TO 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 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 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 in campaigns 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.
IN 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 in 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.”
His years in Boston were, Swamy readily admits, the happiest of his life; Panini told me that Swamy had recently declared to him: “I’m not pro-American—I 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 market’s innate wisdoms. Often, echoing the very libertarians Samuelson was wary of, Swamy has suggested the abolition of income tax to spur savings and investment; in one of our conversations, he referred to Milton Friedman, who argued for free markets and for minimal government intervention in the economy, as the “archpriest” of Swamy’s economic faith.
Swamy completed his PhD in two-and-a-half years and then swarmed up the academic ladder, becoming an assistant 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 daughters—Gitanjali Swamy, a private equity investment professional in the US, and Suhasini Haider, the deputy foreign editor at CNN-IBN—did not respond to requests for comments. Relations between him and his daughters are warm, Swamy told me, but “Suhasini won’t 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 India.” No state-driven economy, he firmly believed, could deliver that sort of galloping progress.
The book, titled Economic Growth in China and India, 1952-1970 and published in 1973, earned tepid academic reviews. The Stanford professor of economics John Gurley, in The Journal of Economic History, questioned Swamy’s “deft manipulations of daft data”, and a reviewer in The Journal of Asian Studies, while calling Swamy’s methods “technically sophisticated”, wrote that he had missed “the main strengths and weaknesses of [India and China’s] great development efforts”.
In the classroom, though, Swamy seems to have been uniformly impressive. Shahid Javed Burki, who had taken Swamy’s 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 finance minister of Pakistan. Panini recalls hearing Swamy deliver lectures at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in 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.” 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 enthusiastic”. The class was called ‘Economic Development in India and East Asia’, and Swamy, she said, “had an anecdotal teaching style. He’d tell lots of stories about his experiences with government, and he was always very generous with his time. He was definitely 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 don’t do things like that for undergraduates.”
The one great tragedy of Swamy’s Harvard life occurred early one January morning in 1968, when a faulty boiler sparked a fire 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 Atlantic, remembered the fire as the event that gave him his first story. In weather that was so cold that “water froze as soon as it came out of the firehoses”, Fallows said in a 1996 commencement speech at Northwestern University, the firemen 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 latter’s visit to Harvard. Narayan, who was on the cusp of moving back into politics from his activist’s 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 India 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 Delhi 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 studies. 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 India’s power structure, and the new Delhi University vice chancellor KN Raj, as well as others in government, looked with distaste upon Swamy’s 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 Sen’s 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 Sen’s letter, however.
But over email, Amartya Sen told me that “the entire sequence of events postulated by Swamy is imagined”. Delhi University’s decision to create a chair in Chinese studies, 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 Swamy’s 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 Swamy’s way.”
Swamy perceived treachery and a sort of ideological discrimination as the nucleus of this setback. “Indian intellectuals are the worst,” he sneered to me, his fury having transmuted over the decades into a cutting coldness. “They can’t stand up for anything.” Not yet 30, with a young wife and a newborn daughter, Swamy had no job and no prospects, in an India that seemed to have arrayed the forces of her establishment against him.
AT DHAR, Swamy’s chariot halted outside the Bhojshala, and for a brief, frenzied 20 minutes, he was hurried into the temple through a dense, sweating crowd. I didn’t 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 officials rose to speak, he checked his BlackBerry, looked into the distance, and bit the fingers of his right hand in slow sequence.
Swamy’s 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 Aryan 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 idol’s accession number in the British Museum catalogue. Swamy is, as RR Subramanian told me, no campaigner: “He’s always a Rajya Sabha man,” a man appointed to Parliament. Swamy has won only one election in the past 30 years—in 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 rally’s 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 Shetty, the Janata Party’s general secretary and Swamy’s right hand, looked on with almost doting pride and said, “You know, in the early 1980s, Busybee Contractor wrote a column 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.” Busybee, astute journalist that he was, had picked two winners, Shetty seemed to be suggesting, and there was no reason yet why Swamy wouldn’t help Busybee posthumously hit the trifecta.
We had driven for two hours from Indore to reach Dhar, having first caught a 5 am flight 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 fly 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 because there is a fresh clamour for him, from many parts of India, to come rouse some swayamsevaks or provoke some young minds or pontificate at some club meeting or deliver some anti-corruption seminar. “Maybe the confidence of the public has grown that I mean what I say and that I say what I mean,” Swamy said. Sam Rajappa, a veteran journalist with The Statesman in Chennai and an old friend of Swamy’s, 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 can’t even find 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 worker’s 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 fêted, ate two pooris and nothing more. He sleeps, if he can, on flights, but more reliably, he will pilfer a nap out of his afternoon’s schedule. Once, when we were rattling along on a truly dreadful stretch of road, he interrupted himself to say, “Okay, now I’m going to sleep.” It was as if a switch had been flipped; 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.
In some of his habits, Swamy’s 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 pockets, 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, you’ll 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 inscrutable, 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 conscientious 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 fight. For years thereafter, Subramanian told me, “Swamy went on repeating it. Even today, he’ll say, ‘You called me the black sheep of the family.’ I was a boy of—what?—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 editor, suggested in a Sunday Guardian column last November that Swamy’s ruthless legal pursuit of P Chidambaram is really part of settling an old score. In 1997, Nalapat wrote, when Chidambaram was finance minister, he had tried to arrest Swamy for his involvement in a trust set up by Chandraswami, the self-appointed Tantrik godman accused of serial financial 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 Congress—were 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 hasn’t 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 doesn’t 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 finds 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 mother 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. “He’d praise the Indian mongrel as the best kind of dog out there,” he said. “But his way of disciplining his dog was brutal. He’d tie it to a tree and beat it severely if it did anything wrong.” This empathy deficit illustrated why, the friend said, he thought Swamy wasn’t cut out for Indian politics: “There’s a lot of deference and emotional attachment involved here. It’s not just about making powerful debating points.”
Above any sort of sentiment, I was told endlessly by those who know him, Swamy values intelligence. Nalapat, who first met Swamy at a Holi party thrown in 1988 by the Times of India scion Samir Jain—where “instead of playing Holi, we sat in a corner and talked laissez-faire economics”—likened Swamy’s temperament to that of the irascible diplomat 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 Nehru’s star that he was frequently called India’s second-most powerful man; Swamy has fared emphatically less well.
“Swamy suffers fools very badly and very publicly, and he doesn’t want to convince idiots that they are geniuses,” Nalapat, an occasional columnist for the RSS weekly, Organiser, told me. “That’s a weakness, because in Indian politics, 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 first thing he will say about his granddaughter, for instance, is, ‘See, she’s very bright!’” But it was from Panini also that I heard the most touching story about Swamy—about how, after his father’s demise, Swamy had rescued from “some obscure government file” a paper authored by Sitaraman Subramanian, and had gotten it published in an academic journal. It was a curious act of filial love, but for Swamy, there could perhaps be no more genuine gesture of respect.
MN PANINI HAD JOINED IIT DELHI in 1968, teaching economics and sociology, after studying at the DSE—a place that was, as he described it, a bastion of leftism. “When I emerged after my MA, I thought anybody who didn’t believe in Marx wasn’t a human being. I’d been indoctrinated,” said Panini, who now lives as a semi-retired academic in Mysore. After Swamy’s prospects at that very school had collapsed, he had worked for a few months with Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sarvodaya movement in Madurai, but after becoming impatient with its strictly apolitical temper, he quit and joined the IIT economics 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 different light altogether.”
Panini describes the IIT of the early 1970s as an authoritarian 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 Bengal’s finance minister, Swamy helped set up IIT Delhi employee organisations, 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 liberalisation—blasphemy in socialist India—that even his prime minister was forced to take note; in Parliament, during the debate on the budget in 1970, Indira Gandhi famously dismissed him as a “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas”. He spoke his mind frequently, and caustically, at IIT faculty meetings. Since he didn’t believe in taking attendance in his classes, he didn’t; he simply signed every one of his students in as “Present” and handed in his registers.
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 Swamy’s practice to the attention of the IIT’s director. Swamy told me that his dismissal came as a complete shock; he was sitting in his campus office one day in December 1972, he said, and “they sent me this letter, [saying] as of 5 pm you’re out”. But Panini told me that Swamy must have known he was in trouble. “They didn’t 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 first major lawsuit of his life, Swamy sued IIT Delhi for wrongful dismissal; he won, but he is still petitioning to receive the salary owed to him, with 18 percent interest, from 1973 to 1991.
This was, for Swamy, an inflexion point. By the end of 1973, he had started to sense a marked hostility towards his job applications from academic institutions across India; his wife’s applications, he said, proved similarly unpopular. “There came a time when I ran out of money … and I finally told my wife, ‘Let’s 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 we’re sending you to the Rajya Sabha. If I hadn’t 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 terrain—another kind of classroom, even, where he could in theory free India’s economy from government control and foreign aid, build a nuclear deterrent, construct a national water grid to produce an agricultural surplus, and freeze India’s ties with the Soviet 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 academic ballast.
For his part, Swamy experienced an unfamiliar sense of welcome in the Jan Sangh. When I asked him if he ever regretted turning his back on the academic life, he said that it had been an easy decision. “I had felt such a sense of betrayal 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 conflicted 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, don’t come as a wimp. You have to come here to fight.’”
The Jan Sangh sheltered and protected Swamy during the most dramatic segment of his life: his escape from arrest and his re-entry into India during the Emergency—a 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 without 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 wasn’t 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, ‘I’ll 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 figured , his name would not appear on the manifest of India-bound passengers even though the flight would stop for refuelling in New Delhi. In the transit lounge at the Delhi airport, Swamy walked backwards into the main terminal, flashed his parliamentary 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 entrance was carefully timed to give him an opening to state loudly: “Mr Speaker, you’ve left out democracy, which has also died.” Swamy still chortles at the memory of the confounded faces of his fellow parliamentarians: “They were thinking I was going to throw a bomb, frankly.”
Before the Rajya Sabha’s security staff could be summoned, 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 Gandhi’s closest aides, that she “declared elections soon after Swamy’s escapade because if he could get into India and even into Parliament undetected, it showed things were not as much under her control as she’d thought”. A haze of apocrypha hangs over this interpretation of Gandhi’s 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 first Lok Sabha seat, from the Mumbai North-East constituency 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, Swamy’s career in electoral politics has been a perpetual coalescing and re-coalescing of allies and foes, even though he remained rooted in the increasingly thinning ranks of the Janata Party.
After the 1977 elections, when Swamy was not made finance 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 Vajpayee’s affections. To this slight, Swamy responded with characteristic vituperation, accusing Vajpayee of being a drunk and of cowardice during the Emergency. In a slim memoir titled Swamy and Friends—A 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 sufficient 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 BJP’s formation, two emissaries went to Swamy’s house in Bombay and “told him, ‘You’re not wanted in the BJP.’ He was very hurt.”
Swamy then glued back together the shards of his relationship with Indira Gandhi, who had once exerted herself so mightily to imprison him; he even represented her in delicate border talks with China because, he told me, “she said, ‘I’m not asking you to do anything for me, but just think of what will happen to your country.’” After Indira Gandhi’s 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 first term as prime minister, he was terrible. But he would have been a very, very good second-term prime minister … He had matured a great deal.”
In the 1990s, Swamy first helped topple the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu led by M Karunanidhi, and then railed against Karunanidhi’s rival, J Jayalalithaa, before finally partnering with her, in an awkward pas de deux, in both local-body and national elections. When the first, short-lived NDA government was formed in 1998, Swamy swallowed his bitterness against Vajpayee long enough to offer him the support of the AIADMK-Janata Party combine. In an interview that year, less than 12 months after his Kumudam series explained Vajpayee’s “hatred” for him, Swamy told Rediff.com in March 1998: “It is wrong to say that Vajpayee is bitterly against me. It is the RSS which is most bitterly against me. They want to finish me off. They don’t realise that I am indestructible.”
One of the prices of parliamentary support from the AIADMK and the Janata Party, Swamy told me, was the finance ministry for himself, which he says had been personally promised to him by Vajpayee. “He said, ‘Finance or defence, but most probably finance, 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 Swamy’s version of events, when Jayalalithaa demanded an explanation for the broken promise, Vajpayee told her: “I won’t even make him a peon in my government.” Brijesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s principal secretary, told me that he did not know the cause of the animus between 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 first 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 credulity—including, 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 explained to me. “It’s 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 improbable 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 Party’s heyday in the late 1970s, the politician Jaya Jaitly remembered from her earliest associations with the party, Swamy would fling 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, ‘I’ll 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 Singh’s senior ministers, Swamy told me that he has a “very good” personal 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 florid conspiracy theory of them all: that Manmohan Singh had himself leaked several documents from the 2G case to Swamy, securing in return an assurance that Swamy would not target the prime minister. Swamy’s 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 officer. Then of course there are all the Tamilians who are stenographers, and I tell you, the stenographers really run our government.”
However common the device of the brazen volte-face is in the theatre of Indian politics, Swamy’s shifting allegiances have stoked particularly steep levels of mistrust—perhaps because he exudes the confident air of a man playing a long game that few others can see. His brother described Swamy as possessing only a sense of “mafia loyalty”. The BJP official I spoke to admitted, a mere day after the Janata Party had joined the NDA, that Swamy evoked discomfort even among his allies: “It’s 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 clarifying the fluidity of his allegiances, that he is absolutely unwilling to bury: “Sonia is one. And now it’s no use talking about Vajpayee, of course.” His abrupt about-turns on politicians he professes to despise have sometimes wrong-footed even his colleagues. In Tamil Nadu’s local-body elections in 1996, the Janata Party accepted the offer of a partnership from Jayalalitha, even though Swamy had denounced her as corrupt and had filed, in April 1995, a petition demanding 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.) Jayalalithaa had promised to support the Janata Party’s mayoral candidate, V Chandralekha, a former IAS officer who had opposed Jayalalithaa’s attempt to disinvest shares of the Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation and who had, consequently, been disfigured in May 1992 in an acid attack that might, according to rumour, have been ordered by Jayalalithaa herself.
“It was difficult for me to accept that alliance,” Chandralekha, now the president of the Janata Party in Tamil Nadu, told me, in her office in the rambling old house in Chennai that functions as the party’s headquarters. “Swamy gave me veto power. He said, ‘If you don’t want it, we won’t do it.’” Chandalekha said she swallowed her reluctance because she learnt, from Swamy’s own example, “that in politics, I couldn’t allow my personal fight with her to mar my decisions”. Another Janata Party member, V Sundaram, also a former IAS officer, 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 that’s politics, of course. He wanted to contest, and the DMK would never have supported him,” Sundaram said. Two years later, Sundaram rejoined the party: “Swamy didn’t hold it against me.”
None of this quicksilver manoeuvring has, however, reaped for Swamy the rewards he has desired. “He’s a tactical man, but his tactics haven’t worked,” Nalapat said. The senior RSS pracharak told me that several politicians are “apprehensive that Swamy will outshine them. They perceive him to be uncontrollable.” Natwar Singh said: “I’m not sure his political judgment is very sound.” Swamy himself 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 find it difficult to accommodate me on their team—because I would soon become the head of the team.”
Swamy insisted to me that ascension to ministerial posts was not a measure of political success—but 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 finance ministership in 1998, in a shave so close it must have stung fiercely, it was a huge setback for Swamy, Nalapat recounted.
“He thought the first round of liberalisation had only benefited foreign companies. So he thought he would become finance minister and implement a phase of liberalisation that benefited 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 masses.” Swamy may still say, on occasion, that his aim is to be prime minister, Nalapat said, “but it isn’t. I think he thinks, ‘If I aim to be prime minister, I may at least get to be finance minister.’ It is his unrequited dream to be the politico-liberal finance minister of India. It is the holy grail of his life.”
ON 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 newspaper’s 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 didn’t read all the pieces that went into the paper that day, including an op-ed by Subramanian Swamy. “I asked the guy who was handling it, and he said, ‘It’s a bit over the top,’” Sinha said. “When you hear that, you’re not all that alert. I thought it would be something 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 flipped through to DNA’s 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 Swamy’s 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 annexation of the northern third of Bangladesh “in proportion to the illegal immigrants from that country staying in India”. Most controversially, Swamy advocated that non-Hindus be stripped of their right to vote—and their right to stand for public office—unless they acknowledged that their ancestors were Hindus.
In the perfect storm of consternation that followed, a criminal case was filed against Swamy for spreading communal disharmony; Swamy believes that the case was registered at Chidambaram’s 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 community and calling for violence against their sacred places”. Swamy affected an uncaring air about Harvard’s decision, saying that he had been tried by a kangaroo court, accusing the university’s officials of succumbing to pressure from Arab donors—and yet he brought it up so frequently during our conversations that I caught whiffs of anguish at yet another 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 often been fractious, has long thought his brother intolerant, but he said that the DNA article “scared the hell out of me. I didn’t 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 well—including Sinha, who, when he used to be the editor of The New Indian Express in Chennai, would regularly drop by Swamy’s office for infusions of political gossip. “I was really taken aback,” Sinha told me. “I suppose I shouldn’t 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 published is itself wreathed in uncertainty. Swamy’s lawyer, KTS Tulsi, told the Delhi High Court in January 2012 that DNA had commissioned the piece from Swamy. Sinha denied 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 conversation—‘Do 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 written for The New Indian Express in May 2010, when Sinha was that newspaper’s editor; Sinha said he didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Mumbai blasts and after Chidambaram’s “namby-pamby” reaction, 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, Chellappan 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t think it would be published,” Rajappa said. Then, choosing his words with ginger care, he added, “I’d say the views in the piece do not reflect his stand on minorities.” To complete the circle of confusion, Swamy maintained to me that he had always intended the piece for publication. When Chellappan forwarded me Swamy’s original email—sent a mere four-and-a-half hours after the last of the blasts in Mumbai—it carried a single line above the text of the op-ed: “Kumar please can you send this to your editor? Swamy”
The lack of clarity around the production and publication of this piece mirrors the lack of clarity around how sincerely Swamy—who prides himself, as he told me, in saying what he means and meaning what he says—subscribes to the agenda of aggressive Hindutva. Since his return to India, 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 Aiyar’s 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 Hindu Rashtra was “conceptually a theocratic State which we reject”, and he attacked the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP for their “retrogression” and for inciting “a passionate hatred of other religious communities”. 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 suggested that they were born out of pragmatism—that they constituted the aberration in his otherwise diligent devotion 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 doesn’t want you with us, and he’s 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 couldn’t 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 exigencies of his situation, and the swayamsevaks did not take his statements to heart. “We would run into each other at the airport or whatever, and it would all be very cordial.” The senior RSS pracharak I spoke to confirmed 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 Vajpayee’s influence 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 Swamy’s 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 ‘Eurofighter’. “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. Let’s forget it.’ And so I was accepted back in.” RR Subramanian suspects that the RSS is using Swamy, 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 right’s most shocking prescriptions. A senior 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 torrent 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 audience 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 pracharak 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 didn’t do the BJP or Hindutva any favours by talking about disenfranchising Muslims. That’s ridiculous. He seems to have his own version of Hindutva.”
But it is difficult 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 mildly—and it needed the RSS’s grassroots infrastructure. The country’s secular votes, he additionally explained, would always be promised to the Congress: “When the chips are down, the Muslims, the Christians 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, Swamy 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 flash, into a canny reckoner of numbers and percentages. “Eighty-three percent [of the population], mister. That’s enough. I can’t find something that [pulls together all] 100 percent … Even if you were to take a strident Hindu position, you will get 40 percent, say—around half of that 83 percent. That half is enough to get you two-thirds majority.”
His peregrination towards the right may thus be Swamy’s tacit, and very belated, acknowledgement of the centrality of populism in Indian politics. In trying to advance his political 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 number of people will rally behind you.”
The Sethusamudram Project, inaugurated in July 2005, proved to be Swamy’s test case, Rajappa said. After trying other ways to obtain a stay order from the courts on the digging 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 Ramayana, that Rama built. The Ram Sethu, Swamy contended, was an object of faith for India’s Hindus. “That got him the stay. He now feels that he has to use this Hindutva vehicle to get anywhere politically,” Rajappa said. “And that I find is a sad thing.” Many of Swamy’s fiercest 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 isn’t emotional for me. It can’t be, given my family,” he said. “I’m married to a Parsi, my son-in-law [Nadeem Haider] is a Muslim, [and] there are Christians and Jews in my extended family. So I can’t 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 Modi’s brand of Hindutva, he replied: “This isn’t the time to talk about Modi. I’m going after Sonia, so I need to focus on that.”
“But you’re usually so forthright about your opinions,” I said. “Why is Modi different?”
Swamy unshipped a rare grin. “I may be forthright, but I’m not stupid.”
The distance between Swamy and his DNA op-ed, thus, might be far larger than he will—or can, given his allegiances of the moment—let 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 Swamy’s last word on the subject.” Burki remembers Swamy as a “profoundly secular” person. “I’ve never associated him with any extremism or Hindu fanaticism. It’s all a show,” Burki said, and he recounted to me what Swamy had told him during a recent meeting. “He said, ‘Burki, you’re going to be shocked by some of the things I’m going to be saying about Islam and Muslims. You should know I’m saying this for political reasons. You know I don’t 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 shining, unalloyed truth. As is common with Swamy, there is no easy way to tell.
IN A STORY ABOUT HIS BROTHER that RR Subramanian narrated to me, Jagjivan Ram, the freedom fighter and India’s first labour minister, visited the house of one of the Subramanian family’s neighbours in New Delhi in 1952. Swamy, at the time, was not even in his teens, but Jagjivan Ram was sufficiently impressed that he declared, “Yeh ladka neta to banega hi (This boy will definitely 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 Swamy’s case, it rang with a muffled, 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 politics”—a hasty and rather too flimsy explanation.
Even in the old folks’ home that is the highest level of Indian politics, Swamy’s latest gamble—his overt reliance on Hindutva—must count, in all probability, as his final 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. Nalapat thought it “very possible” that Swamy will be India’s next finance minister, but I heard several dismissals of that prospect, most of them predicated on the report-card assessment that Swamy does not play well with others. “He’s a good politician in that he gets to the core of many issues and articulates them well,” Jaya Jaitly told me. “But he’s not a politician of the masses—and in India, you can’t be accepted as good unless you’re a politician of the masses or a team player.”
Jaitly’s evaluation cast my mind back to Dhar. Ten minutes after the procession had started to thread through the town, the tight knot of humanity surrounding Swamy’s 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 Swamy’s car, and for a while some stragglers and I accompanied him. It was painfully slow going, so once, when I caught Swamy’s 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 car’s mammoth silvered backboard, 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.
Samanth Subramanian is a contributing editor at The Caravan and the India correspondent for The National. He has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Mint, and The Guardian. His first book Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. He is working on a book about the Sri Lankan civil war.