In ‘Appu Raja’, Kamal Haasan’s hit film from the 80s, there is a scene where the midget Kamal’s gun, pointed at the villain, gets snatched by the latter who is ready to shoot Kamal. Kamal warns him not to, but the villain fires, and dies, because as Kamal’s character says, “this is a circus gun, it fires both ways”.
In some sense, Subramanian Swamy is the circus gun in Indian politics.
Make no mistake, Swamy is intellectually gifted (A PhD from Harvard at the ripe age of 26!), Assistant Professor at Harvard from ’69 and barring a few adventurous years in Indian Academia, taught there till 2011, and Professor of Mathematical Economics at IIT Delhi till 1971. He has served on the Board of Governors of IIT Delhi and on the Council of IITs.
Although he is not a lawyer, there are many who assume he is, given his humongous knowledge of the finer points of law and has been a Minister of Commerce and Law in the Narasimha Rao government and, not the least, having taken on eminent lawyer Ram Jethmalani in a series of lawsuits instituted by the latter.
At the same time, one can sense some angst in Swamy of 2018. Arguably, he could have been one of the better Finance Ministers of India (certainly better than some of the other incumbents who have adorned the post), or for that matter been a better policy maker than most, if not all, the worthies, who have been one. Swamy is clearly a good (bordering on great) thinker who has out-of-the-box solutions for many of the problems that this country is facing.
So, what went wrong? In his political journey spanning almost four decades, the singular aspect of his persona has been his willingness to speak the brutal truth, and in that process, his ability to switch sides with alacrity. It was the same Swamy who claimed to have brought down the Vajpayee Government with Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi, and it was the same Swamy whose famous lawsuit against Jayalalithaa saw her convicted in the Disproportionate Assets case (Jayalalithaa’s associate is still in jail in that case).
If he aligned with Sonia Gandhi, he was also principally responsible for Sonia giving up the claim of Prime Ministership when he quoted a reciprocity agreement which prevented a person not born in the country to become the Prime Minister, and paved the way for Dr Manmohan Singh to become the PM.
His joining the BJP was also seen as an opportunistic move, given his animosity towards the Gandhi family and his opposition to Jayalalithaa. Swamy was probably eyeing the FM role, only to be denied the same by Modi.
In a country where the hallmark of a politician is how best he can echo the narrative of the party and the leadership, Swamy is a misfit. As recently as January 2019, he tweeted against his own government in the Alok Verma episode, where he questioned Modi on the wisdom of sacking Verma. He even suggested, correctly, that the entire set up was meant to facilitate Special Director Asthana’s appointment as the Director CBI and suggested that since the government was thwarted in that attempt by the Hon Supreme Court, they played petty politics.
As a consequence, today, Swamy is all on his own, despite having enviable sources of information on whether Sonia Gandhi studied at Cambridge, why Rahul Gandhi left Harvard, 2G scam, DA case, National Herald case, the Single Directive prohibition… the list is rather exhaustive.
Despite being in the ruling BJP, Swamy is not a trusted lieutenant of Modi, nor for that matter, of Amit Shah. In fact, he had to be publicly rebuked when he ranted against Dr Raghuram Rajan (accusing him of not being Indian-enough, while he was Governor RBI) and has publicly tweeted in support of the treatment meted out to Rajan’s successor Dr Urjit Patel. However, in a party where pretty much any politician can say anything he wants, however nonsensical it may be, Swamy’s utterances, some being equally nonsensical (like the recent one about Priyanka Gandhi being bipolar), at least have some data, some verifiable information and some socially relevant issue attached (we are still waiting for all of that w.r.t. Priyanka Gandhi, though).
In a party that calls for nationalism as the duty of every right-thinking citizen, Swamy, the ultimate Nationalist, continues to be a fringe element within the BJP leadership.
So why does the BJP really suffer Swamy? Simply because, he is today a useful and a dangerous opponent as far as the Gandhi family is concerned. His relentlessness in the court cases (National herald, 2G, Ayodhya) and his superb information sources combined with his academic brilliance ensure that just about anything that he pursues will have an impact, ranging from nuisance value to seriously denting some images, which the party can capitalize upon. In the worst-case scenario, Swamy, as a Rajya Sabha member, will continue to hold his office till 2022 and can continue to torment his targets with data-bombs and legal tangles.
In a sense, it is a sad denouement for a man, with credentials as brilliant as they are, to be reduced to a status of a political hitman. But then as a society that loves its status quo, Swamy would be an oddity in any other role.