On Sunday, February 5, after the biggest week of his career, Subramanian Swamy strode into a public meeting in Mumbai. In a darkened auditorium, he dug deep into India’s history to show a rapt audience how “Indian traditions and old values” did not support corrupt practices. Through his hour-long lecture, the Janata Party president elicited thunderous applause, repeated slogans and chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, and much tittering when he launched his trademark broadsides against the Nehru-Gandhi parivar.
The lecture—organised by Sucheta Dalal’s Moneylife Foundation—was focused on the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent verdicts centred on the 2G scam. Though all of them were there to attend a lecture on financial literacy, you could be forgiven for thinking that the few hundred-strong audience (largely middle- and upper-middle-class) were right-wingers. Many, incidentally, were from the Anna Hazare movement where too anti-corruption zeal and Hindu imagery-morality have segued into one another.
The jokes flew fast and furious. “When I started the 2G campaign, people said ‘nothing will come of it’, but Raja went to jail, Kani went to jail, Chidambaram just missed (loud applause). In fact, someone told me the Tihar jailer was complaining the other day that Swamy was creating problems for him; I asked why and the jailer said his bawarchi has a huge problem, and it seems the bawarchi said: ‘Swamy’s only sending Madrasis here to Tihar and they keeping asking for masala dosas and all that’. Then, I said, wait till an Italian is there....” (Deafening applause.)
The Harvard-educated economist-turned-politician had the look of a cat that has lapped up lots of tasty cream. He’s all over TV—and never seems to stop tweeting to his over-50,000 followers. And why not? Swamy (who did not speak to Outlook for this story) has played a crucial role in the legal campaign in the 2G cases. He has won two—getting a time-frame to sanction prosecution against public servants and the judgement to scrap the 122 telecom licences. He has lost one—the move to make Chidambaram a co-accused—but plans to challenge this in the higher courts. This has given the perpetual outsider—a pariah—a stake in national consciousness.
After years in the political wilderness—he was last in Parliament in 1999—Swamy is enjoying all the positive attention he is getting. But can he ever escape the contradictions of his past? Seen by many as a rabble-rouser and a man with a destructive streak, he has also last year spewed venom against the Muslim community in an inflammatory article in a Mumbai-based newspaper. For all his brilliance—which most admit instantly—Swamy is painted in a negative light, as a destroyer rather than a builder. “Nobody knows where he will strike next, he always has an ulterior motive. He does have an extreme right agenda,” says M.G. Devasahayam, a retired IAS officer who runs the Forum for Electoral Integrity and is sparring with Swamy on his pet theme of rigged electronic voting machines.
What certainly doesn’t help Swamy’s case is his propensity to reckless, and often bizarre, allegations, with the Gandhi family (barring Rajiv, who he claims is a friend) and Congress top leaders taking top honours. Sample this tweet on September 24, 2011, soon after Sonia Gandhi returned after her hospitalisation abroad. Responding to press reports that dmk’s T.R. Baalu met her, Swamy tweeted: “Baalu was seen by Sonia’s double. Baalu cannot tell one European from another.”
Take, for instance, the genesis of Swamy’s long-standing battle with home minister Chidambaram. According to a recent article by Punjab Kesri journalist G.S. Chawla, the rift between Swamy and his ‘student’ at Harvard originated in the H.D. Deve Gowda government in the mid-1990s. Chidambaram was finance minister then. Writes Chawla: “People do not know that Subramanian Swamy has been close to the controversial godman Chandraswami and Dr Prathap Reddy of Apollo hospital. All of them were members of a trust founded by Chandraswami. The enforcement directorate had found serious irregularities in the accounts of the trust in which some foreign currency was deposited. The finance ministry planned to act against all the three trustees.”
Twin focus Raja and Chidambaram are in Swamy’s line of 2G ire
Chawla goes on to write that one of the three approached former attorney-general G. Ramaswamy at midnight to find a way out, but Chidambaram didn’t listen. It took an intervention by former prime minister Chandra Shekhar to ensure that Deve Gowda stayed proceedings against the three trustees. Swamy has not forgiven Chidambaram since, or so that story goes. Sources close to Chidambaram told Outlook that “he (Swamy) has more followers on Twitter than in flesh and blood”. It is also reliably learnt that action is being planned vis-a-vis some of Swamy’s scurrilous tweets.
Swamy did have a goal—becoming prime minister. He claims to have been offered it once (by Sonia Gandhi, no less, in 1998), but declined. It’s an ambition he voices often. Prem Panicker’s Rediff profile of Swamy (in 1998) eloquently brings up this issue: “Could unbridled—some would say unrealistic—personal ambition hold the key to the political gadfly’s destructive path? Are we looking for the political equivalent of a child crying for the moon?” His capability and ambition make his recent successes seem bittersweet to many observers. But not everyone is charitable. Says Kumar Ketkar, editor-in-chief, Divya Marathi newspaper, who covered Swamy’s 1977 election from Mumbai Northeast, “Swamy is certainly not an anti-corruption crusader, he has been very selective on these issues...I would call him a megalomaniac rebel, quite untrustworthy, irresponsible and without much virtue. Calling him maverick is not right because mavericks have positive qualities.”
While Swamy hates the phrase maverick, his friends feel he’s happiest working from outside the system. This is a recurring theme. “Swamy is a leader in search of a party,” says Cho Ramaswamy, editor, Thuglak. “He’s the kind who won’t submerge himself in a party, he’s always himself, he’s independent, just like me. He has every right to be like that, take it or leave it.” There’s no doubt that he has got support from people across “the length and breadth of intelligentsia”, as Swamy’s wife of 45 years, Roxna Swamy, a Supreme Court advocate, puts it (see interview). The fact that her father was an ICS officer would have helped too. Swamy’s old schoolboy, teacher-student and the powerful Tam-Brahm networks pitch in with documents and data.
It’s clear Swamy’s early days have played an important role in shaping his political identity. According to his younger brother Ram Subramanian, who retired from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) six years ago, their mother Padmavati Subramanian had RSS leanings, unlike father Sitaram Subramanian, a well-regarded Indian Statistical Service officer. “Swamy could never come to terms with the fact that I was, like my father, a sympathiser of the Left,” says Ram, who insists the Subramanian boys were brought up in a non-religious way by their father. Ram goes on to stress that despite Swamy’s “pure integrity levels”, there’s something missing: “If he had a little more tolerance level to differences of opinion, he’d be a far more successful politician than he is.”
The issue of tolerance levels comes up repeatedly while discussing the reaction to his inflammatory article against Muslims, which has come in for widespread condemnation. Harvard University—where Swamy taught summer courses for many years—has dropped him. Swamy shrugged off the outrage against him by noting, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, that his brother-in-law is Jewish, his son-in-law Muslim, his sister-in-law Christian and his wife Parsi. When asked about Swamy’s Hindutva agenda, V.S. Chandralekha, former IAS officer and Janata Party Tamil Nadu president, says, “What’s wrong? We’re a democratic country where Hindus are the majority. The minorities aren’t suffering. We’re considering joining NDA.”
That doesn’t seem to be happening in a hurry. As a former ideologue of the Sangh explained, “The opposition came from second-rung leaders like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Modi who see Dr Swamy as a threat.” Remember also that former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee has been a bitter foe of Swamy’s. “The BJP wants to ride on issues that Dr Swamy picks up but he will always remain an untouchable for them,” says the former ideologue.
To see how far Swamy has travelled, it’s instructive to remember how Swamy was viewed just after the Emergency. Ketkar helps out, “In the 1977 election, he was a hero—young, suave, handsome, very articulate and willing to take on Mrs Indira Gandhi totally. If Shahrukh Khan had been a film hero then, and the two had held parallel meetings, Swamy would still have had bigger crowds at his meetings.... He was not liked by the socialists and even parts of the then Jan Sangh, but he was a hero then. He wasn’t anti-Muslim or pro-Hindutva then.”
Twitter @swamy39: A Random Sampling
Swamy & Frenemies
The 2 Gs in Swamy’s company, Gurumurthy and Govindacharya
Swamy with PVN in ’98. He never left Rao’s side even in wilderness. (Photograph by Indian Express/Archive)
Undated picture of Swamy with Chandra Shekhar and Mulayam. (Photograph by Indian Express/Archive)
A Brief History of Subramanian Swamy
Swamy’s Pet Themes
By Sunit Arora with Smruti Koppikar, Pushpa Iyengar, Prarthna Gahilote and Sundeep Dougal
Apropos your cover profile of Subramanian Swamy (The Jury is Out, Feb 20), I’ve attended a number of Swamy’s electioneering meetings way back in 1977 post the Emergency. His speeches were interspersed with humour and stinging criticism of the then leaders. Sample this: “Inka char aur unka bees, donon mil ke char sau bees”, referring to Sanjay and Indira Gandhi’s four- and 20-point programmes.
Venkatesh G. Iyer, Chennai
Subramanian Swamy has the impulsive tendency to shoot off his hip and to eat humble pie later; looks like it’ll be the same story in the 2G case as well.
George Jacob, Kochi
One thing that was omitted in the Swamy profile was that he was the blue-eyed boy of the RSS in the ’70s right through till 1977. The Harvard-returned Swamy had authored the swadeshi five-year plan in 1970, which was laughed off by the left-wing economists holding sway over Indira Gandhi’s so-called socialist regime. He was portrayed as a hero by the RSS during the Emergency for hoodwinking the police. When Deng Xiaoping allowed the Mansarovar yatra, Swamy was among the first batch of pilgrims who went there. And it’s true that Morarji Desai wanted him as finance minister but Vajpayee obstructed this and Swamy turned on him, even bringing out a booklet in Tamil alleging that Vajpayee was drunk at official banquets given to foreign dignitaries. That’s when the RSS wrote him off. They are eyeing him again now, after his pursuit of the 2G scam and the dna article on Muslims. One thing is for sure: Swamy is brilliant but destructive.
Ramesh Parida, New Delhi
Companies and governments the world over sell valuable resources and assets no other way than by auction to the highest bidder, just as, when it comes to buying stuff and giving out work contracts, they go for the lowest quotation. It’s a huge mystery, therefore, that except for people like Swamy, very few saw through the great subterfuge of A. Raja—virtually giving away spectrum licences at predetermined prices, as if he was handing out trays of French fries and soda at about Rs 50 apiece at a crowded fast food joint shouting, “everyone stand in line please, it’s first come, first served here.” Why, one wonders, did the various appointees on our numerous think-tanks, public finance institutions, Planning Commission chiefs, audit czars et al not catch on to what was going on?
Jyoti Rani, New Delhi
Since corruption is such a gigantic issue, one hopes Swamy would avoid the needless distractions of party politics and dedicate his time and stupendous abilities to his mission against corruption. Another bit of ‘unsolicited advice’ for him, he better stay away from the minefield of Hindutva issues, bearing in mind that corruption is no respecter of faiths, the only god the corrupt in India worship is money, that their highest deities reside neither in Mecca nor Mount Kailash, but in the temples of filthy lucre called foreign tax havens.
Shyam Sethi, New Delhi
Swamy may be “a person with ulterior motives with an extreme right agenda”, he may be leading a life of “character assassination, malicious mendacity and sordid blackmail” or he may be “a megalomaniac rebel, irresponsible and untrustworthy”. But it reminds me of what Abraham Lincoln said to an aide complaining about a Union general who was a drunkard. Lincoln wanted to know what the general was drinking as he was the only one winning battles against the confederates! Likewise, we need more Swamys in spite of what he is.
Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
Swamy is as opportunistic as any other politician. He hankers after positions of power and chooses his friends and enemies based on his personal political interests. Even his enemies can buy peace off him by tempting him with a bribe of a berth in the cabinet. It’s ridiculous to call him a great patriot. It’s just that his technique of picking fights selectively against politicians or blackmailing them has helped a larger cause eventually.
Dipto, New York
It’s ridiculous to suggest, as you do, that Swamy’s fight against Chidambaram is because of a personal vendetta against him.
Govindan Kutty, Thrissur
Swamy is neither a mass leader, nor a political reformer or social activist. He has his share of ideological baggage, but I doubt if he has any real ambitions or agenda. Ascribing political ambitions to him is dumb. Call him a maverick, but people like him are supremely important in our system. He’s a sharp customer himself and eminently suitable for pricking bloated balloons. At various points, Jayalalitha, Ramakrishna Hegde and Chidambaram have been reminded of this.
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
How about a Bharat Ratna for Swamy? He has shown investors worldwide that the Indian legal system works.
Thank heavens, we have people like Swamy to speak and write without fear and without the humbug of being politically correct.
Tushar Patel, Jamnagar
In the brief life-history of Subramanian Swamy in your Feb 12 cover story, you say he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977, and Morarji Desai proposed his name as finance minister but was vetoed by A.B. Vajpayee. The facts are: a) Swamy was a first-time MP; b) Desai and Charan Singh divided all main portfolios between their two parties; and c) Jan Sangh was given information & broadcast (L.K. Advani) and external affairs (Vajpayee), and finance went to H.M. Patel. So, where was Swamy? And, in fact, Desai, as PM, ran external affairs himself, often keeping Vajpayee himself in the dark. Where was the question of Vajpayee vetoing anything Desai might have proposed?
Dr.Swamy was blessed by Shri Maha Pervai the Kanchi Shankarcharaya who attained samathi I firmly beleive that this has given him the strength to talk strait and tough and talk sense.
Hisw views on Indian economy should be implemented without and hestitation it may not
contain the usual masala to hoodwink the people of India who have seen that they continue to suffer inspite of all the efforts of the government to rerail the economy due bad policies bascially Dr.Swamy is plain speaking person who will not comprise to gain the support of semi literates.
It was with Kanchi Maha Swami blessing that Dr.Swamy talked to the then Chinese Govt
and undertook the Mansarovar Yatra so I beleive that he is a person with out any ulterior motives a clean individual who can give India the much needed guidance in regaining its
past glory. All of us look at him amused because we are used to this usual sugar coated
speeches from the present politicians who are self serving Individual who do not care for the nation when a person like Dr.Swamy speaks the truth they are scared of him hence they do not want him any were near the seat of power thanks to Narendera Modi who has
seen the qualties of Dr.Swamy to make him a part of BJP wish him and BJP to win the coming Loksabha election with absolute majority I am sure Maha Swami blessings will ensure this in 2014
>> For all his brilliance—which most admit instantly—
hmm, did he solve cancer or made a nuclear fusion break-through ?
A little more research would have come across some comments by Madhavan( the famous CBI Jt Director associated with Bofors Investigation) in his autobiography in Malayalam, on his experience under Law Minister Swamy. Swamy had manipulated the case, and Madhavan found himself arguing against the state counsel leaving the court baffled! Swamy complained to the PM. Eventually Swamy did make an effort to soothe Madhavan.It was touch and go for the Bofors case. Why did Swamy behave so?
Just curious. Is the jury still out on Manmohan Singh?
/// Why is that communal over tones are given when ever you discuss a person,yes he made India"s Judicial system work.///
It will be always there if you discuss his ideology, beliefs, What happens if there is injustice to others, as long as one bears, it is OK. If one retaliates it becomes a communal overtone or painted so. There are many example in our history- our caste system, our slavery days, abuse to our culture. But you don't worry, 'MAIN HUN NA'
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