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The Rediff Special/Prem Panicker

The Man People Love to Hate

When I was a kid, I was fooling around, one time, with a thermometer. It slipped out of my hand, and broke. My dad gave me, in that order, a clout on the back of the head and an order that every bit of the remains be picked up, pronto.

The shards of glass were easy. The nightmare, for me, began when I tried to scoop up the little blobs of mercury. I was too young to spell "impotent" then, or to understand its meaning. But impotence is what I felt then, as I chased those elusive blobs along the polished floor, under the sofas... dammit, you would think when you get something cornered against a wall you got a chance against it, but no way...

Now it is my editor's turn to reduce me to similar impotence. Which he did by the simple expedient of demanding a profile of Subramanian Swamy. Two days of chasing a paper trail later, I find myself wondering why I made a fuss about a few blobs of mercury, that time... compared to this job, that was a piece of cake.

It was about three-and-a-half years ago that I had my last encounter with the gentleman. At the time, I was with The Sunday Observer, and was deputed to go to Madras and cover the mega-profile marriage of Jayalalitha's adopted son with the grand-daughter of celluloid icon, Chevalier Shivaji Ganesan.

On the day I landed in town, Subramanian Swamy was hosting a press conference at the Janata Party office in the TN capital, so I happened along. And listened to him describe his trials and tribulations at the hands of Jayalalitha's police -- the story, way Dr Swamy told it, made him out to be a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel and James Bond.

At the end of the briefing, I handed over my visiting card and asked for an interview. "Sunday Observer?" Dr Swamy scoffed. "That anti-national paper?" (Dr Swamy is big on "anti-national" -- you sometimes suspect that he uses the phrase as synonymous with 'anti-Swamy').

Why so, I demanded. "Didn't you carry an interview with that fellow Gopalaswamy?" (A reference to V Gopalaswamy, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). "The fellow who hobnobs with the LTTE, risking India's security?"

I pointed out that we had also carried an extensive interview with former IAS officer turned Swamy acolyte Chandralekha. "She needs the publicity, I don't," shrugged Dr Swamy, apparently confusing a newspaper with a handbill.

It was this memory that came most vividly to mind when the news broke that for the 1998 general election, the BJP would ally, in Tamil Nadu, with J Jayalalitha's AIADMK, Subramanian Swamy's Janata Dal, and V Gopalaswamy's MDMK among others.

The turnaround was, frankly, mind-boggling. After all, what was Dr Swamy doing in Tamil Nadu? Carrying out an intense campaign for the ouster of Jayalalitha's government, alleging wholesale corruption by the lady. Who was Dr Swamy's ally in arms? Chandralekha -- who, during her stint with SPIC, refused to sign at Jayalalitha's behest papers that were aimed at putting the government-owned concern's shares on the open market, and who for her pains got her face marred with acid.

"Jayalalitha has turned out to be a failure as chief minister," he said, at the time. "Her continuance would mean the return of forces that are not conducive to our national interests (there goes the anti-national refrain again). She has slackened her efforts against the LTTE".

And lo -- today, there stands Dr Swamy, with the "corrupt" Jayalalitha and the "anti-national" Gopalaswamy wrapped tight in his political embrace.

Then again, why would this come as a particular surprise? The man's political career has seen more ideological hairpin bends than National Highway 17. Starting with his return to India from Harvard, where he was professor of economics. "I left behind a sure chance of winning the Nobel Prize," Dr Swamy, whose worst enemies have never found cause to accuse him of being a modestly shrinking violet, said of that return.

His stint as professor of mathematical economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, was marked by open warfare with the Leftist lobby led by the likes of P N Haksar, Mohan Kumaramangalam and Nurul Hassan. Swamy was sacked -- and a long, acrimonious and eventually successful court case followed.

During that period, he joined the Jan Sangh, and worked closely with the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And it was during this phase that the legend of "Sherlock Swamy" had its genesis.

At the time, then prime minister Indira Gandhi was on a major anti-corruption kick. Which continued until, out of the blue, Dr Swamy stood up in Parliament and challenged her on the issue of -- wait for this -- her elder daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.

Sonia, Dr Swamy claimed -- with documentary evidence in support -- was at the time functioning as a benami insurance agent for Oriental Fire and General Insurance Company, and had in fact given her office address as 1, Safdarjung Road -- the prime minister's official residence.

Under fire, Indira Gandhi finally got her daughter-in-law to give up her 'employment'.

This made him a hero in Jan Sangh circles, that lasted through the Emergency. Until the Jayaprakash Narayan-inspired wave catapulted the Janata Party into office. And Vajpayee got a taste of what it means to thwart Dr Swamy's ambitions -- specifically, his planned trip to China and his desire to be included in the delegation to the United Nations.

In due course the Janata government fell, and Indira Gandhi returned to power. Sitting in the Opposition, Vajpayee began a campaign in Parliament against the Congress government withdrawing all pending charges against the Galadhari brothers of Dubai.

Dr Swamy saw his chance, and struck -- hard. Flourishing a copy of the concerned Cabinet note, Swamy cut the ground out from under Vajpayee by pointing out that it was Vajpayee himself who had, as external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai Cabinet, recommended that the charges be dropped in the interest of India's relations with Arab nations.

"It was good fun," Dr Swamy was to say, later, about that episode wherein he added to his enemy's embarrassment a personal touch, with scandalous stories about the private life of India's most famous political bachelor. " tried to play mischief with me, and I responded when the opportunity came my way."

The landscape of Indian polity is strewn with the victims of "Sherlock" Swamy.

There is Ramakrishna Hegde, the Mister Clean of Indian politics. Whose image was forever tarnished when Dr Swamy dug up, first, the telephone tapping scandal and then the urban land scam, under the cumulative weight of which Hegde resigned the office of chief minister of Karnataka.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh -- the man who rode his anti-Bofors crusade to the prime ministership, only to be ambushed by Dr Swamy. First, by having his name linked to the Bofors scandal with a stream of documentary evidence. Then, in a reprise of the Hegde episode, through allegations that Singh was having his political foes investigated. This charge however boomeranged when the letter Swamy produced, purportedly written by Singh to American investigator Michael Hershman asking that the latter investigate the foreign assets of various political VIPs, was proven to be a forgery.

A bit chastened, Dr Swamy bounced back by engineering the defection of Ajit Singh at the head of a band of 20 Janata Dal MPs, that destabilised the fall of the Singh regime. It must have tickled Dr Swamy's sense of political humour that the defection took place on the very day Singh was celebrating the second anniversary of his government's acceptance of the Mandal Commission report.

"If you want to split any of your journalist bodies, come to me," a gleeful Dr Swamy publicly chortled on that occasion.

The beneficiary then was Chandra Shekhar -- the man against whom Dr Swamy had earlier fought a bitter, public duel for presidency of the Janata Dal, and who he, in one of his memorable turnarounds, was now backing for the post of prime minister.

This, of course, led to a headline-grabbing stint in the Shekhar Cabinet, as minister for law and commerce. A stint that saw Dr Swamy, a misguided missile if ever there was one, shoot his own government in the foot by claiming, in an interview to David Housego of the Financial Times that the government's decision to raise import duties was a "panic reaction".

And then, of course, there was the famous, and prolonged, crusade against Jayalalitha. In course of which he accused her of systematically buying up half of Madras city, of sponsoring over a dozen attempts to murder him, of going soft on the LTTE, of being, what else, 'anti-national'...

Intriguingly, only one person has ever remained immune from the long and much-bloodied knife Swamy has wielded through his almost three decades in politics -- Rajiv Gandhi, to give him a name. Pointedly, Dr Swamy's anti-Bofors diatribes, which touched at various times on Arun Nehru, V P Singh, Ram Jethmalani and even George Fernandes, always stopped short of Rajiv's name.

Why did he never investigate Bofors, as he has probed much else? "Why should I?" he demanded. "There are so many others doing it, I don't have to reinvent the wheel."

One aspect of Dr Swamy's functioning that has always intrigued observers is the amazing facility with which he digs up documentary evidence on his target of the movement.

Dr Swamy himself once explained his success by pointing out that his father was a former secretary to the Government of India, and his father-in-law a high profile ICS officer. "I know people in the right places," he gloated.

There is, too, consensus that the fraternity of Tamil Brahmins, who are all-pervasive within the Indian administrative framework, has been of immense help to Dr Swamy. To cite just one instance, during the height of his anti-V P Singh crusade, Dr Swamy publicly asked for help from the finance ministry. Then finance secretary S Venkitaraman ordered the then enforcement director, Bhure Lal, to meet Dr Swamy and give him the requisite information. And when Bhure Lal demanded written authorisation to talk to a person not part of the government, Venkitaraman promptly put his order on paper, under his imprimatur.

Swamy-watchers of long standing, thus, maintain that almost every single one of his coups has come courtesy the 'Tam-Brahm' network. A word in season thus put Dr Swamy on the track of Sonia's part-time employment. A party-time whisper indicated to Dr Swamy that Vajpayee was vulnerable in the Galadhari brothers incident. The Hegde phone-tap scandal was reportedly laid out for him by disaffected elements within the state bureaucracy...

And therein lies the real danger Dr Swamy poses to his enemies -- his ability to dig up the dirt, thanks to a largely helpful bureaucracy. This could explain, too, why the Bharatiya Janata Party, last week, showed itself determined to turn down Jayalalitha's demand that Dr Swamy be made a part of the Vajpayee Cabinet -- the last thing you need is to have a 'friend' accumulating evidence which will, sooner or later, be turned against you.

The BJP's reluctance to break bread with Dr Swamy owes, too, to perhaps the one political consistency in a largely inconsistent career -- Subramanian Swamy has been, and remains, a BJP-hater.

Sample sound-bites from the man give an indicator of his mindset:

"I think the BJP is a joke. It is a party of semi-literates, and has fascist tendencies. Such a party can never have real roots in India because Hinduism is the antithesis of fascism." This, in April 1991.

"The RSS is an anti-national organisation. The quicker it is disintegrated, the better for India. Today the RSS and BJP are thoroughly marginalised, I do not rate them very highly." This, too, in the same period.

"How did the BJP give Enron a clearance? The 13 days Vajpayee was prime minister, he only cleared that one project. Why?... Why do they drink Coca-Cola in their working committee meetings, and not nimbu-paani?" -- this, as late as February 1998, BJP-AIADMK alliance was announced, in an interview to Shobha Warrier of Rediff.

All of which, coupled with the contretemps involving Vajpayee, explains the BJP's determination that it would rather not form a government, than do so at the cost of accomodating Dr Swamy in the Cabinet.

Examine the Swamy flip-flops down the years, and "immoral" is an adjective that springs to mind.

Then you think a bit, and wonder whether you should not be amending that to "amoral".

And that is not mere semantic quibbling. "Immoral" implies that you know the difference between black and white, and deliberately choose the darker colour. "Amoral" on the other hand implies that the gent in question is, in this context, totally, completely colour blind.

And that describes Dr Swamy to a T -- as far as he is concerned, "right" is defined by what suits him at the moment. And "wrong", by whatever thwarts his progress towards he alone knows what destination, which destiny.

Check out a few choice Swamy sound clips:

"I bring glory to an office. The post does not bring glory to me!" -- this, when asked if he ever hungered for power.

"Swamy is not known in the country because of a post or a party, or because be keeps hangers on. Swamy is known as Swamy, because he is Swamy."

"As a good Brahmin, I think any money being given to me is dakshina. I will accept money from anybody as long as it is Indian. As a good Brahmin, it is my right to accept money. When I ask a businessman to five me money I speak as if I am demanding it. I collect money for my party, my personal life has not been aggrandised by it." -- this, on his attitude to taking 'political contributions' from industrialists and assorted moneybags.

On the surface, what do those statements symptomise? Incredible arrogance? Or unbelievable naivete?

You pays your money, and you takes your choice!

That Subramanian Swamy could write the definitive guide on How to Make Enemies and Antagonise People is a given.

The question -- that elusive blob of quicksilver that dances tantalisingly in front of you -- is, why?

What drives the man?

A sheer spirit of freewheeling anarchy, or is there something more to it?

One possible answer probably lurks in a famous Swamy sound-bite, of 1979 vintage: "I have a feeling of destiny. I know in ten years time I will be prime minister."

Exactly ten years later, Dr Swamy was asked to give his personal progress report. "That ambition remains, nothing has gone wrong with it. I am within striking distance of that ambition. I am well educated, I am known all over the country, I am more capable than most people around, all I need is a vote bank and an organisation."

That same year, he was asked who he would like to see as the next prime minister. The response: "Next to me, I would like Chandra Shekhar to succeed Rajiv Gandhi."

Could unbridled -- some would say unrealistic -- personal ambition hold the key to the political gadfly's destructive path?

Or is it just coincidence that his victim of the moment is whoever appears to be getting that share of the public spotlight that he deems his due -- a Vajpayee, a Hegde, a V P Singh, whoever?

In Subramanian Swamy, have we found the ultimate exemplar of the chaos theory? Destroy whatever you see, destroy anything and everything that comes up, in the hope -- or belief -- that when all else is ruin and rubble, you alone will remain whole. And, by default, become leader, even if you are left with aught else but rubble to rule over?

Dr Swamy the tormentor of the high and politically mighty, we know. But is that Dr Swamy, himself, tormented by his own personal demon -- ambition?

Are we looking at the political equivalent of a child crying for the moon?

The Rediff Special

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