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The inscrutable politics of Subramanian Swamy

SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN
T
o see Subramanian Swamy in his
natural habitat is emphatically not to
see him thus: in the heart of a throng
of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
(RSS) workers, on a January morn-
ing, in the town of Dhar, in Madhya
Pradesh. Mere minutes after Swamy,
the presidentand, frankly, the total-
ityof the Janata Party, hopped out
of an SUV, he was swallowed by the
crowd. Somewhere within its crevices, he was inserted into
a massive garland, and a vivid red tilak was smeared across
his forehead like an angry wound. Then he reappeared atop
a jalopy that had been converted, with the judicious aid of a
silvered backboard, silvered side panels and a cloth-covered
bench, into a motorised chariot. The crowd disciplined it-
self into a column and began to trickle through the streets
of Dhar. A small boy sat sideways next to the driver of the
chariot and gaped unceasingly at Swamy. Even in late Janu-
ary, Dhar had grown decidedly hot by 10 am, and Swamy
looked uncomfortable and hassled.
Late the previous night, standing near a baggage carousel
at the Mumbai airport, Swamy had explained to me why
we were headed to Dhar. A small delegation from the town
had visited him in Delhi in early 2010 to ask if he would
take up the case of the absent Vagdevi Saraswati, a striking
11th-century stone idol that had been transported, just over
100 years ago, from a Dhar temple to the British Museum in
London. The idol used to occupy a temple within the Bho-
jashala, a school built by Bhoj, king of Malwa, around the
year 1034 AD. I got so busy with the 2G case, but these
guys didnt let me forget about it, Swamy said. And every
Basant Panchami, they have this big rally in Dhar, so thats
where were going. Im kind of a chief guest there.
The Basant Panchami rally every spring has, for a couple
of decades now, thrummed with communal tension. On the
grounds of the Bhojashala is a dargah, also several centuries
old, one of its green-and-white walls pressing up against the
sandstone perimeter of the Bhojashala. The local police and
the Madhya Pradesh government have tried, with varying
degrees of sincerity and opportunism, to regulate the entry
of Hindu and Muslim pilgrims into this complex; at the mo-
ment, Hindus pray on Tuesdays and on Basant Panchami,
while Muslims pray on Fridays. The RSS has demanded,
through repeated agitations, that the Bhojashala remain
permanently open to Hindusand, implicitly, closed to
Muslims. There have been lathi charges, and people have
been injured and even died. Youll probably see more police
than public there, Sanjay Sisodia, a Dhar journalist who
runs a slim and extraordinarily colourful local weekly, told
me before the rally. In 2006, Friday and Basant Panchami
fell on the same day; Dhars Muslims were supposed to pray
until 1 pm, but the police could not hold back the swelling
sea of Hindu worshippers, and the lathis had to be broken
out. In 2013, Sisodia observed gloomily, Basant Panchami
would again land on a Friday.
Within this charged and emotional space, as is his wont,
Swamy has managed to nd for himself an angle that relies
on his clinical knowledge of legal and bureaucratic proce-
dure. At the Mumbai airport, Swamy had narrated to me
the details of a case from his brief tenure as Union minister
for commerce and law, in 1990-91. A Nataraja bronze had
been scheduled for auction in London, bought off a farmer
who found it in a disused temple; Indian authorities argued
that, under Hindu law, a temple is always a temple, how-
ever disused. If I build it, God is the owner. I am just the
trustee, Swamy told me. The House of Lords surprisingly
upheld our view. He maintained also that the British Mu-
seums charter allowed it to return objects of religious sig-
nicance if youre not bringing it back to put into your own
museum. I found no such reference in the British Museum
Act of 1963, which governs the administration of the mu-
P R O F I L E
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44 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
NISHANT SHUKLA FOR THE CARAVAN
seums possessions; in fact, the Act stoutly emphasises its
reluctance to return artefacts to the country of their origin.
Nevertheless, Swamy had told me, with the bumptiousness
he wears almost as a second skin, I am going to Britain to
bring the idol back.
At the parade in Dhar, Swamys chariot was preceded
by another, bearing an enormous portrait of the Vagdevi,
chugging through the tight streets. Antsy policemen lined
either side of the road, and on the odd corner, idling Rapid
Action Force vans exhaled sharp bursts of exhaust fumes,
like sighs of impatience. When the procession entered the
edges of Dhars Muslim quarter, I saw its residents peering
down from balconies or sitting on the stoops of their shops,
their faces carefully and stoically composed. There were, as
seems almost mandatory with such events, trumpets and
drums, their earsplitting notes of forced cheer barely able
to mask the towns sour sense of worry. Leading the pro-
cession, a clump of young men, their heads snugly hugged
by saffron bandannas, raised one slogan repeatedly: Bho-
jashala hamari haiThe Bhojashala is ours.
It seemed to be an act of cosmic wryness that Swamy had
been pulled into the orbit of the legacy of Bhoj, who ruled
Malwa for nearly half of the 11th century. Bhoj was known
as a scholar of enviable talents; he wrote treatises84 in
allon medicine, chemistry, civil engineering, Sanskrit
grammar, shipbuilding and law, several of which have sur-
vived to the present day. He was, however, inept at building
political alliances, and much of his life was spent in cam-
paigns against foes who had once been partners; he died, it
is said, on a battleeld trapped between two enemies, har-
rying him from either side.
The parallels of this life with Swamys are difcult to
miss, as is the most notable difference: Swamy, with his
doctorate in economics from Harvard and his deep knowl-
edge of the law, has only ever occupied one ministerial post,
for less than a year, in an active political career that stretch-
es back nearly four decades. The Janata Party, once a grand
alliance of Indias anti-Congress opposition, has withered
into a mere vehicle for Swamys prickliness and ebullience.
On paper, Swamys qualications for politics and policy-
making are striking, almost extravagant. In practice, they
have been rendered inert by a process that says much about
Swamy. Ive never known a politician to score as many
self-goals as him, the Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar
told me. But Swamys story speaks also to the true nature of
the ascent to Indian political power, which resembles not
so much a long ladder as a greased pole.
A remarkable concatenation of circumstances has now
given Swamy a hotter national prole than he has enjoyed
at any time since the mid-1970s, when he became famous as
a sort of homegrown Simon Templar, nimbly avoiding ar-
rest during Indira Gandhis Emergency. He has reunited,
with great fanfare and after nearly 30 years, with the RSS,
which explains his billing as headliner in the rally at Dhar.
His tireless enthusiasm for ling cases against corruption
has, in a scam involving the misallocation of spectrum for
2G mobile services, deposed A Raja as telecommunications
minister and may yet yank down P Chidambaram from the
top of the home ministry. Swamys long tenure in the wil-
derness, allied permanently to no party and answering to
no one but himself, has given him, despite his roots in the
New Delhi establishment, the improbable status of an out-
sider. His Janata Party was inducted into the National Dem-
ocratic Alliance (NDA) in March, a senior Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) member pointed out to me, not because it can
deliver vast pools of voteswhich it cantbut because it de-
livers Swamy as an individual, bundled with his newfound
and very valuable cachet as anti-corruption crusader.
Swamy is not bashful about declaring himself to be the
man of this cynical, vitiated moment, and he isnt entirely
incorrect; indeed, he may have even helped make this mo-
ment; equally, in other ways, the moment seems also to
have been made especially for him. Over the years, Swamys
declamations about the sinister workings of the Congress
party and about the nexus between business and politics
have sounded like fantastical conspiracies. But in this era of
the Niira Radia tapes and the scandal-plagued Central gov-
ernment, his broadsides seem to be nding more purchase
in the minds of a public that no longer knows how much it
can trust its leaders, and that cannot gure out the dividing
line, in its conception of corruption, between the possible
and the outlandish.
Swamys political career is rife with contradictions. Some
of his admirers have been drawn to his championing of eco-
P R O F I L E
right: LK Advani, third from left, anked by other NDA
leaders at a recent meeting in New Delhi. Subramanian
Swamys Janata Party was inducted into the NDA in March of
this yearsome say primarily because of Swamys reputation as
an anti-corruption crusader.
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46 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
nomic liberalisation, but they have also been dismayed by
his stated allegiance to the Hindu right and his views on
Muslims; most infamously, in a bizarre op-ed in DNA last
summer, Swamy suggested that Indias Muslims not be per-
mitted to vote unless they acknowledge their Hindu ances-
try. He possesses a reputation as an intellectualas an early
and credentialled advocate of economic liberalisation, and
even as the draughtsman of the blueprint for Manmohan
Singhs economic reforms in 1991. But this reputation has
had to coexist with his fondness for airing theories that
even his friends call kooky, and with the habits of a hec-
toring public persona. He compels himself, for instance, to
always refer to the Congress party president using her Ital-
ian surnameSonia Minoand even in private conver-
sations he will refer with the straightest of faces to Rahul
Gandhi as buddhu, or fool (or, in another of Swamys
snarky labels, as Ral Vinci). (Swamys Twitter feed is
a baroque and frenetic mash-up of all these traits. Those
mad people who hanged Galileo for telling what Hindus
knew for several millennia, he tweeted recently, are born
today as Congis [Congress] tweeples.) He has repeatedly
found allies in people whom he has previously attacked
without relentcommon enough in politics, but surprising
for somebody often called inexible and uncompromising.
He is intelligent and incorruptibledescriptions almost re-
exively assigned to him even by his most bitter critics
and yet, in a country that yearns constantly for intelligent
and incorruptible politicians, Swamy has only ever been
the man outside the window, thumping loudly on the glass
and hollering to be let in.
TWO
I
n the narrative of his life, as he likes to relate it,
Subramanian Swamy was born to be a ghter; he views
his career much as a boxer would, as a series of memo-
rable bouts. His ancestors, he told me, were a long line
of ghting Brahmins, one of whom led the pugnacious
forces of Thirumalai Nayak, the ruler of Madurai in the
mid-1600s. Swamy fought his way to the top of his class in
high school and at New Delhis Hindu College. He fought
with his principal in school, and he fought later with PC
Mahalanobis, his director at the Indian Statistical Institute
(ISI) in Calcutta. At Harvard, he fought at least one impor-
tant economic theory of the time which held that the stat-
ist model of development was effectively hauling China and
India out of poverty. Then he returned to India and joined
politics, the most bruising ght of them all. In Swamys
eyes, he has always been alone in the ring, with no coach-
es or seconds or water-bottle-squeezers or brow-moppers
in his corner; it has always only been his wits against the
world.
Soon after Swamys birth in 1939, his father Sitaraman, a
mathematics professor, moved their family from Madras to
New Delhi. Sitaraman Subramanian worked in the Indian
Statistical Service, retiring as director of the Central Statis-
tical Institute, in which capacity he was a statistical adviser
to the Government of India; he was also an active member
of the Congress, close to its foremost leaders: K Kamaraj, C
Rajagopalachari and S Satyamurti. All the ministers used
to come home, because even though he was a civil servant,
he was known as a Congress person, Swamy said. And
they would talk economics all the time.
Swamy shares with his brother RR Subramanian, a nu-
clear strategist formerly with the Institute for Defence
Studies and Analyses, the tendency to talk about his par-
ents as if they were ideologies rst and human beings sec-
ond. My father was very left, and his economics would
never have suited my brother, Subramanian told me. He
was basically a Marxist. He never put the [Brahminical]
sacred thread on his sons. When I interjected, remarking
that Swamy had told me a different storyof walking away
in the middle of his thread ceremony, to the dismay of his
parents and the bemusement of the priestsSubramanian
grimaced: He has given you a version, so lets leave it at
that. But my father didnt believe in all of this.
Swamys mother Padmavati, on the other hand, was
a devout Hindu; when I pressed him to explain why he
had been anti-communist from a very early age, Swamy
Swamys long tenure in the wilderness,
allied permanently to no party and
answering to no one but himself, has
given him, despite his roots in the New
Delhi establishment, the improbable
status of an outsider.
P R O F I L E
MAY 2012 | THE CARAVAN | 47
cited his mothers deep faith and its incompatibility with
the communist creed, as well as her profound inuence on
him. Subramanian, who professed to being far more in his
fathers mould, said that their mother was so ritualistic and
irrational about her beliefs that my father used to make
fun of her. She had no compunction in admitting her hatred
for Muslims, and that had to do with having brought up her
children near Turkman Gate in Delhi when the Partition
riots were happening.
Some of the macabre consequences of Partition unfurled
on the street right outside the familys government-allotted
house. I remember dead bodies, trucks of bodies being
taken away, Muslim mobs chasing Hindus, and then the
Sikhs coming in from Pakistan and reversing it, Swamy
said. The Madras troops were sent in, because they were
neutral, but the regiment was shooting everybody because
they couldnt tell one from the other. I saw the looting of
Connaught Place with my own eyes.
What Swamy did have in common with his father was
an aptitude for mathematics. One good piece of advice
my father gave me: he said, The way economics is taught
in India, you wont get very far. You do mathematics rst,
Swamy recalled. So at Hindu College, I took mathemat-
ics, and that stood in me in great stead. At Harvard, that
was what distinguished me from everybody else, because
mathematics at that time was just infecting economics.
Swamys economic papers are concise, and they frequently
bristled with data and equations; a typical papersuch as
Consistency of Fishers Tests from the July 1965 issue of the
peer-reviewed journal Econometrica, on the holes in one of
the four most important neoclassical microeconomic theo-
riesis so dense with mathematics that it is almost more
symbols than words. Mathematics is poetry. Its language.
You can use it to express whatever you want, the sociolo-
gist MN Panini, an old friend, remembered Swamy once
telling him. Then, Panini said, He also thinks anybody
who doesnt know mathematics is not worth talking to. Its
a typical South Indian mentality.
Swamys talent for mathematics was responsible for plac-
ing him on the warpath against Mahalanobis, and thence
for securing him an admission into Harvards doctoral pro-
gramme in economics. Armed even then with his fealty to
Swamy addressing reporters on 2 February outside the Supreme Court after the announcement of the verdict on the 2G case. Swamys
efforts in ling cases against corruption related to the 2G scam led to the dismissal and prosecution of former telecom minister A Raja.
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48 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
the free market, Swamy found it easy to be contemptuous of
Mahalanobis, the chief designer of the statistical methodol-
ogies used by Jawaharlal Nehru to plan his economy. At the
ISI in Calcutta, studying for a masters degree in statistics,
Swamy was convinced that Mahalanobis was targeting him
for being his fathers son. Mahalanobis and my father were
dead opposed to each other There was bitterness between
them, he said. Some of his Tamil professors would tell him
that they were under pressure to grade him poorly. Ev-
erybody was telling me: Your career is over. You better go
become an apprentice at the Bhilai Steel Plant. Those days,
that was the great thing: Bhilai Steel Plant.
Instead, Swamy decided to embrace his reputational-
ready acquired, but not yet burnishedas a rebel. In a pa-
per, Notes on Fractile Graphical Analysis, that he mailed
off to Econometrica in 1963 in an envelope made out of a
brown-paper bag, Swamy showed how a statistical analysis
method, which Mahalanobis claimed to have invented, was
only a differentiated form of an older equation. The article,
Swamy said, literally destroyed Mahalanobis. But in the
paper itself, Swamy was not nearly so scathing. He stated
gently that Mahalanobiss claim of having invented a new
method was not quite correct; even more warmly, he
called Mahalanobiss approach refreshingly new.
The Econometrica referee for this paper, the Amsterdam-
born American economist Hendrik S Houthakker, hap-
pened also to be serving on Harvards admissions com-
mittee, and Swamy told me that, on the basis of this ar-
ticle alone, Harvard admitted him with a full Rockefeller
scholarship. According to Swamy, Mahalanobis tried to
persuade him to withdraw his paper; when that failed, he
angrily wrote to Harvard predicting that Swamy would
fail his Masters. Harvard wrote back, saying, We admit-
ted him on the basis of his demonstrated capacity for re-
search, and therefore it doesnt matter if he gets an MA or
not, Swamy said. Now that is the Harvard I knew. Then,
thinking of Harvards decision to drop him as a Summer
School instructor following the outcry over his DNA op-ed,
he added a little morosely: I dont know if it is the same
Harvard today.
His years in Boston were, Swamy readily admits, the hap-
piest of his life; Panini told me that Swamy had recently
declared to him: Im not pro-AmericanI am American.
He found mentors in Simon Kuznets at Harvard, who was
fascinated by developing economies, and Paul Samuelson at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mathematically
rigorous but also less trusting than Swamy of the markets
innate wisdoms. Often, echoing the very libertarians Samu-
elson was wary of, Swamy has suggested the abolition of in-
come tax to spur savings and investment; in one of our con-
versations, he referred to Milton Friedman, who argued for
free markets and for minimal government intervention in
the economy, as the archpriest of Swamys economic faith.
Swamy completed his PhD in two-and-a-half years and
then swarmed up the academic ladder, becoming an assis-
tant professor in economics in July 1966, before he turned
27. He met his future wife Roxna, a Parsi, when she was
a doctoral student in mathematics at Harvard. (Roxna, a
Supreme Court advocate, refused to be interviewed for
this article, saying that she had been misquoted liberally
by a weekly newsmagazine; his two daughtersGitanjali
Swamy, a private equity investment professional in the US,
and Suhasini Haider, the deputy foreign editor at CNN-
IBNdid not respond to requests for comments. Relations
between him and his daughters are warm, Swamy told me,
but Suhasini wont even read pieces about me on air.) He
bought a car, which he loved to drive. He learnt Mandarin,
and once he could read academic material and data sources
in that language, he wrote a book arguing that all this talk
of China growing at seven or eight per cent was all bakwaas
(nonsense). They were growing at 3.5 per cent, same as In-
dia. No state-driven economy, he rmly believed, could de-
liver that sort of galloping progress.
The book, titled Economic Growth in China and India,
1952-1970 and published in 1973, earned tepid academic re-
views. The Stanford professor of economics John Gurley, in
The Journal of Economic History, questioned Swamys deft
manipulations of daft data, and a reviewer in The Journal
of Asian Studies, while calling Swamys methods techni-
cally sophisticated, wrote that he had missed the main
strengths and weaknesses of [India and Chinas] great de-
velopment efforts.
In the classroom, though, Swamy seems to have been
uniformly impressive. Shahid Javed Burki, who had taken
Swamys mathematical economics class in 1967 and become
fast friends with his professor, told me that Swamy was an
extremely good teacher. He was very well spoken of, and
he was very popular, said Burki, who went on to become
a caretaker nance minister of Pakistan. Panini recalls
hearing Swamy deliver lectures at the Indian Institute of
Technology (IIT) in Delhi in the early 1970s: He was bril-
liant. He has a very neat and sharp mind, and a capacity
to analyse things and put them across in a systematic, con-
vincing way. One of his former teaching assistants during
his summer gig at Harvard a few years ago, who asked that
her name be withheld, told me that Swamy was really en-
thusiastic. The class was called Economic Development in
India and East Asia, and Swamy, she said, had an anec-
dotal teaching style. Hed tell lots of stories about his expe-
riences with government, and he was always very gener-
ous with his time. He was denitely the smartest person in
that room. At the end of the term, he hosted a dinner at the
Bombay Club, in Harvard Square. Most professors dont do
things like that for undergraduates.
The one great tragedy of Swamys Harvard life occurred
early one January morning in 1968, when a faulty boiler
Panini recalls hearing Swamy deliver
lectures at IIT Delhi in the early 1970s:
He was brilliant. He has a very neat
and sharp mind, and a capacity to
analyse things and put them across in a
systematic, convincing way.
P R O F I L E
MAY 2012 | THE CARAVAN | 49
sparked a re that gutted the building holding much of his
research. James Fallows, then a reporter for The Harvard
Crimson, and now the national correspondent for The At-
lantic, remembered the re as the event that gave him his
rst story. In weather that was so cold that water froze as
soon as it came out of the rehoses, Fallows said in a 1996
commencement speech at Northwestern University, the
remen failed to quench the blaze. Swamy, standing next
to Fallows on the sidewalk, looked more distraught than
interested to see the building burn down. In the Crimson,
Fallows reported that Swamy lost irreplaceable notes from
research in Japan and Hong Kong.
In 1968, Swamy met Jayaprakash Narayan, the Gandhian
activist, during the latters visit to Harvard. Narayan, who
was on the cusp of moving back into politics from his ac-
tivists life in the Sarvodaya movement, told Swamy that
India needed young people like him. By that time, Swamy
had already started to get annoyed by people running In-
dia down, [even though] India was an open society; in the
throes of his heated defences of India, he would be called
an Indian chauvinist, which would prod him even further
into anger. He spent three summer months teaching at Del-
hi University in 1968, returning to Harvard with a written
offer from Amartya Sen, then head of the Delhi School of
Economics (DSE), to occupy a new chair on Chinese stud-
ies. The very next year, he moved back to New Delhi.
Talking about the events of those years always gives
Swamy cause to deploy one of his most well-worn phrases:
the French trahison des clercs, describing the betrayal of
academic independence by intellectuals snuggling up to
the state. While Swamy had been away, the Congress party
had split, the left had become a more important player in
Indias power structure, and the new Delhi University vice
chancellor KN Raj, as well as others in government, looked
with distaste upon Swamys free-market proclivities. When
Swamy returned to take up his seat at the DSE, he found the
offer rescinded. Somewhere among his papers, Swamy said,
he still has Amartya Sens letter, saying, You can teach
mathematical economics as well as China, it will be a great
combination, and I am dusting your gaddi (seat) for you
those were the very words he used. Swamy never showed
me Sens letter, however.
But over email, Amartya Sen told me that the entire se-
quence of events postulated by Swamy is imagined. Delhi
Universitys decision to create a chair in Chinese stud-
ies, Sen said, was completely unrelated to Swamy. In the
competition for the appointment, his application failed to
prevail. I was not in the selection committee for the chair,
but I did try to make sure that Swamys case should receive
a good hearing from the committee. After the meeting, I
was told by the vice chancellor of Delhi University that the
chair did not go Swamys way.
Swamy perceived treachery and a sort of ideological dis-
crimination as the nucleus of this setback. Indian intel-
lectuals are the worst, he sneered to me, his fury having
transmuted over the decades into a cutting coldness. They
cant stand up for anything. Not yet 30, with a young wife
and a newborn daughter, Swamy had no job and no pros-
pects, in an India that seemed to have arrayed the forces of
her establishment against him.
THREE
A
t Dhar, Swamys chariot halted outside
the Bhojshala, and for a brief, frenzied 20
minutes, he was hurried into the temple
through a dense, sweating crowd. I didnt
make it into the shrine, so I stood on a stone
plinth outside and tried in vain to peer over
the shoulders of the faithful. Then Swamy strode back out,
and his hosts led him to a small maidan where a couple
hundred people had been assembled under a blue-and-pink
tent. Swamy sat on the dais and, as local RSS ofcials rose
to speak, he checked his BlackBerry, looked into the dis-
tance, and bit the ngers of his right hand in slow sequence.
Swamys own 40-minute speech was articulate enough,
but he is hardly an orator to rouse the masses. His Hindi
is faultless but formal. He carries a stock quiver of smart-
aleck barbs, several of them directed towards the Gandhi
family; one staple runs: What is 2G, after all, but Sonia-
ji and Rahul-ji? But Swamy also frequently talks over the
collective head of his audience. To the Basant Panchami
crowd, trying to explain how the distinction between Ary-
an and Dravidian had been created for political capital, he
meandered into a spiel on genetics and DNA testing; later,
when he was assuring the crowd that he would retrieve
their Vagdevi idol, he quoted at them the idols accession
number in the British Museum catalogue. Swamy is, as RR
Subramanian told me, no campaigner: Hes always a Rajya
Sabha man, a man appointed to Parliament. Swamy has
won only one election in the past 30 yearsin 1998, when
J Jayalalithaa threw the formidable hulk of the All India
Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) behind the
Janata Party in Madurai.
After Swamy ended his speech, the rallys organisers
asked him to guest-referee a wrestling match, which he
gamely did, patting the oiled backs of the wrestlers and
posing for photographs. Standing next to me, Jagdish Shet-
ty, the Janata Partys general secretary and Swamys right
hand, looked on with almost doting pride and said, You
know, in the early 1980s, Busybee Contractor wrote a col-
umn predicting three future Indian prime ministers: Rajiv
Gandhi because of his family, Atal Bihari Vajpayee because
of his party, and Swamy because of his capability. Busy-
bee, astute journalist that he was, had picked two winners,
Before the 2G scam, if Swamy called
a press conference ... it would only
be a couple of riff-raff journalists
coming in to ask silly questions. Now
you cant even nd standing room in a
Subramanian Swamy press conference.
P R O F I L E
50 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
Shetty seemed to be suggesting, and there was no reason
yet why Swamy wouldnt help Busybee posthumously hit
the trifecta.
We had driven for two hours from Indore to reach Dhar,
having rst caught a 5 am ight from Mumbai to Indore.
The previous day, Swamy had been in Chennai, where I
had watched him speak at a girls college; the day before
that, Swamy had been at home in New Delhi. From Indore,
he was scheduled to y back to Mumbai, and then on to
Thiruvananthapuram to be the guest of honour at a Rotary
Club event. For the past year, Swamy has rarely stayed in a
single place longer than two days; he travels incessantly be-
cause there is a fresh clamour for him, from many parts of
India, to come rouse some swayamsevaks or provoke some
young minds or ponticate at some club meeting or deliver
some anti-corruption seminar. Maybe the condence of
the public has grown that I mean what I say and that I say
what I mean, Swamy said. Sam Rajappa, a veteran jour-
nalist with The Statesman in Chennai and an old friend of
Swamys, told me, Before the 2G scam, if Swamy called a
press conference, I and another journalist, Gopinath, in his
80s now, would reliably go, because of our old relationship.
Otherwise, it would only be a couple of riff-raff journalists
coming in to ask silly questions. Now you cant even nd
standing room in a Subramanian Swamy press conference.
Swamy is sustained, in this daily life, by an energy that
is tiring even to contemplate. Every morning, he is awake
at 4 am for a spell of yoga, and he is rarely at rest, at least
in any Newtonian sense, until he goes to bed at 10 pm. He
eats so sparingly that it can be cause for alarm; at a late
lunch in an RSS workers house in Dhar, the rest of us fell
upon our food, but Swamy, who had spoken at the rally, and
who had been hustled and jostled and hugged and fted,
ate two pooris and nothing more. He sleeps, if he can, on
ights, but more reliably, he will pilfer a nap out of his af-
ternoons schedule. Once, when we were rattling along on
a truly dreadful stretch of road, he interrupted himself to
say, Okay, now Im going to sleep. It was as if a switch had
been ipped; for 25 minutes, he fell into deep slumber, not
woken even by the most lunar of potholes, his chin slumped
into his neck. Then he woke up and, after only a momentary
pause, resumed precisely where he had left off.
Swamy atop a silver chariot in Dhar, where he told crowds in January he would retrieve their missing idol from the British Museum.
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In some of his habits, Swamys brother describes him as
almost Gandhian in his rigidity. In person, and in photos
dating back more than 30 years, I never saw Swamy in any
attire other than a white kurta-pajama, with perhaps the
addition of a waistcoat in colder weather. (Thus dressed,
he secretes away his three mobile phones in various pock-
ets, so his waistcoat has the disconcerting tendency to
chirrup or beep softly every few minutes.) Some years ago,
when Swamy was in Washington, DC, Burki invited him
to dinner at the Cosmos Club and told him, Swamy, youll
have to put on a jacket and a tie. Swamy refused. Burki
said with a laugh, I had to call the club and tell them that
he was a former minister and that he wanted to come in
his national dress. They said that if he put on some kind of
shawl, they would let him in. So Swamy borrowed a shawl
and put that on.
In conversation and in repose, Swamy is largely inscru-
table, his heavy-lidded eyes revealing little of his thoughts;
although his innate restlessness leaks out of him through
the occasional tic, he is a careful listener and a conscien-
tious observer. He is also, his brother Subramanian said,
inordinately sensitive, and he keeps a limpet-like hold on
old grievances, however trivial. Subramanian remembered
learning the phrase black sheep in school, when he was a
little boy, and casually aiming it at Swamy during a pillow
ght. For years thereafter, Subramanian told me, Swamy
went on repeating it. Even today, hell say, You called me
the black sheep of the family. I was a boy ofwhat?eight
or nine years? Panini described Swamy as a man who
would go all out after you, to decimate you, if he thinks you
have crossed him or done something wrong. MD Nalapat,
a close friend of Swamy and a former Times of India edi-
tor, suggested in a Sunday Guardian column last November
that Swamys ruthless legal pursuit of P Chidambaram is
really part of settling an old score. In 1997, Nalapat wrote,
when Chidambaram was nance minister, he had tried to
arrest Swamy for his involvement in a trust set up by Chan-
draswami, the self-appointed Tantrik godman accused
of serial nancial fraud. In his views on revenge, Nalapat
wrote, Subramanian Swamy is Sicilian.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, who had been fairly friendly with
Swamy through the 1980s, saw that relationship evaporate
in a single evening in 1992. Representing the Oxford and
Cambridge Society of India, Aiyar had taken on Swamy,
who spoke for the Harvard Club of India, in a debate titled
W(h)ither India? I still maintain it was a stupid subject,
Aiyar said. When his turn came to speak, Aiyar remarked
that if the rumours then appearing in the newspapers
about Swamy joining the Congresswere true, then India
would indeed wither on the vine, because this is one unique
individual, who has never left his party, but his party-men
have left him. The remark was, Aiyar insisted, tossed off
in entirely good humour. He hasnt spoken to me since. He
has no sense of humour. He has some wit, certainly, but a
sense of humour is the ability to laugh at yourself, and he
doesnt have that.
Aiyar criticised Swamy for not being a team player, and
for possessing no social skills to that end, but Subramanian
thinks his brother merely nds it easy to be detached and
impersonal. Sometimes I think he carries this detachment
too far, Subramanian told me. During the Emergency,
when he was going underground to avoid arrest, my moth-
er asked him, When will I see you again? Swamy said, In
our next birth. My father was so upset about that remark.
One friend who knew him in the 1970s, and who wished
to remain anonymous, told me that Swamy used to be very
fond of dogs. Hed praise the Indian mongrel as the best
kind of dog out there, he said. But his way of disciplining
his dog was brutal. Hed tie it to a tree and beat it severely
if it did anything wrong. This empathy decit illustrated
why, the friend said, he thought Swamy wasnt cut out for
Indian politics: Theres a lot of deference and emotional
attachment involved here. Its not just about making pow-
erful debating points.
Swamy carrying books at Parliament Gate in 1989. He was
asked to join the Rajya Sabha for the Janata Party in 1973.
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In his views on revenge, Nalapat wrote,
Subramanian Swamy is Sicilian.
52 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
Above any sort of sentiment, I was told endlessly by those
who know him, Swamy values intelligence. Nalapat, who
rst met Swamy at a Holi party thrown in 1988 by the Times
of India scion Samir Jainwhere instead of playing Holi,
we sat in a corner and talked laissez-faire economicslik-
ened Swamys temperament to that of the irascible diplo-
mat VK Krishna Menon. The comparison is not entirely
sound, though. Despite his deep reserves of arrogance and
vitriol, Menon hitched his wagon shrewdly and tightly
enough to Nehrus star that he was frequently called Indias
second-most powerful man; Swamy has fared emphatically
less well.
Swamy suffers fools very badly and very publicly, and
he doesnt want to convince idiots that they are geniuses,
Nalapat, an occasional columnist for the RSS weekly, Or-
ganiser, told me. Thats a weakness, because in Indian poli-
tics, you never know who will be useful when. Swamy is
close to his daughters, Panini said, but even with them, he
really likes their brains. The rst thing he will say about
his granddaughter, for instance, is, See, shes very bright!
But it was from Panini also that I heard the most touching
story about Swamyabout how, after his fathers demise,
Swamy had rescued from some obscure government le a
paper authored by Sitaraman Subramanian, and had gotten
it published in an academic journal. It was a curious act of
lial love, but for Swamy, there could perhaps be no more
genuine gesture of respect.
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teaching economics and sociology, after
studying at the DSEa place that was, as
he described it, a bastion of leftism. When
I emerged after my MA, I thought anybody
who didnt believe in Marx wasnt a hu-
man being. Id been indoctrinated, said Panini, who now
lives as a semi-retired academic in Mysore. After Swamys
prospects at that very school had collapsed, he had worked
for a few months with Jayaprakash Narayans Sarvodaya
movement in Madurai, but after becoming impatient with
its strictly apolitical temper, he quit and joined the IIT eco-
nomics department in December 1969. Swamy came to IIT
as a breath of fresh air, Panini said. He was saying things
that shook me up and made me see my teachers in a differ-
ent light altogether.
Panini describes the IIT of the early 1970s as an authori-
tarian place, which immediately seems to disqualify it as
an environment suitable for Swamy. He lasted three years.
To the consternation of his peers, Swamy preferred to hang
out with junior professors or with his students. Along with
Panini and Amit Mitra, now West Bengals nance min-
ister, Swamy helped set up IIT Delhi employee organisa-
tions, which can only be called right-wing unions, agitating
on behalf of their members but not bound to the left, the
traditional tent-pole of unionism. He called so stridently for
economic liberalisationblasphemy in socialist Indiathat
even his prime minister was forced to take note; in Parlia-
ment, during the debate on the budget in 1970, Indira Gan-
dhi famously dismissed him as a Santa Claus with unreal-
istic ideas. He spoke his mind frequently, and caustically,
at IIT faculty meetings. Since he didnt believe in taking
attendance in his classes, he didnt; he simply signed every
one of his students in as Present and handed in his reg-
isters.
This banal matter of the attendance register, in the end,
proved to be ostensibly one of the proximate causes for
his dismissal from IIT Delhi. One of the students whom
Swamy had been marking Present for an entire term had,
in fact, dropped the class after registering for it, which
brought Swamys practice to the attention of the IITs di-
rector. Swamy told me that his dismissal came as a com-
plete shock; he was sitting in his campus ofce one day in
December 1972, he said, and they sent me this letter, [say-
ing] as of 5 pm youre out. But Panini told me that Swamy
must have known he was in trouble. They didnt ask him
to defend himself in an inquiry, so maybe that was why he
was surprised. But he knew they were after his blood. In
the rst major lawsuit of his life, Swamy sued IIT Delhi for
wrongful dismissal; he won, but he is still petitioning to re-
ceive the salary owed to him, with 18 percent interest, from
1973 to 1991.
This was, for Swamy, an inexion point. By the end of
1973, he had started to sense a marked hostility towards his
job applications from academic institutions across India;
his wifes applications, he said, proved similarly unpopular.
There came a time when I ran out of money and I nally
told my wife, Lets go back [to America]. I felt very bad
about it, Swamy said. And out of the blue, I got a phone
call from Nanaji Deshmukh in the Jan Sangh, saying were
sending you to the Rajya Sabha. If I hadnt got that call, I
would have gone back.
Swamy had been attending Jan Sangh meetings since
his return from Harvard in 1969, often under the wing of
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had taken a liking to him. KN
Govindacharya, a senior RSS pracharak, still remembers a
speech Swamy delivered at a Jan Sangh conclave in Patna
in 1970: He spoke about his Swadeshi plan for 10 percent
economic growth, and he mesmerised everybody. This
was, for Swamy, familiar terrainanother kind of class-
room, even, where he could in theory free Indias economy
from government control and foreign aid, build a nuclear
deterrent, construct a national water grid to produce an
agricultural surplus, and freeze Indias ties with the So-
viet Union. The Jan Sangh, a precursor of the BJP, had no
economic plank to speak of at the time, Swamy said, and
they saw in him a man who could provide a certain aca-
demic ballast.
P R O F I L E
During the Emergency, when he was
going underground to avoid arrest, my
mother asked him, When will I see you
again? Swamy said, In our next birth.
MAY 2012 | THE CARAVAN | 53
For his part, Swamy experienced an unfamiliar sense of
welcome in the Jan Sangh. When I asked him if he ever re-
gretted turning his back on the academic life, he said that
it had been an easy decision. I had felt such a sense of be-
trayal by the intellectual class, he said. And these people
were being very nice to me. That is why I felt comfortable
with the Jan Sangh. Panini, who talked to him frequently
during this period, suspects that Swamy must have been
more conicted about leaving academia than he cares to
admit today. But I think even when he came back from
Harvard, he had a vision of becoming the prime minister,
and he made no bones about it, Panini said. I remember
him telling someone else, If you come back to India, dont
come as a wimp. You have to come here to ght.
The Jan Sangh sheltered and protected Swamy during
the most dramatic segment of his life: his escape from ar-
rest and his re-entry into India during the Emergencya
caper involving disguises, chutzpah and an intimate study
of airline timetables. K Natwar Singh, who was the deputy
high commissioner to the UK in the mid-1970s, recalled
that Swamy had landed up at India House in London with-
out a passport; he had arrived there via Sri Lanka, after
having circulated through the houses of friends scattered
across India for six months, often travelling in a beard and
a Sikh turban. His passport had been impounded because
of the Emergency, Singh told me, and I know he wasnt
issued one in London, because I would have been aware of
it. The high commissioner at the time was BK Nehru, and
he asked Swamy, How will you get out of the UK? He said,
Ill get out the same way I got in.
He did. Swamy continued on to the US, where he was
promptly offered a visiting professorship at Harvard, and
where he set up an organisation called Friends of India to
decry Indira Gandhi and the Emergency overseas. When he
started to fear that an unbroken absence of more than 60
working days from Parliament might strip him of his Rajya
Sabha seat, Swamy booked himself a British Airways ticket
from London to Bangkok; this way, he gured , his name
would not appear on the manifest of India-bound passen-
gers even though the ight would stop for refuelling in New
Delhi. In the transit lounge at the Delhi airport, Swamy
walked backwards into the main terminal, ashed his par-
liamentary ID at the constable on duty, exited the airport
and caught a taxi into the city. I needed nerves of steel,
Swamy recalled.
On 10 August 1976, Swamy signed the attendance book
and oiled into the Rajya Sabha just as the last name in a list
of obituaries was being read out; he told me that his en-
trance was carefully timed to give him an opening to state
loudly: Mr Speaker, youve left out democracy, which has
also died. Swamy still chortles at the memory of the con-
founded faces of his fellow parliamentarians: They were
thinking I was going to throw a bomb, frankly.
Before the Rajya Sabhas security staff could be sum-
moned, Swamy had nipped back out of Parliament. He drove
to a rendezvous with his wife, changed his clothes and,
with the help of the RSS, sank back into the underground;
later, slipping over the border into Nepal, he returned to
America. Jagdish Shetty narrated to me an observation
reportedly made by CM Stephen, one of Indira Gandhis
closest aides, that she declared elections soon after Swa-
mys escapade because if he could get into India and even
into Parliament undetected, it showed things were not as
much under her control as shed thought. A haze of apoc-
rypha hangs over this interpretation of Gandhis motives,
but it served well to embellish the mythos that Swamy had
managed to construct around himself. For us working in
the underground at the time, said Shetty, a longtime RSS
swayamsevak, there was a halo around Swamy during the
Emergency.
How much this reputation helped Swamy win his rst
Lok Sabha seat, from the Mumbai North-East constitu-
ency in the elections immediately after the Emergency, is
unclear. In 1977, Sam Rajappa told me, even if you had
put up a donkey as a Janata Party candidate, it would have
won. Ever since 1977, Swamys career in electoral politics
has been a perpetual coalescing and re-coalescing of allies
and foes, even though he remained rooted in the increas-
ingly thinning ranks of the Janata Party.
After the 1977 elections, when Swamy was not made
nance minister in the Morarji Desai government, he
blamed the machinations of Vajpayee and fell out with him.
Vajpayee felt so threatened by his presence, Swamy claims,
that he even spread a rumour calling Swamy a CIA agent;
Panini thinks that Swamy felt supplanted by LK Advani
in Vajpayees affections. To this slight, Swamy responded
For us working in the underground at
the time, said Shetty, a longtime RSS
swayamsevak, there was a halo around
Swamy during the Emergency.
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Swamy with Prime Minister Morarji Desai in the 1970s.
When Swamy was denied the post of nance minister under
Desai, he blamed the machinations of Vajpayee.
P R O F I L E
54 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
with characteristic vituperation, accusing Vajpayee of be-
ing a drunk and of cowardice during the Emergency. In
a slim memoir titled Swamy and FriendsA Few Enemies
Too, serialised in early 1997 in the Tamil weekly Kumudam,
Swamy recounted how, in the late 1970s, he had observed
Vajpayee fully intoxicated at a party thrown by a visiting
Japanese minister, and how he had then related this to the
prime minister. Morarji Desai had upbraided Vajpayee in
front of him, Swamy wrote, and Vajpayee could only stand
there like a student being scolded by his teacher.
Unsurprisingly, then, when the Jan Sangh died in 1980
to make way for a BJP dominated by Vajpayee, Swamy was
not invited to join. Vajpayee, who had controlled a platoon
of 91 Jan Sangh Members of Parliament in the Janata Party
alliance, had sufcient muscle to persuade the RSS to break
with Swamy as well. One senior RSS pracharak, who asked
to remain anonymous, recalled that on the day before the
big conference to announce the BJPs formation, two em-
issaries went to Swamys house in Bombay and told him,
Youre not wanted in the BJP. He was very hurt.
Swamy then glued back together the shards of his rela-
tionship with Indira Gandhi, who had once exerted herself
so mightily to imprison him; he even represented her in del-
icate border talks with China because, he told me, she said,
Im not asking you to do anything for me, but just think of
what will happen to your country. After Indira Gandhis
death, Swamy struck up a friendship with her son Rajiv,
much to the distress of his colleagues in the Janata Party,
who often structured their lives and calendars around their
opposition to the Congress. Rajiv would meet him, Swamy
said, at 2 am or 3 am, and we talked about everything
In his rst term as prime minister, he was terrible. But he
would have been a very, very good second-term prime min-
ister He had matured a great deal.
In the 1990s, Swamy rst helped topple the Dravida
Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu
led by M Karunanidhi, and then railed against Karunanid-
his rival, J Jayalalithaa, before nally partnering with her,
in an awkward pas de deux, in both local-body and national
elections. When the rst, short-lived NDA government was
formed in 1998, Swamy swallowed his bitterness against
Vajpayee long enough to offer him the support of the AIAD-
MK-Janata Party combine. In an interview that year, less
than 12 months after his Kumudam series explained Va-
jpayees hatred for him, Swamy told Rediff.com in March
1998: It is wrong to say that Vajpayee is bitterly against me.
P R O F I L E
After Indira Gandhi died in 1984, Swamy struck up a friendship with Rajiv Gandhi (left). He would have been a very, very good
second-term prime minister He had matured a great deal, said Swamy of Rajiv.
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It is the RSS which is most bitterly against me. They want
to nish me off. They dont realise that I am indestructible.
One of the prices of parliamentary support from the
AIADMK and the Janata Party, Swamy told me, was the
nance ministry for himself, which he says had been per-
sonally promised to him by Vajpayee. He said, Finance or
defence, but most probably nance, so you start working on
that. If there was in fact such an offer, Vajpayee reneged
only for Swamy to whip away his support and bring down
the government. In Swamys version of events, when Jaya-
lalithaa demanded an explanation for the broken promise,
Vajpayee told her: I wont even make him a peon in my gov-
ernment. Brijesh Mishra, Vajpayees principal secretary,
told me that he did not know the cause of the animus be-
tween Swamy and Vajpayee, but even in 1998, in the throes
of government formation, Vajpayee never considered
Swamy close, by any means. The pragmatism of coalition
calculus, which can create strange longtime bedfellows in
Indian politics, died on this occasion after only 13 months.
To engineer the implosion of the rst NDA government,
Swamy would enlist the help of Sonia Gandhi, who has
since become the central villain in some of his theories that
spit most vigorously in the face of credulityincluding, as
he lays out on his website, one claiming that she and her
family contracted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to
kill Rajiv Gandhi. I hardly knew her [in 1998], Swamy ex-
plained to me. Its only later when my friends abroad told
me about her connections with the LTTE and all. Several
of his theories, in fact, now perform intricate and improb-
able convolutions to somehow lead back to Sonia; Swamy
promises always to reveal the substance of the evidence
he claims to hold at the right time. (Even in the Janata
Partys heyday in the late 1970s, the politician Jaya Jaitly
remembered from her earliest associations with the party,
Swamy would ing out accusations with all the brio of a
guest throwing rice at a wedding. We all kept waiting for
the papers or the proof, but it never came, she said. He
always says, Ill come out [with the evidence] at the right
time We used to think, What is the right time?)
His antipathy towards Sonia Gandhi, Swamy said, has
even diluted his respect for Manmohan Singh, whom he
perceives as being under her control. Despite that, and even
in the midst of attempting to dislodge one of Singhs senior
ministers, Swamy told me that he has a very good per-
sonal relationship with the prime minister: We speak once
a week, sometimes twice a week. A Janata Party member
in Chennai, in fact, offered me the most orid conspiracy
theory of them all: that Manmohan Singh had himself
P R O F I L E
Jayalalithaa and Subramanian Swamy exiting a car in 1999. The Janata Party had accepted the offer of a partnership from Jayalalithaa
in 1996, even though Swamy had denounced her as corrupt a year prior.
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leaked several documents from the 2G case to Swamy, se-
curing in return an assurance that Swamy would not target
the prime minister. Swamys explanation for his fount of 2G
documentation is more prosaic: I have a wide network. My
father was in the Congress, and I married the daughter of
a civil service ofcer. Then of course there are all the Tam-
ilians who are stenographers, and I tell you, the stenogra-
phers really run our government.
However common the device of the brazen volte-face is in
the theatre of Indian politics, Swamys shifting allegiances
have stoked particularly steep levels of mistrustperhaps
because he exudes the condent air of a man playing a long
game that few others can see. His brother described Swamy
as possessing only a sense of maa loyalty. The BJP of-
cial I spoke to admitted, a mere day after the Janata Party
had joined the NDA, that Swamy evoked discomfort even
among his allies: Its why he has been out of government
for so long. Even on his home turf, in the Janata Party of
the 1980s, Swamy was viewed with wary eyes, Jaitly told
me: [The party president] Chandra Shekhar was convinced
that Swamy was a Congress mole and was trying to break
the party and had done a lot of deals with the Congress.
There are very few hatchets, Swamy said by way of clari-
fying the uidity of his allegiances, that he is absolutely un-
willing to bury: Sonia is one. And now its no use talking
about Vajpayee, of course. His abrupt about-turns on politi-
cians he professes to despise have sometimes wrong-footed
even his colleagues. In Tamil Nadus local-body elections
in 1996, the Janata Party accepted the offer of a partner-
ship from Jayalalitha, even though Swamy had denounced
her as corrupt and had led, in April 1995, a petition de-
manding an investigation into her assets. (Oozing along at
the habitually Kafkaesque pace of the Indian judiciary, that
case is still being heard in Bengaluru, 17 years later.) Jayala-
lithaa had promised to support the Janata Partys mayoral
candidate, V Chandralekha, a former IAS ofcer who had
opposed Jayalalithaas attempt to disinvest shares of the
Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation and who
had, consequently, been disgured in May 1992 in an acid
attack that might, according to rumour, have been ordered
by Jayalalithaa herself.
It was difcult for me to accept that alliance, Chandral-
ekha, now the president of the Janata Party in Tamil Nadu,
told me, in her ofce in the rambling old house in Chennai
that functions as the partys headquarters. Swamy gave me
veto power. He said, If you dont want it, we wont do it.
Chandalekha said she swallowed her reluctance because
she learnt, from Swamys own example, that in politics, I
couldnt allow my personal ght with her to mar my deci-
sions. Another Janata Party member, V Sundaram, also a
former IAS ofcer, was less pliable. I left the party, telling
him, This is too much. Just last month, we were attacking
her. Now how can we work with her? But thats politics, of
course. He wanted to contest, and the DMK would never
have supported him, Sundaram said. Two years later, Sun-
daram rejoined the party: Swamy didnt hold it against me.
None of this quicksilver manoeuvring has, however,
reaped for Swamy the rewards he has desired. Hes a tacti-
cal man, but his tactics havent worked, Nalapat said. The
senior RSS pracharak told me that several politicians are
apprehensive that Swamy will outshine them. They per-
ceive him to be uncontrollable. Natwar Singh said: Im
not sure his political judgment is very sound. Swamy him-
self admitted that he was not a politician in the sense that
Indians understand politicians. He also said, though, with
a very matter-of-fact braggadocio: Most politicians are
mediocre is a strong word, but... basically run-of-the-mill.
This is the reason why people nd it difcult to accommo-
date me on their teambecause I would soon become the
head of the team.
Swamy insisted to me that ascension to ministerial posts
was not a measure of political successbut he has, among
his friends, never hidden how desperately he covets those
posts. Sometime in the late 1980s, we were at my house,
Burki said, and Swamy told me, My astrologer has said I
will be prime minister by the year 2000. He actually put a
year to it! When he was denied the nance ministership in
1998, in a shave so close it must have stung ercely, it was a
huge setback for Swamy, Nalapat recounted.
He thought the rst round of liberalisation had only
beneted foreign companies. So he thought he would be-
come nance minister and implement a phase of liberalisa-
tion that beneted the Indian middle class. He would have
done a grand job, Nalapat told me. He thought this would
make him the middle-class messiah, the darling of the
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Swamy with V Chandralekha, now a Janata Party leader, who
in 1992 was disgured in an acid attack that might, according to
rumour, have been ordered by Jayalalithaa.
P R O F I L E
Most politicians aremediocre is a
strong word, but... basically run-of-the-
mill. This is the reason why people nd
it difcult to accommodate me on their
teambecause I would soon become
the head of the team.
MAY 2012 | THE CARAVAN | 57
masses. Swamy may still say, on occasion, that his aim is
to be prime minister, Nalapat said, but it isnt. I think he
thinks, If I aim to be prime minister, I may at least get to
be nance minister. It is his unrequited dream to be the
politico-liberal nance minister of India. It is the holy grail
of his life.
FIVE
O
n 13 July last year, days after three
synchronised bomb blasts killed 26 people
in the Opera House, Zaveri Bazaar and
Dadar West localities of Mumbai, Aditya
Sinha, the editor of DNA, decided to carry
a full page of commentary in the newspa-
pers 16 July edition. Sinha describes himself as a hands-
on editor, but there was so much happening in the wake
of the blasts, he said, that he didnt read all the pieces that
went into the paper that day, including an op-ed by Subra-
manian Swamy. I asked the guy who was handling it, and
he said, Its a bit over the top, Sinha said. When you hear
that, youre not all that alert. I thought it would be some-
thing along the lines of India is a soft state and so on. The
next morning, Sinha picked up his newspaper from outside
his door and ipped through to DNAs opinion page. I got
the shock of my life. I said to myself, What is this?
The op-ed, roughly a thousand words long, outlined Swa-
mys schema for preventing the death of Hindus in Islamic
terror attacks in this halal fashion. His ideas included the
demolition of 300-odd mosques that allegedly sit upon the
sites of old temples, the enactment of an anti-conversion
law, the declaration of India as a Hindu state, and the an-
nexation of the northern third of Bangladesh in propor-
tion to the illegal immigrants from that country staying in
India. Most controversially, Swamy advocated that non-
Hindus be stripped of their right to voteand their right
to stand for public ofceunless they acknowledged that
their ancestors were Hindus.
In the perfect storm of consternation that followed, a
criminal case was led against Swamy for spreading com-
munal disharmony; Swamy believes that the case was reg-
istered at Chidambarams instigation, the latest slap on the
back in their increasingly acrimonious game of tag. Last
December, in a far unkinder cut that clearly still rankles,
Harvard dropped Swamy as a Summer School instructor,
accusing him of demonizing an entire religious commu-
nity and calling for violence against their sacred places.
Swamy affected an uncaring air about Harvards decision,
saying that he had been tried by a kangaroo court, accusing
the universitys ofcials of succumbing to pressure from
Arab donorsand yet he brought it up so frequently during
our conversations that I caught whiffs of anguish at yet an-
other intellectual betrayal. He used to regard Harvard, his
brother Subramanian said, as the citadel of all intellectual
freedom It has hit him like a bolt from the blue.
Subramanian, whose relationship with Swamy has of-
ten been fractious, has long thought his brother intolerant,
but he said that the DNA article scared the hell out of me.
I didnt expect it from a man like him My father would
have been turning over in his grave. The op-ed surprised
several people who know Swamy wellincluding Sinha,
who, when he used to be the editor of The New Indian Ex-
press in Chennai, would regularly drop by Swamys ofce
for infusions of political gossip. I was really taken aback,
Sinha told me. I suppose I shouldnt have been. It was
pretty clear that he was wooing the right wing. But I was
[surprised]. You expect more intelligent arguments. These
arguments lack any subtlety or intelligence.
But the story of how this op-ed was conceived and pub-
lished is itself wreathed in uncertainty. Swamys lawyer,
KTS Tulsi, told the Delhi High Court in January 2012 that
DNA had commissioned the piece from Swamy. Sinha de-
nied this. Swamy, Sinha said, was writing from Harvard
in the midst of his summer stint, and he sent the piece to
Kumar Chellappan, the DNA correspondent in Chennai,
whom he knew well. That correspondent sent it on to us. It
was a typical newsroom conversationDo you need more
pieces? and so on. It turned out also, Sinha told me, that
the piece was a rehash of an op-ed that Swamy had writ-
ten for The New Indian Express in May 2010, when Sinha
was that newspapers editor; Sinha said he didnt realise
this until it was pointed out to him after the DNA op-ed
appeared.
In conversations with me, Swamy stood by every single
one of his arguments that appeared in the published piece,
but he did tell me that his original draft ran to 4,000 words,
and that in its amputation by the DNA desk, some nuance
had been lost: There were a lot of Ifs and Buts that are
missing. This, too, Sinha denies. That number 4,000 is
an exaggeration. It was closer to 2,500 or so, I think. So it
was cut. (The actual word count of the original piece is
3,090.) But we know how to edit a piece, and we didnt add
anything or cut in a way that context was lost, Sinha said.
That is such a joke, to say that there was nuance in such a
piece. This was as far from nuance as you can get.
In Chennai, where I met Sam Rajappa of The Statesman,
I learnt of yet another story: of how Swamy had told him
that he had composed the piece in anger after the Mum-
bai blasts and after Chidambarams namby-pamby reac-
tion, and how he had shot it off to Chellappan, thinking
only that Kumar would circulate it among a small circle
of friends such as myself. Instead, Rajappa said, Chellap-
pan forwarded it to Sinha. If Swamy had wanted to send
it to the editor, he could have done so himself, since he
knew Aditya, Rajappa said. And once it was published,
he couldnt disown it. Rajappa told me that, were he an
editor, he would never have published the piece. I told
Swamy some of these things were in bad taste. He said he
didnt think it would be published, Rajappa said. Then,
P R O F I L E
With the RSS, you can be either for
them or against them, and I couldnt fall
between those two stools.
58 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
choosing his words with ginger care, he added, Id say the
views in the piece do not reect his stand on minorities.
To complete the circle of confusion, Swamy maintained
to me that he had always intended the piece for publica-
tion. When Chellappan forwarded me Swamys original
emailsent a mere four-and-a-half hours after the last of
the blasts in Mumbaiit carried a single line above the text
of the op-ed: Kumar please can you send this to your edi-
tor? Swamy
The lack of clarity around the production and publica-
tion of this piece mirrors the lack of clarity around how sin-
cerely Swamywho prides himself, as he told me, in saying
what he means and meaning what he sayssubscribes to
the agenda of aggressive Hindutva. Since his return to In-
dia, Swamy has been out of the Sangh Parivar longer than
he has been in it, and I sensed repeatedly that his recent
return into the arms of the RSS was a coolly calculated
choice; at such times, I would remember Mani Shankar Ai-
yars description of Swamy as viscerally opportunist.
After the Jan Sangh folded in 1980, and particularly in
the 1990s and the early 2000s, Swamy was liberal with his
criticism of the RSS. In his 1992 book Building a New India:
An Agenda for National Renaissance, he wrote that the Hin-
du Rashtra was conceptually a theocratic State which we
reject, and he attacked the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Pari-
shad (VHP) and the BJP for their retrogression and for
inciting a passionate hatred of other religious communi-
ties. Eight years later, in an article for Frontline, Swamy
warned of the creeping fascism of the RSS, and he hoped,
he wrote, that the vibrations of Mother India will be its
undoing.
When I asked him about these writings, Swamy sug-
gested that they were born out of pragmatismthat they
constituted the aberration in his otherwise diligent devo-
tion to the Sangh. In 1980, I had gone to the RSS karyalay
in Jhandewalan in New Delhi, and Balasaheb Deoras had
said, You know, Vajpayee doesnt want you with us, and
hes very adamant about it, Swamy said. So I had to show
that I was distinct from them. With the RSS, you can be
either for them or against them, and I couldnt fall between
those two stools. So was the RSS ever a group of fascists?
I asked. No, no, he said, but I had to write that kind of
thing to demonstrate [I was different], and I had to put it
in such terms. The RSS, he told me, knew well the exigen-
cies of his situation, and the swayamsevaks did not take his
statements to heart. We would run into each other at the
P R O F I L E
George Fernandes, Hedge Ramakrishna, LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subramaniam Swamy and Akali Dal Leaders in 1998.
According to Vajpayees principal secretary, Vajpayee never considered Swamy close, by any means.
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airport or whatever, and it would all be very cordial. The
senior RSS pracharak I spoke to conrmed this: Swamy
even criticised the RSS to the extent of calling it a terrorist
organisation. But he had to prove himself to be secular, to
be different from the BJP.
In 2005, as Vajpayees inuence ebbed, Swamy said, the
circumstances changed. Ram Madhav [a member of the
RSS Central Executive] came to see me here, and he sat
in that very seat, he said, pointing to the leather swivel
chair where I had parked myself. We were in the basement
study of Swamys Nizamuddin East residence in New Delhi;
above, another study was being remodelled, and as I walked
in, I could spot through the window bookshelves bearing
rows of binders, bearing on their spines labels such as Eu-
roghter. Ram Madhav said I should go have breakfast
the next day with KS Sudarshan [the former RSS head].
So Swamy returned to the very karyalay where he had
once been told of his ousting by Deoras. Sudarshan asked
me, How long has it been since you set foot in here? I said,
25 years, Swamy told me. So he said, All that is a closed
chapter now. Lets forget it. And so I was accepted back
in. RR Subramanian suspects that the RSS is using Swa-
my, content to let him erupt with his theories about Sonia
Gandhi without publicly supporting those views. But when
I talked to Nalapat, who knows several RSS leaders well, he
insisted that there was genuine warmth between Swamy
and the RSS. If Swamy joins the NDA, he said, you can
be sure the RSS has asserted itself. Two days later, on 8
March, as if on cue, the NDA announced the induction of
the Janata Party into its fold.
Swamy appears now to be so committed to the Hindu
right that he has signalled his readiness to efface the Janata
Party entirely. On Twitter, he wrote recently: Willing to
merge with the BJP anytime. Chaaku gire tarbooz pur ya
tarbooz gire chaaku pur What difference did it make, he
suggested slyly, if the knife fell upon the watermelon or
the watermelon fell upon the knife? He will even adopt,
with gusto, the rights most shocking prescriptions. A se-
nior journalist recalls a meeting in New Delhi, in February,
of the Action Committee Against Corruption in India, of
which Swamy is the public face. To an auditorium packed
with cadre from the VHP and the RSS, he let rip a tor-
rent of fulmination, ending in a call to invade Pakistan to
tackle the menace of Islamic terrorism once and for all. At
this, one RSS leader, sitting on the dais during this speech,
started clapping slowly and dramatically, exhorting the au-
dience to do the same; soon, the hall shook with applause.
Some members of the BJP are unsettled by the idea of its
alliance with Swamy and his outrageous positions. In that
way, the DNA article has hurt him, the senior RSS pracha-
rak told me, because at present, the BJP will not espouse
these views. There will be discomfort within the BJP. The
BJP leader I spoke with agreed: He didnt do the BJP or
Hindutva any favours by talking about disenfranchising
Muslims. Thats ridiculous. He seems to have his own ver-
sion of Hindutva.
But it is difcult to not sense, the more one converses
with Swamy, that his own version of Hindutva is another
calculated move in the tango of political pragmatism he has
danced all his life. The Janata Party, he said, was small
which was putting it mildlyand it needed the RSSs grass-
roots infrastructure. The countrys secular votes, he addi-
tionally explained, would always be promised to the Con-
gress: When the chips are down, the Muslims, the Chris-
tians and the large number of left liberals will all go with
her. There is no other secular alternative.
Arithmetically, too, Swamy likes the numbers he is now
playing. Once, in a particularly saffron mood and pulling a
casual assertion right out of the Hindutva playbook, Swa-
my told me that the only cement gluing all Indians together
was Hinduism. When I disagreed, pointing out that it only
glued all Hindus together, Swamy relapsed, in a ash, into a
canny reckoner of numbers and percentages. Eighty-three
percent [of the population], mister. Thats enough. I cant
nd something that [pulls together all] 100 percent Even
if you were to take a strident Hindu position, you will get
40 percent, sayaround half of that 83 percent. That half is
enough to get you two-thirds majority.
His peregrination towards the right may thus be Swamys
tacit, and very belated, acknowledgement of the centrality
of populism in Indian politics. In trying to advance his po-
litical goals through a rational liberal ideology, Rajappa
said, Swamy found no takers, even well into the 1990s.
Then he found that if you took the Hindu cause, any num-
ber of people will rally behind you.
The Sethusamudram Project, inaugurated in July 2005,
proved to be Swamys test case, Rajappa said. After trying
other ways to obtain a stay order from the courts on the dig-
ging of a shipping channel through the Palk Strait between
India and Sri Lanka, and failing in those attempts, Swamy
argued that the excavation of the seabed would destroy the
submerged Ram Sethu, the bridge, according to the Rama-
yana, that Rama built. The Ram Sethu, Swamy contended,
was an object of faith for Indias Hindus. That got him the
stay. He now feels that he has to use this Hindutva vehi-
cle to get anywhere politically, Rajappa said. And that I
nd is a sad thing. Many of Swamys ercest critics, who
have been offended by his tirades against Muslims, will
not know what galls them more: that Swamy is playing the
cards of the Hindu right out of genuine belief, or that he is
playing them for pure, cynical gain.
Once, standing in an airport shuttle at the end of a long
day, Swamy indicated that any relationship with the Hindu
right could only ever be strategic for him. It isnt emotion-
al for me. It cant be, given my family, he said. Im mar-
ried to a Parsi, my son-in-law [Nadeem Haider] is a Muslim,
[and] there are Christians and Jews in my extended family.
He didnt do the BJP or Hindutva
any favours by talking about
disenfranchising Muslims. Thats
ridiculous. He seems to have his own
version of Hindutva.
P R O F I L E
60 | THE CARAVAN | MAY 2012
So I cant very well go about saying that these people are
inferior, or whatever else it is that they say. Another time,
when I pressed him for his views on Gujarat Chief Minister
Narendra Modis brand of Hindutva, he replied: This isnt
the time to talk about Modi. Im going after Sonia, so I need
to focus on that.
But youre usually so forthright about your opinions, I
said. Why is Modi different?
Swamy unshipped a rare grin. I may be forthright, but
Im not stupid.
The distance between Swamy and his DNA op-ed, thus,
might be far larger than he willor can, given his allegianc-
es of the momentlet on. He is a political animal, and he
will do what is expedient, Nalapat said. My personal view
is that this is one of many articles he wrote, and it should be
taken as such, and not as Swamys last word on the subject.
Burki remembers Swamy as a profoundly secular person.
Ive never associated him with any extremism or Hindu
fanaticism. Its all a show, Burki said, and he recounted
to me what Swamy had told him during a recent meeting.
He said, Burki, youre going to be shocked by some of the
things Im going to be saying about Islam and Muslims. You
should know Im saying this for political reasons. You know
I dont believe any of it. This could well have been a white
lie, told by a man who wished to retain a dear friend who
happened to be Muslim; this could also have been the shin-
ing, unalloyed truth. As is common with Swamy, there is no
easy way to tell.
SIX
I
n a story about his brother that RR Subramani-
an narrated to me, Jagjivan Ram, the freedom ghter
and Indias rst labour minister, visited the house of
one of the Subramanian familys neighbours in New
Delhi in 1952. Swamy, at the time, was not even in his
teens, but Jagjivan Ram was sufciently impressed
that he declared, Yeh ladka neta to banega hi (This boy
will denitely become a leader). Subramanian told me
this anecdote in the spirit that such prophetic anecdotes
are usually shared: as an early indicator of a future, self-
evident truth. But in Swamys case, it rang with a muf-
ed, shaky peal. That the prophecy has not quite come
true must have become apparent even to Subramanian,
because he followed it up with, But he is too brilliant to
be in Indian politicsa hasty and rather too imsy ex-
planation.
Even in the old folks home that is the highest level of In-
dian politics, Swamys latest gamblehis overt reliance on
Hindutvamust count, in all probability, as his nal major
throw of the dice. This September, he will be 73 years old,
and in the long games that he likes to play, he needs time
and patience to manoeuvre himself into the position he
desires; to become valuable enough to be invited into the
NDA, for example, has taken him a full seven years. Nala-
pat thought it very possible that Swamy will be Indias
next nance minister, but I heard several dismissals of that
prospect, most of them predicated on the report-card as-
sessment that Swamy does not play well with others. Hes
a good politician in that he gets to the core of many issues
and articulates them well, Jaya Jaitly told me. But hes
not a politician of the massesand in India, you cant be
accepted as good unless youre a politician of the masses or
a team player.
Jaitlys evaluation cast my mind back to Dhar. Ten min-
utes after the procession had started to thread through the
town, the tight knot of humanity surrounding Swamys
vehicle had melted away; people preferred, instead, to mill
around the chariot with the portrait of the Vagdevi or to
join the raucous vanguard of the column. Only Jagdish
Shetty, staunch as ever, marched in lockstep with Swamys
car, and for a while some stragglers and I accompanied him.
It was painfully slow going, so once, when I caught Swa-
mys eye, I shouted to him above the din: Are you enjoying
yourself? He smiled and threw up his hands theatrically,
as if to say: What can I do?
Half an hour later, however, after I had walked on ahead
to talk to some local RSS workers, I happened to look back
over my shoulder. Swamy was sitting upright on his wide
seat, dwarfed by the chariot cars mammoth silvered back-
board, his arms stretched out to hold the sides of his vehicle
to brace himself against its jouncing. His smile had slipped
into a rictus, and he was gazing absently past the crowds
and the shops and the policemen, in the very thick of all the
action and yet utterly alone. s
But hes not a politician of the
massesand in India, you cant be
accepted as good unless youre a
politician of the masses.
P R O F I L E
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Subramanian Swamy meeting Bal Thackeray at his residence in
Bandra in 2010 to discuss the 2G scam.
MAY 2012 | THE CARAVAN | 61