Review: Swaminathan’s Genius Explained for Everyman in New Book

In place of a disclaimer, here is a story. Sometime in late 1995, I was called up from my desk at a boutique financial newspaper to meet a peon with a letter. This missive invited me to join the editorial pages of India’s largest financial paper, The Economic Times. It was scrawled by hand and signed by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, possibly
the greatest economic journalist of our time.

From Narasimha Rao to Narendra Modi is a collection of Swami’s columns and writing over the last 25 years. It roughly coincides with my journalistic career, and extends a bit more than my first meeting with the author – in a lungi and a hippie T-shirt, down with a cold, as he said then – at his Saket home, many years ago.

Swami’s Genius Expressed in Everyman’s Language

As you turn the pages, reader, you will discover the genius of Swami’s thinking, expressed in Everyman’s language, an English so distilled of all fancy that anybody can grasp the essence of his argument.

“I’m no intellectual,” Swami once said, “I’m a communicator of ideas.”

Yes, and a person with a keen sense of the zeitgeist and a sense of humour. His August 2008 column, ‘Why Hinglish will beat Chinglish’, is a good example. Here, Swami argues that India’s long-term economic prospects are better than China’s – but from a totally counter-intuitive angle.

This involves a personal experience: a request to write a ‘short’ article of 3,000 words for a Chinese newspaper. When Swami complains that 3,000 words is not a short article, the editor kindly explains that, translated into Mandarin, it would boil down only to 800 words. Because every ideogram is an idea, wholly unto itself.

Linguistic Obstacles Faced by China

This linguistic difference, argues Swami, is the reason why China struggles to keep up with the Anglophone world, the centre of the global economy. He points out that English speakers and translators in China command over $100,000 per year in salary, too costly to be employed in call centres.

Cover of From Narsimha Rao to Narendra Modi. (Photo Courtesy: Amazon.in)

Swami cites many examples of how badly China does English through posters, notices and public signs.

Examples: “Whitening peeling cream, removes horniness. (From a skin cream advertisement)”. “Please do not feed fish with your privates (Sign at a pond)”. “No kicking of balls (At a park)”. “Piano Teacher’s Intercourse Book (A piano manual)”. And so on.

This is just one example of Swami’s quirky insights into vast aspects of society, economics and global affairs. So-called experts in these subjects are quick to laugh them off as mere jokes or passing observations.

Over time, as Swami’s columns demonstrate, the joke invariably is on those pundits. Somehow, through apparently random, meandering thought and connections, Swami gets the big story correct.

When Swami Was Asked to Explain Economics to Aam Aadmi

Though Swami publicly claims he is no political journalist, he was forced into being one. No editor pushed him down that swamp. In the most valuable article in this book, the 60-plus page essay The Evolution of Swaminomics: From Narasimha Rao to Narendra Modi, Swami recounts the history of the column. It is also the history of his intellectual evolution.

A quarter of a century ago, he recalls Dina Vakil, an editor at The Times of India, asking him to write a column explaining economics to aam aadmi. Once on that path, he says, he realised he had to understand politics to get a grasp of policy, and hence, economics. Swami is humble about these things. His intuitive – almost miraculous – grasp of electoral politics will unnerve even the most seasoned pollster or political writer.

His Understanding of the Political Scenario

In 2012, ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, I was lucky to be travelling with Swami and his late wife Shehnaz. Around the end of our trip, after a meeting with Digvijaya Singh in Jhansi, where Singh projected a minimum of 80 Assembly seats for Congress, Swami gave his own projection.

Congress, Swami said, would get around 25 seats in the Assembly. When results came out, it got 28 seats.

In 2017’s supercharged UP polls, when most observers called the elections ‘too close to call’, Swami wrote a column predicting a sweep for the BJP. He was correct.

As a man who lives eight out of 12 months in America, and has been doing so for nearly two decades, you’d say Swami’s handle on India would be rusty. You’d be wrong.

There is only one last thing to say. For many, Swami is a cold-hearted rationalist, capitalist, supporter of the profit-maximiser. I have had the privilege of knowing him closely, as well as his graceful wife Shehnaz, who died after over a decade of fighting cancer.

So, for Swami-haters, here is a story. One day a long time ago, Swami surprised me in office, asking lots of questions about Assam, a place I am married into. Why would Swami, a Tam Bram editor in Delhi, take so much interest in this far-flung northeastern state?

Over years, the answer is clear. With another journalist-activist, Sanjoy Hazarika, Swami paid for mechanised boats which function as hospitals, with doctors, nurses and medicines on board, serving thousands of patients on the hundreds of islands on the Brahmaputra.

The number of boats have multiplied. The first boat was Swami’s birthday gift to his late wife. It was called ‘Shahnaz.’

Title: From Narasimha Rao to Narendra Modi: 25 Years of Swaminomics
Author: Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar
Pages: 440 pages
Publisher: Times Group Books
Price: Rs 449


(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached @AbheekBarman.)