Subramanian Swamy: The man behind the mask

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In conversation and in repose, Swamy is largely inscrutable, his heavy-lidded eyes revealing little of his thoughts; although his innate restlessness leaks out of him through the occasional tic, he is a careful listener and a conscientious observer. He is also, his brother Subramanian said, inordinately sensitive, and he keeps a limpet-like hold on old grievances, however trivial. Subramanian remembered learning the phrase “black sheep” in school, when he was a little boy, and casually aiming it at Swamy during a pillow fight. For years thereafter, Subramanian told me, “Swamy went on repeating it. Even today, he’ll say, ‘You called me the black sheep of the family.’ I was a boy of—what?—eight or nine years?”

Panini described Swamy as a man who would “go all out after you, to decimate you, if he thinks you have crossed him or done something wrong”. MD Nalapat, a close friend of Swamy and a former Times of India editor, suggested in a Sunday Guardian column last November that Swamy’s ruthless legal pursuit of P. Chidambaram is really part of settling an old score. In 1997, Nalapat wrote, when Chidambaram was finance minister, he had tried to arrest Swamy for his involvement in a trust set up by Chandraswami, the self-appointed Tantrik godman accused of serial financial fraud. In his views on revenge, Nalapat wrote, “Subramanian Swamy is Sicilian.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar, who had been “fairly friendly” with Swamy through the 1980s, saw that relationship evaporate in a single evening in 1992. Representing the Oxford and Cambridge Society of India, Aiyar had taken on Swamy, who spoke for the Harvard Club of India, in a debate titled ‘W(h)ither India?’ “I still maintain it was a stupid subject,” Aiyar said. When his turn came to speak, Aiyar remarked that if the rumours then appearing in the newspapers—about Swamy joining the Congress—were true, then “India would indeed wither on the vine, because this is one unique individual, who has never left his party, but his party-men have left him.” The remark was, Aiyar insisted, tossed off in entirely good humour. “He hasn’t spoken to me since. He has no sense of humour. He has some wit, certainly, but a sense of humour is the ability to laugh at yourself, and he doesn’t have that.”

Aiyar criticised Swamy for not being a team player, and for possessing no social skills to that end, but Subramanian thinks his brother merely finds it easy to be detached and impersonal. “Sometimes I think he carries this detachment too far,” Subramanian told me. “During the Emergency, when he was going underground to avoid arrest, my mother asked him, ‘When will I see you again?’ Swamy said, ‘In our next birth.’ My father was so upset about that remark.” One friend who knew him in the 1970s, and who wished to remain anonymous, told me that Swamy used to be very fond of dogs. “He’d praise the Indian mongrel as the best kind of dog out there,” he said. “But his way of disciplining his dog was brutal. He’d tie it to a tree and beat it severely if it did anything wrong…”


To continue reading the rest of Subramanian Swamy’s profile, get Lutyens’ Insiders: The Games Played in Corridors of Power here:


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