a post-Ayodhya positioning. By putting himself in the middle of the 2G scandal and going after Chidambaram with his trademark gusto — he argues his own cases in court — Swamy also repackaged himself as an anti-corruption crusader.
These twin identities — overstated Hindu nationalism and an opposition to the Congress, specifically Sonia Gandhi — have become Swamy’s calling card. This is how a contemporary generation knows him. The rare Indian politician who uses Twitter to spread political propaganda — rather than to tell people his travel plans — Swamy has carved a social media presence. To his 40,000 followers on Twitter and the Hindu right in the blogosphere, he’s the best prime minister India never had.
In its own manner it’s impressive. Swamy has not won an election since 1998. In 2004, when he contested from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and worked hard on his campaign, he finished fourth with only 12,000 votes. Nevertheless he has carved a ‘virtual electorate’ for himself: the only serious politician with more Twitter followers than voters.
IT’S EASY to poke fun at Swamy and his idiosyncrasies, to label him a “maverick” — a description he loathes — to resort to puns such as “One-man Swamy”. On the other hand, he represents one of Indian politics’ bittersweet ironies. With his scholarship, obvious cerebral gifts, determination and global connections, he should have been a minister of long standing, contributing to policy and shaping economic and diplomatic strategies. Instead, he is the perennial outsider in the establishment; associated with nuisance value and the politics of destruction.
If it has turned out this way, it is a commentary on Indian politics, which has failed to optimally use the only MP who ever held a tenure position at Harvard. It is also a commentary on Swamy and the choices he has made at different stages of his career. Every individual in public life has a back story. Swamy has not one but several back stories.
Swamy is a child of power Delhi, coming to the city when only six months old, after his mathematician father changed jobs. Sitaram Subramanian rose to become director of the Central Statistical Institute. One of his formidable professional rivals was PC Mahalanobis, statistician and father of the Planning Commission.
Swamy turned to mathematics like his father, joining Hindu College — for which he appeared in an alumni debate this past week, crossing swords with old students from St Stephen’s, the college he rejected “because I felt like a foreigner there” — and finishing third in Delhi University. For his master’s, he enrolled at the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata (then Calcutta), seat of the formidable Mahalanobis himself.
“It was here that I first felt prejudice,” he says, “Mahalanobis found out I was my father’s son, and I began to get lower grades than I deserved.” Mahalanobis had written a paper on derivatives for an international journal. As a post-graduate student, Swamy critiqued it and wrote a counter-paper suggesting Mahalanobis was not being original but had borrowed from the work of another mathematician who had done work on the subject a century earlier. The paper was accepted and published in the same journal. It won Swamy no friends at ISI but was noticed by a Harvard professor who offered the young student a fellowship.
AT HARVARD, Swamy had completed his PhD by 24 and moved into teaching. He co-authored a paper on the theory of index numbers with Paul Samuelson (it was published in 1974) and became something of a specialist on the Chinese economy. In 1969, while he was associate professor, he was invited by Amartya Sen to join Delhi School of Economics (DSE). He packed his bags and came home.
Between the invitation and the arrival, fellow-traveller academics at DSE had changed their minds on Swamy. He was seen as too market-friendly and too outspoken — he was already talking of a nuclear deterrent for India — and was offered only a reader’s rank. Indeed, the money sanctioned for the full professorial chair on Chinese studies — the position initially earmarked for Swamy — was returned by DSE to the University Grants Commission.
It was patently unfair and Swamy found support from sections of students. In a famous incident that old-timers at Delhi University still recall, Amit Mitra, now finance minister of West Bengal, bodily lifted Swamy at a gathering. He remains a Swamy favourite, indicating the man’s range of contacts.
Swamy then moved to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), teaching economics to students there, turning up at hostels to speak on politics and international issues and making a name for himself for his non-left views. He published what he called the ‘Swadeshi Plan’, arguing India didn’t need foreign aid and suggesting a market-friendly alternative to the Five-Year Plans.
With his approach, he said 10 percent growth rates were feasible, as were agricultural exports and a bigger defence budget. It was heresy. In March 1970, during the Parliament debate on the budget, then prime minister Indira Gandhi mentioned Swamy by name and dismissed him as a “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas”.
Retribution was swift. At 5.15 pm on a December evening in 1972, Swamy was given a letter saying he had been sacked from IIT with effect from 5 pm. His wife, who taught mathematics, was also sacked. Swamy took IIT to court, eventually winning his case in 1991. He rejoined as a professor for one day and then resigned. He still has a case pending against IIT for a claim of salary arrears for the 1972-91 period, which he wants with 18 percent interest.
HOUNDED BY the establishment, Swamy found a natural ally in the Jana Sangh, which sent him to the Rajya Sabha in 1974. In June 1975 came the Emergency and a warrant of arrest. Disguised as a Sikh, Swamy escaped to Chennai (Madras) and then Sri Lanka, flying to the United States where he became a spokesperson for India’s opposition and also took up a visiting professor’s assignment at Harvard.
On 10 August 1976 occurred perhaps the most dramatic episode of the Emergency. It was the opening day of the Monsoon Session. “I had been away from Parliament for six months,” Swamy recalls, “and could have lost my seat for non-attendance. There were also charges that I was enjoying life in America while my colleagues were in jail.” So Swamy returned, entered Parliament and slipped into his seat.
While the chairman of the House (then vice-president BD Jatti) was making the obituary references, Swamy got up and said, “I have a point of order. There is no obituary reference for democracy. It has also died.” A stunned Jatti muttered, “No point of order, no point of order.” He then asked members to stand in silence for those notables who had died recently. “He should have asked the marshal to grab me,” Swamy says, “because there was a warrant to my name.” In the confusion, with the rest of the House standing in silence, Swamy ran out.
The story gets even more comic. Parliament had minimal security those days. Swamy jumped into his car and drove off towards the capital’s Birla Mandir, where he parked and changed his clothes: “I put on a kurta and a kada, trying to resemble a dishevelled Youth Congress thug.” A Sanjay Gandhi public meeting had just got over and Swamy joined a procession moving towards the railway station. He boarded a train to Mathura, then travelled to Nagpur and Mumbai and beyond. Finally he crossed over to Nepal, and flew from there to Bangkok and the United States. The Sangh network facilitated his journey and foreign governments honoured his cancelled passport. The episode made him a hero for Emergency opponents.
HOWEVER, HE had also made one powerful enemy: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nobody is quite sure why the feud began. Some say Vajpayee felt threatened. Swamy himself attributes it to a personality clash: “I was Nanaji Deshmukh’s chela, and Nanaji and Vajpayee were drifting apart.”
In 1977, when the Janata Party government was sworn in, Morarji Desai proposed making Swamy minister of state for finance. Vajpayee vetoed it. In 1980, when the BJP was founded, Vajpayee refused to allow Swamy in. “He was the moderate and I the hardliner,” Swamy says, sardonically. He reacted by abusing Vajpayee, questioning his personal life and accusing him of collaborating with Indira Gandhi. On his part, Vajpayee told journalists Swamy had been kept back in the Janata Party “to keep an eye on it”.
Unwittingly, the prophecy acquired a life of its own. Today, Swamy is president and sole spokesman of the rump Janata Party, all that remains of the first great non-Congress experiment.
Two decades later, Vajpayee and Swamy had one final encounter. In 1998, the BJP was seeking the AIADMK’s support to form a government in New Delhi. As MP from Madurai and Jayalalithaa’s ally and ambassador in the capital, Swamy began to negotiate. At one breakfast meeting, the deal seemed to have been done. “Vajpayee promised to make me finance minister,” Swamy says, “but after he got Jayalalithaa’s letter of support, he backtracked.”
Four people were present at that breakfast meeting. One of the other three told this correspondent it was Swamy who had broached the subject of the foreign or finance ministry and that Vajpayee had mumbled without quite committing. Whatever the truth, Swamy was smarting. A year later, he walked into Sonia Gandhi’s office and heard her tell him: “I believe you want to bring down this government, so do I.”
By going after Chidambaram in the 2G scam case, he has repackaged himself as an antigraft crusader
Swamy hosted a famous tea party at a Delhi hotel, invited both Sonia and Jayalalithaa. That led to the AIADMK withdrawing support to Vajpayee’s government, which was voted out in April 1999.
This is where the story gets confusing. Swamy claims Sonia promised to back (or even have her MPs join) a non-Congress, non-BJP led government with him as prime minister: “Chandra Shekhar and HD Deve Gowda were the other names discussed.” In the end, the Congress president tried and failed to get the numbers for a government headed by her party.
In the election that followed, the BJP was re-elected, Vajpayee was back. Jayalalithaa and the Congress had an electoral alliance, but dropped Swamy, who lost his Lok Sabha seat. Out in the cold, he began a long, still unfinished exile from Parliament.
SO IS the exile about to end? BJP President Nitin Gadkari has told party colleagues he is “highly impressed” with Swamy and wants to send him to the Rajya Sabha. Not everybody in the upper echelons of the BJP agrees. Others in the NDA have not been consulted.
Swamy has won over LK Advani and persuaded the RSS and the VHP. Former RSS chief KS Sudarshan, VHP doyen Ashok Singhal and Advani confidant S Gurumurthy have been his advocates. The BJP’s so-called second generation has been resisting. When Advani mooted the idea at a meeting in 2005, the late Pramod Mahajan is believed to have remarked, “Advaniji, aren’t there enough Subramanian Swamys in the party for you to want to bring in the original?”
Swamy has cultivated the VHP as a defender of Hindu causes. Part of his USP is that he can say things and draw analogies that others in the Sangh simply can’t. For instance, after the Allahabad High Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, Swamy was on television arguing that no mosque could be constructed in Ayodhya. He compared the idea to building the Islamic centre Cordoba House close to the location of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan.
Politically, Swamy draws his appeal from his hostility to Sonia Gandhi. He alleges she has salted away money abroad and even says the Bofors kickbacks went to her family and not to Rajiv Gandhi. “After Chidambaram,” he says, “my next target is Robert Vadra. I have documents on him. But I will act at a time of my choosing.”
The bravado notwithstanding, Swamy has never quite produced hard proof. All he has referred to — the odd line in a KGB official’s translated memoirs, an article in a littleknown newspaper — hardly makes for compelling evidence and is open to more than one interpretation. Also, his effort to drive a wedge between the politics and motivations of Rajiv Gandhi — who he says was a close friend — and Sonia Gandhi doesn’t sound convincing.
Swamy came to know Rajiv in 1989, when Chandra Shekhar became prime minister for four months, backed by the Congress. Swamy was the go-between and served as commerce and law minister. Was a deep and lasting bond formed or were both men simply using each other, as politicians do?
Since Rajiv was under the Bofors cloud at the time, how did this square up with Swamy’s avowed anti-corruption zeal? He says many others were involved in the Bofors deal, including VP Singh (now dead) and Arun Nehru. Nehru of course laughs away the accusation. “I was pushing the CBI to do a deal with Bofors,” Swamy says, “promising to defreeze restrictions on the company if we were given the names.” CBI veterans offer another version. They say, as law minister, Swamy tried to influence the prosecution and jeopardise the case.
THROUGH THESE intrigues and conspiracy theories, there emerges another side to Swamy, almost like a paradox. When he wants the man is capable of astounding intellectual clarity. He was an early advocate of better relations with the US and Israel. He spoke of economic reforms before it became fashionable. His understanding of China has not been disturbed by his strategic distrust of it.
In 1975, he wrote a book called Economic Growth in China and India, 1952–70: A Comparative Appraisal (University of Chicago Press). In it, he said India’s and China’s growth rates were nearly the same (“About 3.5 percent, the so-called Hindu rate of growth”). “I explained India and China had the same per capita GDP of about $250,” he says, “people like Amartya Sen and others were writing of China growing at 10 percent and with a per capita GDP of $1,000.”
‘My next target is Robert Vadra. I have documents on him. But I will act at a time of my choosing,’ he says
Swamy was proved right in a strange way. In 1980, Deng Xiaoping’s China came to the World Bank for concessional aid. The World Bank pointed out as per Chinese data that the country’s per capita GDP was much higher than the concessional-aid threshold. The Chinese discounted the exaggerated Mao-era statistics and offered Swamy’s findings as validation!
Ten years ago, while others were extolling the China miracle, Swamy was already cautioning his interlocutors about the coming problems given lack of growth in internal demand. In 2011, he predicts China is “headed for a serious financial crisis in two years”; “The banking and financial system is rotten.”
At Harvard, Swamy had three stints as visiting professor, in the mid-1970s, the mid-1980s and then from 2001 till this summer. He flew down to the US for two months every year: “The weather was good… And on the weekends, I addressed groups of Indians.” It built him a formidable NRI fan club.
At the university itself, he taught two courses — the first on mathematics for economists, and the second on the economic development of China and India. Following his article in the DNA newspaper, a peer group of professors decided to end his contract and not invite him in 2012.
He was shunned by mainstream parties for ages and was seen as too clever and wily for his own good
Swamy is expectedly angry. “The Department of Economics wanted me back,” he says, “not one student of mine has complained against me or the article. I have not advocated violence.” Some of Swamy’s suggestions in the article are difficult to defend. For example:
• “Remove the masjid in Kashi Vishwanath temple and the 300 masjids at other temple sites”
• “Implement the Uniform Civil Code, make learning of Sanskrit and singing of Vande Matram mandatory, and declare India a Hindu Rashtra in which non-Hindus can vote only if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus”
Having said that, has Harvard impinged upon Swamy’s right to free speech, even extreme speech? Within the university, there is debate on this. Liberal arts departments in American campuses can be claustrophobic in their political correctness. Does Swamy have a case here? The article was probably not enough for him to be dismissed from a tenure position, so why then deny him a short-term contract?
With his trademark dexterity, Swamy could well turn adversity to advantage. At 72, he’s getting no younger and would have had to stop doing this two-month annual stint sooner or later. Now he has the chance to posit the loss of a lucrative Harvard assignment as a sacrifice for the Hindu cause.
SWAMY IS not a ‘what you see is what you get’ politician. There are layers to him and he is not a straightforward subject to read. Even his Hindutva seems decidedly opportunistic. The wall in his basement office — the same one the blackmailing editor may or may not have visited — was till a few years ago covered with photographs of Swamy alone and with various personages, from Deng to Morarji. Now, keeping these photographs company is a calendar art display of Hindu gods and goddesses.
When did the transition happen? “When the Shankaracharya of Kanchi was arrested (in 2004). I felt Hinduism was being targeted… Hindus were also the victims of terrorism…” The poker face remains just as it was.
Swamy is not immune to playing factional games, or rather exploiting factional fault lines elsewhere. In the 2G swindle, he has targeted Chidambaram but exonerated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. When he went after Ramakrishna Hegde and succeeded in ensuring his resignation following a phone tapping scandal, there were whispers he was batting for Hegde’s rivals in Karnataka. He was driven by politics; civil liberty was an add-on cause.
At various points, he has attacked M Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa to, coincidentally, the benefit of the other. Even the corruption case Jayalalithaa faces in Bangalore — for which she recently visited the Karnataka capital — has its origins in a Swamy petition.
All this has earned Swamy the reputation of being a short-term ally. He brushes this aside and insists he never ditches his friends. “Chandraswami, (PV) Narasimha Rao… I was with them when everybody left them…” In the early 1990s, Rao appointed him chairman of a commission to formulate India’s position on the proposal to impose uniform labour standards as part of the upcoming WTO agreement. He gave Swamy a Cabinet rank and invited him to Cabinet meetings. The commission was placed under the commerce ministry, then run by a minister of state: Chidambaram. Outranked then, under fire now, Chidambaram and Swamy have some history.
At the end of the day, Swamy is trusted by few but ignored by even fewer. He can plug into extremely diverse social groups — serious economists, the loony right, the Janata parivar, the TamBrahm fraternity. He can hold both Ram Setu and N Ram close to his heart (or profess to). For all his right-wing politics, the Hindu has been a loyal platform and publisher. His dogs have come from N Ram’s litter, as indeed have Sonia Gandhi’s dogs — but that’s another contradiction, for Swamy to spin another day.
Right now, he’s dreaming of the Rajya Sabha; and giving Chidambaram nightmares.
Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.