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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.
“He is certainly not an anti-corruption crusader, he is a megalomaniac rebel. Calling him maverick is not right as mavericks have positive qualities.”
That’s the constituency Swamy now strides across. He identified three forces that are engaged in the anti-corruption battle in India: one, independent and committed people like himself; the Hazare movement; and Baba Ramdev whom he hailed as a leader with tremendous following among the poor and backward. “Imagine if all three forces work together,” he said, to another round of applause and sloganeering.
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.
“Swamy is a leader in search of a party, he won’t submerge himself in any party. He’s independent, just like me. He has every right to be like that.”
Almost simultaneously, he’s making political moves. On February 4, the 72-year-old three-term Lok Sabha MP announced a new front, Action Committee Against Corruption in India (ACACI), with former RSS ideologue K.N. Govindacharya and S. Gurumurthy by his side. This isn’t just another crusade against graft in the country. Insiders confirm that the move had come after Swamy’s year-and-a-half-long attempts and hope to join the Bharatiya Janata Party had finally been dashed. Along the way, he is also finding time to track matters like India’s mammoth jet fighter deal, where France’s Dassault has pipped EADS’s Eurofighter. London’s Sunday Times quoted Swamy as saying that he was told that the Eurofighter had won the $10-billion deal, but then suddenly the French company ended up bagging it.
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.”
“What’s wrong if he has a Hindutva agenda? We are a democratic country where Hindus are the majority. The minorities aren’t suffering.”
Similarly, he has been making below-the-belt allegations about a Union minister to the prime minister. Surprisingly, very few people have bothered to take this political flame-thrower on. His strong propensity to litigate—and ability, his supporters argue, to find out things about people—gives Swamy an untouchable aura. This has been perpetuated by his many “scalps”, from Karnataka CM Ramakrishna Hegde to Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha (who is now “a friend”). He has also played a key role in bringing down two governments, that of V.P. Singh in 1990 and the 13-month NDA government in 1998 (when he organised the infamous tea party). “Like the last of the Bourbon kings, he (Swamy) never forgets or forgives,” says Rajya Sabha member Mani Shankar Aiyar, who says Swamy hasn’t spoken to him for two decades now.
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.”
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.
“If Swamy had a little more tolerance level to differences of opinion, he would have been a far more successful politician than he is.”
Most of his other “enemies” speak out in whispers or behind Swamy’s back. Or take him on board (Prime ministers like Narasimha Rao did). As Ram Jethmalani put it in a 1998 article in Indian Express (titled "This Diseased Insect"), “His (Swamy’s) has been a life of character assassination, malicious mendacity and sordid blackmail of anyone who happens to cross his path.” In an article that used to be on his party website—which Outlook has recovered—Swamy explains his method: “I have as a philosophy never ‘targeted’ anyone. I have only defended myself against harassment, sidelining or attempted political elimination. But my defence has been vigorous, systematic, and effective to the point that the attacker has been either immobilised, or discredited, or politically disabled.”
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.
“His campaign against the 2G scam is fantastic. I am not happy at the discomfiture of the people in power but I am happy for Swamy.”
There’s also an ability to work with limited resources—the Janata Party has hardly any infrastructure to speak of. “Swamy’s career was always marked with courage, he always took on who he wanted to, irrespective of their stature or office,” says Kamal Morarka, a former cabinet colleague and Swamy’s friend. “This campaign against 2G allocation is fantastic, but he put in that much hard work collecting documents, studying them, fighting in courts.... I am not happy at the discomfiture of the people in power or those who are behind bars but I am happy for Swamy.”
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
A Brief History of Subramanian Swamy
Swamy’s Pet Themes
By Sunit Arora with Smruti Koppikar, Pushpa Iyengar, Prarthna Gahilote and Sundeep Dougal