15 May :
|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 morning, in the town of Dhar, in Madhya Pradesh. Mere minutes after Swamy, the president—and, frankly, the totality—of 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 itself 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 January, 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 Bhojashala, a school built by Bhoj, king of Malwa, around the year 1034 AD. “I got so busy with the 2G case, but these guys didn’t let me forget about it,” Swamy said. “And every Basant Panchami, they have this big rally in Dhar, so that’s where we’re going. I’m 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 ancient school. 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 moment, 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 Hindus—and, implicitly, closed to Muslims. “There have been lathi charges, and people have been injured and even died. You’ll 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; Dhar’s 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 find for himself an angle that relies on his clinical knowledge of legal and bureaucratic procedure. 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, however 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 Museum’s charter allowed it to return objects of religious significance “if you’re 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 museum’s 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, Swamy’s 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 Dhar’s 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 town’s sour sense of worry. Leading the procession, a clump of young men, their heads snugly hugged by saffron bandannas, raised one slogan repeatedly: “Bhojashala hamari hai”—The 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 treatises—84 in all—on medicine, chemistry, civil engineering, Sanskrit grammar, shipbuilding and law, several of which have survived to the present day. He was, however, inept at building political alliances, and much of his life was spent campaigning against foes who had once been partners; he died, it is said, on a battlefield trapped between two enemies, harrying him from either side.
The parallels of this life with Swamy’s are difficult to miss, as is the most notable difference: Swamy, with his doctorate in economics from Harvard and his deep knowledge of the law, has only ever occupied one ministerial post, for less than a year, in an active political career that stretches back nearly four decades. The Janata Party, once a grand alliance of India’s anti-Congress opposition, has withered into a mere vehicle for Swamy’s prickliness and ebullience. On paper, Swamy’s qualifications for politics and policymaking are striking, almost extravagant. In practice, they have been rendered inert by a process that says much about Swamy. “I’ve never known a politician to score as many self-goals as him,” the Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar told me. But Swamy’s 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 profile than he has enjoyed at any time since the mid-1970s, when he became famous as a sort of homegrown Simon Templar, nimbly avoiding arrest during Indira Gandhi’s 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 filing 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. Swamy’s 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. His Janata Party was inducted into the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in March, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member pointed out to me, not because it can deliver vast pools of votes—which it can’t—but because it delivers 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 isn’t entirely incorrect; indeed, he may have even helped make this moment; equally, in other ways, the moment seems also to have been made especially for him. Over the years, Swamy’s 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 government, his broadsides seem to be finding more purchase in the minds of a public that no longer knows how much it can trust its leaders, and that cannot figure out the dividing line, in its conception of corruption, between the possible and the outlandish.
Swamy’s political career is rife with contradictions. Some of his admirers have been drawn to his championing of economic 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 India’s Muslims not be permitted to vote unless they acknowledge their Hindu ancestry. He possesses a reputation as an intellectual—as an early and credentialled advocate of economic liberalisation, and even as the draughtsman of the blueprint for Manmohan Singh’s 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 hectoring public persona. He compels himself, for instance, to always refer to the Congress party president using her Italian surname—“Sonia Màino”—and even in private conversations he will refer with the straightest of faces to Rahul Gandhi as “buddhu”, or “fool” (or, in another of Swamy’s snarky labels, as “Raúl Vinci”). (Swamy’s 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 relent—common enough in politics, but surprising for somebody often called inflexible and uncompromising. He is intelligent and incorruptible—descriptions almost reflexively 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.
|I||N THE NARRATIVE OF HIS LIFE, as he likes to relate it, Subramanian Swamy was born to be a fighter; he views his career much as a boxer would, as a series of memorable bouts. His ancestors, he told me, were “a long line of fighting 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 Delhi’s 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 important economic theory of the time which held that the statist model of development was effectively hauling China and India out of poverty. Then he returned to India and joined politics, the most bruising fight of them all. In Swamy’s eyes, he has always been alone in the ring, with no coaches or seconds or water-bottle-squeezers or brow-moppers in his corner; it has always only been his wits against the world.
Soon after Swamy’s 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 Statistical 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 nuclear strategist formerly with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the tendency to talk about his parents as if they were ideologies first and human beings second. “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 story—of walking away in the middle of his thread ceremony, to the dismay of his parents and the bemusement of the priests—Subramanian grimaced: “He has given you a version, so let’s leave it at that. But my father didn’t believe in all of this.”
Swamy’s 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 cited his mother’s deep faith and its incompatibility with the communist creed, as well as her profound influence on him. Subramanian, who professed to being far more in his father’s 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 family’s 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 couldn’t 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 won’t get very far. You do mathematics first,’” Swamy recalled. “So at Hindu College, I took mathematics, and that stood me in great stead. At Harvard, that was what distinguished me from everybody else, because … mathematics at that time was just infecting economics.” Swamy’s economic papers are concise, and they frequently bristled with data and equations; a typical paper—such as Consistency of Fisher’s Tests from the July 1965 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Econometrica, on the holes in one of the four most important neoclassical microeconomic theories—is so dense with mathematics that it is almost more symbols than words. “Mathematics is poetry. It’s language. You can use it to express whatever you want,” the sociologist MN Panini, an old friend, remembered Swamy once telling him. Then, Panini said, “He also thinks anybody who doesn’t know mathematics is not worth talking to. It’s a typical South Indian mentality.”
Swamy’s talent for mathematics was responsible for placing him on the warpath against Mahalanobis, and thence for securing him an admission into Harvard’s doctoral programme in economics. Armed even then with his fealty to the free market, Swamy found it easy to be contemptuous of Mahalanobis, the chief designer of the statistical methodologies used by Jawaharlal Nehru to plan his economy. At the ISI in Calcutta, studying for a master’s degree in statistics, Swamy was convinced that Mahalanobis was targeting him for being his father’s 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. “Everybody 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 reputation—already acquired, but not yet burnished—as a rebel. In a paper, ‘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 Mahalanobis’s claim of having invented a new method was “not quite correct”; even more warmly, he called Mahalanobis’s approach “refreshingly new”.
The Econometrica referee for this paper, the Amsterdam-born American economist Hendrik S Houthakker, happened also to be serving on Harvard’s admissions committee, and Swamy told me that, on the basis of this article 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 Master’s. “Harvard wrote back, saying, ‘We admitted him on the basis of … his demonstrated capacity for research, and therefore it doesn’t matter if he gets an MA or not,’” Swamy said. “Now that is the Harvard I knew.” Then, thinking of Harvard’s decision to drop him as a Summer School instructor following the outcry over his DNA op-ed, he added a little morosely: “I don’t know if it is the same Harvard today.”
Source : Caravan Magazine