February 17, 2020
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Swamy & Frenemies

The man is pugnacious but equally unpredictable. So is the BJP taking too big a risk by giving him a stage?

Swamy & Frenemies
Shooting Star
Swamy with his golden retr­iever at his residence in Delhi
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
Swamy & Frenemies

Nominated members of the Rajya Sabha rarely make the kind of splash that Dr Subramanian Swamy made after taking oath on April 26. For the maverick politician, this was par for the course. Even as the congratulations poured in, he was busy serving a notice for a discussion in the House on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal and claiming the law would soon catch up with ‘Ma-beta’, a clear reference to his perennial targets Sonia and Rahul. They’d soon be in jail, he boasted. It was vintage Swamy at his clear, acerbic and rabble-rousing best, shooting from the lip and living up to his well-earned reputation of being a loose cannon. Within days of his induction, Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha was being referred to as Swamy Hour. On two successive days his comments were expunged; undeterred, the newest BJP MP managed to insinuate culpability and criminality even before the Agusta debate was over.

His arrival in the Rajya Sabha has galvanised the BJP contingent. He told Outlook it was a surprise nomination, but it seems part of a larger strategy. His explanation is that the BJP had tried to be nice to the Congress on the advice of “some people” within the party but that didn’t seem to work. His nomination is part of a course correction, he says, leaving no doubt about the role he is expected to play—some would say cat’s paw, but it’s likelier a Rottweiler’s.

There’s a double-edged aspect to his role, for he’s unsparing of his own party too. Till recently, Swamy has been ext­remely critical of the Modi government. In December 2014, he’d apparently tweeted ‘Why BJP is the new Congress’. Last September, he wrote to Modi that the economy was in bad shape and criticised both finance minister Arun Jaitley and RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. And he’d openly sided with BJP MP Kirti Azad, who had levelled serious allegations against Jaitley about the running of the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA). Therefore, his nomination is seen as a signal to Jaitley, with whom he does not get along and who was said to be opposed to Swamy’s nomination. Some Opposition MPs say their frosty relationship was on display when Swamy didn’t bother to greet Jaitley after taking oath even though the latter is Leader of the House. Sources in RSS also confirm that Swamy had told Modi that Jaitley would never be able to take on the Gandhis bec­ause of his proximity to the family and due to controversies like DDCA.

Indeed, Swamy has never made a secret of his belief he’d make a better finance minister. During a TV discussion he had in fact claimed he was offered the portfolio even before the general elections. In an interview to Outlook, he sidestepped the question whether he’d be in the cabinet sooner than later, but said he’d been offered gubernatorial posts as well as presidentship of the BRICS Bank, both of which he declined. While Swamy basks in the spotlight and BJP MPs gloat over the ‘masterstroke’, political observers wonder if the strategy might backfire. For neither the BJP nor Modi can afford to weaken or humiliate Jaitley. And BJP insiders are divided on whether the government would be better or worse off with Swamy in the cabinet.

Swamy’s more effective role, whether planned or not, could be to use bluster and innuendo to divert attention from issues negatively impacting the government, which completes two years in office later this month. The focus on corruption is a fig leaf to hide the fact that the economy is still stagnant, jobs and investment rem­ain elusive and manufacturing and exports are yet to take off. Its handling of states, conflicts and even natural calamities like drought have left much to be desired. In fact, the government has earned the sobriquet “rollback sarkar”. So it’s hoped Swamy, as anti-corruption crusader, will be the BJP’s battering ram to counter the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, where it does not have a majority. But the risk looms of attacks on the Congress and the Gandhis providing diminishing ret­urns. And arresting Sonia-Rahul might galvanise the Congress, while failure to pin anything on them in the Agusta deal might amount to an embarrassing trip-up.

Swamy says his RS nomination was a surprise. Already, he’s eyeing a cabinet position.

It is possible that Modi, after two years in the saddle, is confident enough to risk unleashing a loose cannon like Swamy. Or, as some observers suggest, his hands may have been forced by the RSS. It is also possible that Swamy’s growing impatience may have persuaded the leadership to try and retain him as an ally. His network in the national capital, where he has practically spent all his life, is said to be impressive. Variously described as a ‘one-man army’ and a ‘one-man IB’, he is reputed to have a dossier on everyone who matters. Yet another theory doing the rounds is that Swamy crowbarred his way into the Rajya Sabha. A former BJP minister chuckled while recalling that Swamy had told BJP leaders in jest that keeping brilliant minds like him ‘idle’ could prove dangerous. A section within the BJP is clearly keeping their fingers crossed. Swamy, they say, is fiercely independent as well as ambitious and could well be a threat to the party.

Some of them continue to be haunted by Swamy’s ‘betrayal’ in 1999: he had arr­anged the famous tea-party meeting between Sonia and Jayalalitha, which eventually led to Jayalalitha withdrawing support to the Vajpayee government, resulting in fresh elections. Those were the days Swamy had likened Sonia, Jayala­litha and Mayawati to Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga. Ahmed Patel, Congress MP and political advisor to Sonia,  appeared to tauntingly echo some of these apprehensions in the Rajya Sabha. He seemed to have Swamy in mind when he declared, during the debate on the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, “The danger is not on our side, it is there in the government. All kinds of discussions are on. We hear something in the Central Hall about somebody already in control of 140 MPs. They are threatening to get the finance minister changed by May 20...and as 2019 nears, even the prime minister could be changed.” K.C. Tyagi of the JD(U) also says, “The government has brought him as a trouble-shooter but the BJP should be more cautious because he will create more trouble for the BJP.”

Opposition staging a walkout from Rajya Sabha over the Agusta deal

Swamy told Outlook that some RSS sarsanghchalaks of the past couldn’t stand him, but he shares a close rapport with Mohan Bhagwat, the present RSS supremo. Swamy has also been busy spearheading the movement to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya. “Construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya is mandatory for revival of our culture. We have started and we will not give up until it is made, but nothing will be done forcibly and against the law. We have full faith that we will win in court,” he said, addressing a seminar at Delhi University. He has also held out a package deal to the Muslims, asking them to hand over three mosques in return of an assurance that Hindus would not bother about the remaining 39,997 mosques! He has spoken in favour of withdrawing Article 370 and is fam­ously on record as saying that the Modi government’s official position is that “homosexuality is a genetic disorder”.

But then there are others in the RSS who still consider him an outsider. Not only because he wrote a scathing piece on the “creeping fascism of the RSS” in Frontline in 2000. While noting that “fascism of the RSS is coming upon us not as gradually as imperialism did, or as suddenly as the Emergency...its spread is being calibrated adroitly by seven faceless men of the RSS,” Swamy had then proceeded to detail the RSS game plan. “The first component of the game plan is to discredit the RSS’s opponents but protect its converts. The second component is to shake public confidence in every institution that can circumscribe or act as a speed-breaker for the RSS juggernaut.  The third component is to ready the blueprints for implementing the agenda including proposals to bridle the electoral system,” the article said.

Swamy is reputed to have a dossier on anyone who matters. He could target anyone.

The importance of being Subramanian Swamy is his unique ability, like a good lawyer, to argue for both sides.  While these days he waxes eloquent on the need to withdraw Article 370, in a public add­ress in Hyderabad he had apparently questioned why the “Hindutva parties” did not speak of the other sections of the same Article in the Constitution under which outsiders are not allowed to buy land in Himachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. According to information in the public domain, in the same add­ress he had described the RSS not as “pro-Hindu” but “anti-Muslim”. He had also argued then that the so-called temple at Ayodhya was not really a temple bec­ause it was built on ‘sin and treachery’.

None of this, however, matters at this point to the BJP cadres and supporters, among whom he enjoys a cult following. His role in exposing the 2G scam, which not only led to the imprisonment of the then telecom minister A. Raja but also to the defeat of the UPA in the general election in 2014, had already made him popular. This popularity reached greater heights when he successfully arg­ued his case in the National Herald case and forced both Sonia and Rahul to appear in court.  He further endeared himself to BJP supporters by questioning Rahul’s citizenship, prod­u­cing documents to claim that Gandhi Jr had British citizenship. “After Modi, Swamy is seen as the most popular leader in the party. He is taking on the Gandhis head on and this helps in keeping the morale of the cadres high,” says a source in the BJP. To achieve its goal of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, he explains, Swamy is an invaluable asset to the RSS.

“We hear about someone already in control of 140 MPs. They hold out the threat of getting the Finmin changed,” says Ahmed Patel.

Despite his image as a battering ram, there is no question that Swamy can be an effective weapon. He is highly intelligent, articulate and incorruptible. For a generation of Indians who have been brought up to believe in the venality of politicians, he is the quintessential anti-politician. Comm­entators favourably disposed towards him have often declared that he is the best prime minister that India has never had. But at the same time he is notoriously indiscreet, pugnacious and unpredictable and is described sometimes as a destructive genius. For someone who has been an MP six times, taught economics at Harvard and IIT, who has a political career spanning four and a half decades, Swamy’s stint as a Union minister has been ridiculously short.  He was the law and commerce minister in Chandrashekhar’s cabinet for less than a year, eight months to be precise. The rest of the time, he has been mostly in the wilderness. Circumstance has give him a new lease of political life. It may have been fortuitous that his entry into the Rajya Sabha coincided with the revelations on the Augusta deal, but in recent years, he has consolidated his position. He is now in a position where he speaks directly to the top bosses of the Sangh as well as the prime minister. He says in the interview that he can walk into the PM’s office any time he wants without an appointment. Right now, his role is one of “nuisance value” and something of a balancing act. The government feels that people like Swamy have tremendous media value. There is also talk of upgrading him to cabinet rank when a possible reshuffle takes place after results in five assembly elections later this month.

There are, as has always been the case with Swamy, some inherent contradictions. He will complete 77 years in September and Modi has already sidelined those who are above 75 years. Whether he is allowed to remain a loose cannon or play a more responsible role as a central minister rem­ains to be seen. Swamy has made it clear on many occasions that he would like to get a ministerial berth related to economic aff­airs. In 1970, Indira Gandhi had called him a “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas”. Right now, for the BJP, he comes bearing many gifts but giving him a dominant role in the current scenario has its downside. He is nothing if not ambitious and his shoot-from-the-hip style may play well to the BJP galleries but failure to make any of his broadsides stick could also affect the credibility of the Modi government. Swamy and Friends has a nice literary ring, but within the BJP itself, there are many who would relish his fall. Whatever the outcome of the strategy, the country is in for some entertaining days ahead.


Slamdunk subramanian

Over the years,  Swamy has fired at all merrily, making mincemeat of reputations

  • Indira Gandhi, late PM
    Smarting under his removal from IIT Delhi during the Emergency, with an arrest warrant against him, Swamy hit back by sneaking into the country dressed as a sardarji
  • Sonia Gandhi, Congress president
    Accuses her of stealing antiques, accepting bribes for defence deals, siphoning money from National Herald, influencing government policies, among other sins
  • Rahul Gandhi, Congress vice-president
    Called ‘buddhu’ (fool) by Swamy, and linked to Vadra’s deals. Swamy has also sought the withdrawal of Gandhi’s citizenship, claiming he is a British citizen.
  • Atal Behari Vajpayee former PM
    Swamy complains that he was preven­ted from becoming full cabinet minister in the 1977 Janata Party government by Vajpayee who was jealous of his Emergency fame
  • Arun Jaitley, finance minister
    Accuses him of acting as Sonia Gandhi’s agent, mismanaging the economy, failing to bring back black money and running a cosy cricket empire with the help of Congress leaders
  • Mukul Rohatgi, attorney-general
    Accused Jaitley’s walking mate of not doing enough to uphold the agenda of Modi sarkar, the loss of face in the NJAC case and strictures passed in Uttarakhand among them
  • A. Raja, former telecom minister
    Swamy’s relentless focus on the DMK minister’s role in the allocation of 2G spectrum in the Manmohan Singh cabinet resulted in his arrest
  • Dayanidhi Maran, former telecom minister
    Swamy says Maran forced telecom company Aircel to sell its stake to Maxis for a lower valuation in return for investments into the Sun TV network
  • P. Chidamabarm, former finance minister
    Alleges the role of the Chidambaram and his son in the 2G scam, money-laundering in the Vasan Eyecare and Aircel Maxis deals. Says he  is being protected by some in Modi govt.
  • Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu CM
    Having called her Saraswati in the late 1990s, Swamy’s cases of corruption against Jayalalitha led to her conviction and imprisonment. Her appeal is pending in the SC.
  • Ramakrishna Hegde, late karnataka CM
    Implicated the original “Mr Clean” of Indian politics in a telephone tapping case by releasing a letter from the then intelligence chief with names of “victims”.
  • Leftists, Liberals, and Naxals
    Swamy calls them a dying breed, accuses them of indoctrination, ruining the economy and the universities. Blames them for the decline in academic standards.


Photograph by HT

Upper Cut

Dr Swamy’s RS nomination is hailed as a masterly, if risky, move.

Advantage BJP

  • Incorruptible image While Swamy has hounded many politicians for corruption, nobody has been able to raise a finger at him
  • Impeccable credentials An alumnus of Hindu College and Indian Stati­stical Institute who completed his PhD by 24 and has taught at IIT and Har­vard, his credentials are unquestioned
  • Articulate Amidst the sundry kinds of speeches heard in Parliament, he stands out for his clar­ity. He has around 2.6 million Twitter followers.
  • Anti-corruption crusader He had forced Sonia Gandhi to give up an insurance agency in the 1970s. Having scalped Jayalalitha and A. Raja, his anti-corruption stand boosts BJP.

Or Deuce?

  • Not A Team Man Swamy is known to be acerbic, is hugely unpopular among traditional leaders and is accused of playing for himself. Risks alienating a section of the party.
  • Too Ambitious? He is reportedly keen to be the finance minister. But the jury is out on whether he will be an asset or a liability as a minister. The opposition is hinting that he may even have prime ministerial ambitions.
  • Too Indiscreet Some sections in the BJP apprehend that Swamy’s aggression may start giving diminishing returns. While Swamy has set his heart on the interrogation and arrest of Sonia Gandhi despite lack of evidence, any reckless move may give the Congress a fresh lease of life.
  • New Mussalman Like the proverbial neo-Muslim who is said to ask for more onions than is good for him, Swamy’s newly acquired penchant for pushing the ‘Hindutva’ agenda may blow up on the BJP’s face
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