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Monday, June 27, 2016

Does Swamy want Jaitley’s job, or is he aiming higher?

The Rajya Sabha MP's recent exertions suggest he has found Modi sarkar's weak spot..

In trying to understand why a highly educated person like Subramanian Swamy would behave like a gadfly, I googled the word "contrarian". It took a little doing but I found "froward" to be the best fit; it refers to being "wilfully contrary".

Swamy is nothing if not a wilful contrarian.

He started out as a pillar of the academic establishment; was elected to both houses of Parliament and remained an MP for 25 years; served as cabinet minister for commerce and law; had a blue-chip upbringing and education and currently has a pedigreed family with two accomplished daughters, one a lawyer, the other a journalist, married to successful professionals from established and well-connected civil service families.

So what happened to turn him into a gadfly? My assessment may be completely misplaced but then so is Swamy’s effort to target two accomplished public intellectuals.

He is himself a highly qualified member of the same club and he surely knows that RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and the government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian are about the only globally recognised assets that Narendra Modi has in his barren government.

Most of his other appointees, whether ministers or bureaucrats, are lacklustre apparatchiks who draw their name and fame from the prime ministerial sceptre he touched them with.

On the other hand, Rajan and Subramanian are internationally renowned scholars who brought gravitas to these heretofore humdrum positions.

So is Swamy simply being peevish and seeking to shoot down the competition? Or he is doing the bidding of this "suit-boot sarkar", beholden as it is to fat-cat cronies?

Could it be Swamy is making a final play for the position that he believes is his destiny? My money is on the third possibility. 

Swamy is probably the seniormost and certainly the most academically qualified person in politics now that Manmohan Singh is gone.

He seems to be convinced he is suited to be primus inter pares in the Union council of ministers. From his resume and list of accomplishments, it is hard to argue with his claim. So let us see how the third scenario might play out.

There is not an iota of doubt that the most credible face of the regime is finance minister Arun Jaitley, willy-nilly the number two in the cabinet.

He is a fine professional and a source of strength for PM Modi. His lack of a political base is probably an important consideration in the assignment to him of the important portfolios of finance, information and broadcasting, and until they found a suitable fall guy, defence.

In targeting the NRI economists, Swamy seemingly seeks to sap Jaitley. Does he want the finance minister’s job? Or is he aiming at a higher target?

From his mercurial tendencies, in which he has targeted people from all across the spectrum, including not just the Congress but the RSS as well, it is easy to conclude that his ego is at least as large as that of Modi.  

He has an impressive resume and a cosmopolitan cachet that is lacking in the current leadership. For example, consider his immediate family in which his son-in-law is Muslim, his brother-in-law is Jewish, his sister-in-law Christian and his wife Parsi. 

His undoubtedly superb academic qualifications, his experience in Parliament plus the familial diversity separate him from the traditional rube leadership that the BJP has on display.

As such, Swamy certainly seems to be better equipped to take the reins of political leadership. There is quite simply no one on the saffron bench that measures up.

The only problem he might confront what many believe is a lack of maturity and somewhat irresponsible behaviour. However, given the outlandish records of various ministers, Swamy is not alone in the bizarre department.

The culture minister, the education minister, the home minister, the defence minister and many others have made some remarkable comments that are not in keeping with the gravitas demanded of a berth in the highest councils of the government of India.

Could it be that Swamy, an acute analyst, has sensed the Modi gravy train is veering off the tracks? It is fairly evident that there is erosion in the lowest-ever 31 per cent vote share to deliver a majority in the lower house of Parliament.

Gujarat-style, Modi and his cohorts may think they have evaded responsibility for Lalitgate, Vyapam and other abuse-of-office scandals.

They may dismiss their abject foreign policy failures as too complicated for the electorate to parse. Or they may believe their loud, whistling-in-the-dark claims on economic growth will drown out the reality of low growth, joblessness, high inflation, collapse of exports, the looming banking crisis.

They may have persuaded themselves that some tokenism on the farm front may alleviate the serious crisis in agriculture.

In the end, the current leadership could lose the perception battle despite the bluff and bluster it relies on, and a media environment that it is confident of influencing to its advantage.

Whatever communications strategies it brings to the table, the leadership cannot be unaware that creating perceptions through hype and hoopla is not a sustainable proposition; unhinged from reality, they can be called out as propaganda.

Swamy’s recent exertions suggest that he may have hit upon the weak spot in the most swaggering regime ever to hold office. Whether his campaign succeeds in destabilising the Modi government depends on a number of factors including just how much disenchantment there is within the party and the parivar at large with the two Gujarati helmsmen.

After all, some 282 members of the BJP have ridden to power on their coat-tails. But if the feeling grows that the government is floundering, the support could disappear like a mist in the morning sun and with it, the bravura claims of re-election with an even bigger majority.

(An edited version of this post will appear in Education World, June 27, 2016.)