Could Subramanian Swamy be prime minister?
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.
He still claims he came close when Sonia Gandhi offered it to him in 1998. He says he turned her down.
Caravan is just the latest magazine to try and unravel the puzzle that is Subramanian Swamy. India is no stranger to larger than life politicians who are the beginning and end of their political parties. But those figures tend to be grassroots populists like a Mamata Banerjee. Swamy is, as his brother puts it more of a “Rajya Sabha man” – a man appointed to parliament rather than one who enjoys the hustle and bustle of campaigning.
How then has he managed to stay relevant enough to merit at least three big media profiles in the last six months all of which cover the same territory just adding on the latest Swamy controversy? In December Tehelka chronicled The Beastly Beatitudes of Subramanian S. Then in February Outlook had The Jury is Out: Subramanian Swamy: is the man a solution or a riddle?
Now Samanth Subramanian brings us his own take on the colourful Outlier. What is the secret of the one-man-Swamy? According to man himself, it is the Tamil mafia. For example, with the 2G documents, he quips he has contacts all over the government – “there are all the Tamilians who are stenographers, and I tell you, the stenographers really run our government.”
That’s just one example of the many colourful anecdotes about Swamy that Subramanian was able to get because of his extended access to Swamy, observing him in many avatars – expounding in his study in New Delhi, cat napping in a car, tilaked and garlanded on a makeshift silver RSS chariot in the town of Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, a two-hour drive from Indore.
The story covers the usual bullet points in the life and times of Swamy that all profiles of Swamy must have –his fabled feud with P C Mahalanobis, his lawsuit against IIT, his Scarlet Pimpernel act in eluding Indira Gandhi’s security forces during the Emergency, the DNA rant against minorities, the Harvard battle as well as the many grudges and frenemies he has collected over his long career – Vajpayee, Jayalalithaa, the RSS.
In 1998 he told Rediff, “It is the RSS which is most bitterly against me. They want to finish me off.” In his book Building a New India he attacked the RSS for its “retrogression” and wrote a Frontline commentary about its “creeping fascism.” Now of course, he is riding their chariot promising the good people of Dhar he is going to retrieve their Vagdevi Saraswati image from the British Museum.
So will the real Subramanian Swamy stand up?
Swamy always claims that the current Swamy is the real one. Ram Jethmalani in a particularly vitriolic attack in the Indian Express in 1998 called him "this diseased insect" for a "life of character assassination, malicious mendacity and sordid blackmail."
Subramanian writes that the truth is always pragmatic when it comes to Swamy.
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.”
The reason for Swamy’s survival is not just that he’s smart, erudite, and a litigator par excellence. In this age when cynicism about politicians and anger over corruption is at a peak, Swamy is even more relevant. If the Indian middle class was a concentrated voting bloc, his reputation of being “intelligent and incorruptible” as well as his articulateness, his Harvard cred, his prowess as a no-holds-barred flamethrower would have catapulted him much higher than he has been able to reach. His friend M. D. Nalapat says he saw himself as “the middle class messiah.”
What emerges in reading between the lines of Subramanian's profile is the Catch-22 of Swamy. As a man without a base, he can get to the top job only as a sort of consensus candidate among fractious rival factions in a coalition. But as a man who is such a bad team player he is fundamentally unsuited for the give and take of coalition politics.
Thus while his press conferences are more packed than ever, Swamy remains “the man outside the window, thumping loudly on the glass, hollering to be let in.”
Read the entire extensive profile of the ups, downs and about-turns of Subramanian Swamy here.
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