The Swamy strategery

Subramanian Swamy has been accused of many things, but ‘grace’ has never made that list, so his valedictory post (and related snark that peppers his timeline, sandwiched between humble-brag retweets of laudatory messages from his fan club, and of news reports crediting him with having added ‘another scalp’ to his bag, is only par for his course.

Here’s what comes next:

So we know what to expect in the coming weeks: unsubstantiated allegations (most of them citing his anonymous, but apparently vast, network of ‘sources’) and innuendo, all faithfully amplified by his personal echo chamber.

The reaction is predictable; the one cited below is merely a representative example:


The government is perfectly within its rights to deny Raghuram Rajan a second term as head of the RBI. Similarly, the government is perfectly within its rights to move out those bureaucrats who it sees as an impediment to its smooth functioning.

It’s not even as if the government was slumbering through the past two years. Shortly after the government took office, the Washington Post echoed the Indian press with its eulogistic report on how the can-do prime minister was shaking up the bureaucracy and getting them out of the golf course and back to their assigned desks. (The Guardian was equally laudatory of the clean-up). Around the same time, Tehelka had a longish piece on how Mr Modi was sourcing his top bureaucrats.

Bureaucratic shuffles were a constant theme of the government’s first few months in office — thus, one babu shunted, then shunted again before he had even found his new office; 26 bureaucrats promoted and 35 transferred in another clean-up. Through the first year in office and even as recently as January of this year, the PM was still reshuffling his bureaucrats and telling them to get to work.

All of this was accomplished with minimal noise, and duly noted by the media in routine news stories. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that after two years of constant shuffling there are still 27 bureaucrats loyal to the previous regime and working against the interests of the current government (which doesn’t speak very highly of the government’s competence, but never mind that), and assuming further that only Swamy knew who the bad apples were, how hard would it be for him to share this information with his good friend the prime minister and for the latter to move them all out with a minimum of fuss?

Why is it necessary for a Swamy, in the fashion of some latter Joe McCarthy, to carry out a toxic campaign of rumour and innuendo and vilification to accomplish this goal? Why is it necessary to make a repulsive public spectacle out of what should be a purely administrative decision?

Indeed! And it took two years for that realisation to hit home — and despite a chesty prime minister and an absolute majority, it takes a Swamy to tilt at this particular windmill?

A mature government would have met with Rajan and informed him that his tenure will not be extended — no explanation would have been needed. A seasoned government would have told the chief secretary to transfer those bureaucrats who were deemed unsuitable for whatever reason — no fuss, no muss.

‘Seasoned’ and ‘mature’ are not, however, adjectives that come immediately to mind when you consider the working of the government in office — a government that apparently needs the more intemperate of its water-carriers to accomplish even the most routiine tasks.

PS: Sections of the right wing commentariat have in the past 24 hours attempted to delink Swamy’s ‘hardly mentally Indian’ rant from Rajan’s exit. The first, they say, is Swamy being Swamy, whatever that means; the second is a calculated move by a government pursuing a particular economic agenda. That horse won’t jump, though — and such ‘reasoning’ is par for the course for the apologists of a government that endorses, even encourages, its most extreme elements through calculated silence. Mukul Kesavan nails Swamy’s role in the current dispensation in this piece:

There are only two explanations for Swamy’s attack on Rajan and the decision of the government not to offer Rajan an extension. Swamy is either ventriloquizing for the government or he is making the running and the government is following his lead. Either scenario puts him front and centre in the councils of the BJP and its government. More and more he seems like Modi’s uninhibited alter ego, someone who can be freely majoritarian in a way that is forestalled by the optics of prime ministerial office. In his new avatar, Modi is unlikely to produce a zinger like ‘hum paanch, hamare pachees’, but Swamy suffers from no such constraints. He can and will provoke, with relish, in English.

One reason why right-of-centre commentary has been broadly critical of the decision to let Rajan go is that his global standing as an economist supplied an alibi to conservative pundits supportive of Modi. Rajan became a proxy for this government’s commitment to economic rationality. Rational economics was a fig leaf that helped obscure a darker politics; Rajan’s departure leaves the government (and, by implication, its supporters) a little more naked than before. Swamy’s extremism can no longer be tidied away as noise from the fringe. He isn’t a gadfly; he is this government’s grinning éminence grise.