Swamy and his political targets

Swamy and his political targets

The Rajya Sabha member's antics are increasingly threatening the stability of the Modi government

Swamy and his political targets
He does not act the part. At 76, Subramanian Swamy has a youthful demeanour, is frequently cheeky but is almost always composed. Yet he is arguably the most vicious infighter in Indian politics where he has spent a career of more than 40 years taking down ministers and governments. Lately, he has been on a roll.

First, he drove out India’s RBI chief. Next he set his sights on the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry. Then he made a veiled attack on the finance minister for wearing a business suit on a trip to China instead of traditional Indian garb, saying he looked like a waiter.

In the process, Swamy, an economist, has become the subject of intense controversy, an unapologetic Hindu nationalist whose antics are increasingly threatening the stability of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now, the question is whether Modi will be able to keep him on a tight enough leash to prevent him from cannibalising his government.

Before his latest forays, he was “the chief wrecker” of the government in 1999, under prime minister A B Vajpayee, causing its fall after 13 months, said Sudheendra Kulkarni, a close adviser to Vajpayee. “They’ll face the worst consequences” from tolerating him, Kulkarni said. “He’ll be a great spoiler.”

Not only has Modi tolerated Swamy, he has actively promoted him, rescuing him from the political wilderness by elevating him to a seat in the upper house of Parliament. The reason, political observers say, is Swamy’s value as one of India’s most effective fighters against its endemic corruption, something that Modi has made a centrepiece of his plans to modernise and invigorate India’s economy. “If Modi is going to live up to his promise to clean up government, he needs Swamy,” said Madhav Das Nalapat, a former editor and a friend of Swamy’s.

In an interview in his New Delhi office, where one wall is covered with pictures of himself with Indian leaders of recent decades, Swamy declared his latest attacks had the support of “seni-or colleagues in the party” and were made only after they “told me, ‘You are absolutely right.’”

The son of a government bureaucrat, Swamy was raised in New Delhi but left in 1962 to pursue a doctorate in economics at Harvard, the beginning of a 50-year affiliation with the university as an associate professor and summer lecturer. In 1969, after obtaining his degree and teaching at Harvard for several years, he returned to India, hoping to build an academic career there. But as an outspoken advocate of free-market economics, he found himself shut out of the intelligentsia, then rabidly leftist.

Unable to find a permanent place in India’s top academic institutions, Swamy was contemplating a return to the US when he fell in with  the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the governing BJP. The group offered Swamy a seat in the upper house of Parliament in 1974. He took it, beginning his career in politics. Over the years, Swamy has served five terms in Parliament for two different parties that have since become part of Modi’s governing party. He settled into a routine of spending winters in India and summers teaching at Harvard.

His Harvard chapter came to an abrupt end in late 2011, when he wrote a newspaper article after a series of militant attacks in Mumbai. The article called for the demolition of 300 mosques, some built over temples, and argued that Muslims should be barred from voting in India unless they acknowledged their Hindu ancestry. The article led Harvard’s faculty to cancel his summer course offerings.

Swamy, in an interview, was unapologetic about the article and restated his theory of Muslims in India being descended from Hindus. He added that he wished the Harvard faculty had at least given him a chance to make his case before cancelling his courses. Swamy’s wife, Roxna, is a member of the Parsi community, which emigrated centuries ago from Iran. One of his sons-in-law is Muslim.

Whatever his role in Hindu nationalism, Swamy has been a force behind some of India’s landmark corruption cases. He petitioned the Supreme Court in 2010 to prosecute the telecommunications minister at the time over his involvement in awarding cellphone spectrum to companies below market rates. That helped fuel the perception of widespread corruption and led to the defeat of India’s long-time governing Congress Party.

He also brought a lawsuit against several Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, its president, and Rahul Gandhi, her son and the party vice president, accusing them of illegally acquiring a newspaper for its real estate assets and forcing them to show up in a New Delhi courthouse as the accused and post bail.

Lately, Swamy has taken his battles beyond the courthouse to social media, where he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers. He typically rises at 4 am and, over a cup of coffee, unleashes a torrent of attacks on the platform. Before turning in at night, he sends out another round of bullets from his Twitter gun.

Attack on Rajan

In April, as the question of whether Raghuram Rajan would continue as central bank governor was being debated, Swamy leapt into the mix. In an open letter to the prime minister, he accused the bank governor of an “apparently deliberate attempt to wreck the Indian economy” by refusing to lower interest rates, which would have made it cheaper for small and medium-size companies to get loans.

Not content to attack Rajan on interest rates, a genuine policy choice, Swamy also questioned his loyalty to his country. Citing the bank governor’s possession of a US green card, allowing him to work and reside there, Swamy suggested that Rajan was “mentally not fully Indian.”

Rajan has not publicly commented on his decision to step down, but his parents told The Indian Express that their son had been hurt by the attack — and the government’s failure to rise to his defence. Swamy is convinced that without his attack, Rajan “would have gotten an extension” because he had supporters and it would have been easy to follow the path of least resistance and allow him to stay in the job.

Rajan’s departure seemed to energise Swamy, who found a new target in Arvind Subramanian, the Finance Ministry’s chief economic adviser. Dredging up testimony before a US congressional committee from several years earlier in which he was critical of India’s policy on intellectual property, Swamy again raised questions about loyalty and wrote on Twitter, “Sack him.”

Within days, he also posted on Twitter what appeared to be an attack on Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Minutes after Jaitley appeared on television dressed in a suit and tie on a visit to China, Swamy posted: “BJP should direct our ministers to wear traditional and modernised Indian clothes while abroad. In coat and tie they look like waiters.”

Later, as the news media reported increasing unease in the BJP about his comments, he protested that he had not been referring to Jaitley, who looked “very smart in a coat.” Four days later, Modi, in a rare interview on television, denounced Swamy’s attacks as inappropriate and publicity stunts, saying, “the nation won’t benefit from such behaviour.” If Swamy was chastened, he showed no signs of it. On Twitter, he made fun of Modi’s interviewer and fired off some new attacks on the Gandhi family.

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