More Details, Please!
Why has Subramanian Swamy not emerged as the poster boy of the right-leaning middle class? And other questions.
In an editorial comment in its issue dated July 28, 1951, Economic Weekly (which preceded EPW) remarked: “Pandit Nehru is at his best when he is not pinned down to matters of detail”. In the formative years of India’s experiment with democracy, this edit was a scathing attack on the heady idealism of the Nehruvian policy framework which was seen as not taking into account the practical details and complexities of implementation. But more than any criticism, it was the actual play of democratic forces in the following years that brought a moderation in Nehru’s outlook, and Nehruvian public discourse acquired far greater detailing without surrendering its ideological core.
Fast forward to February, 1999. Just hours before heading for the Lahore bus journey, then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee was presiding over the centenary celebrations of Hindu College (Dr Subramanian Swamy’s alma mater) in Delhi University. He was heading a Right-wing coalition (NDA) which couldn’t be more ideologically different to the Nehruvian idea of India. Yet, his quite un-right-wing like peacemaking gesture towards Pakistan made him quip: “Politicians in power are a different creed”. Period. Democracy, with all its limitations, looks for details through an in-built mechanism of moderation. At the height of the upsurge of Hindu nationalist forces in the political power centres in the late Nineties, social scientist Ashis Nandy always sounded hopeful of damage control because he believed that democracy has an inherent tendency of moderating hardline ideologies. For all the self-assurance in Subramanian Swamy’s eyes, does he have an eye for “democratic detailing”? The settled certitudes of his brand of nationalist identity politics doesn’t seem to leave much space for alternative narratives of plural identities and even the more basic socio-economic and political challenges confronting the country.
The missing boy from the poster
What should intrigue you about Swamy is why he hasn’t emerged as the poster boy of a space that should have been his natural constituency. Swamy’s is an interesting case to examine the nature of political presence in the right-of-centre space in the country. And what’s more, the perceptions about his intellectual credentials as an economist says as much about public imagination of the right-wing space as it does about left liberal monopoly over academic acceptability and patronage.
Swamy has all the ingredients of emerging as the blue-eyed boy of the right-leaning middle class. He is a highly educated Brahmin and an economist of international standing. For a significant section of the urban middle class who sneer at anpadh gawar politicians (Bedi-speak), he has credentials they would swear by. He has sought to unearth corruption in high offices and has led numerous anti-corruption campaigns.
Corruption is another galvanising issue for the middle class which has been gullibly led to simplify discourse with venal politicians and which is comfortable in its distance from more fundamental issues of political economy, dehumanising inequities and skewed capital-labour relations. Swamy has been vocal on the former and silent on the latter, the perfect combination to catch the right-leaning middle class imagination.
And then, he fulfills the third eligibility criterion for the rightist stewardship with his xenophobic rhetoric against non-Hindu plural identities in India. Swamy’s articulation of Hindutva should be music to the ears of NRIs who have been keeping the cash registers of right-wing organisations ringing in India.
Yet the puzzle remains, why has Swamy not emerged as the poster boy of the right leaning section of the middle class?
And yes, Swamy can write on economic issues beyond the blinkers of swadeshi economics of the right. With his long teaching and research career at Harvard behind him, Swamy might not need any more substantial credentials for being one of the eminent economists in the country. If doubt still lingers, just look at the obituary that he wrote for his Harvard mentor and Nobel Laureate, Paul Samuelson.
Yet, is it a surprise that he isn’t recognised as one of them? Not only for his preoccupation with things “political”, but also for an academic caste system where left liberals have to be the Brahmins and anyone taking a rightward turn is an “outcaste”. Swamy, again a puzzle here!
Swamy and His Friends: The Contested Idea of India
Swamy wants friends, but identical ones with a degree of sameness that militates against the Nehruvian idea of a secular India of plural identities. Swamy’s religious code has Hindutva numerals and for the rest, inclusiveness rests on a DNA-vetted Hindu ancestry. The league of religious exclusivity, the fodder for right-wing discourse. The tussle between these rival ideas of India is not new, and some may even frame it in a civilisational context (with no reference to Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations). But the question has to get to the theme of democratic detailing – a code of co-existence and tolerating, if not respecting, pluralities. The democratic relevance for Swamy’s take on identity politics in India would help itself with that moderating force of democracy, that softening of hardened certitudes of religious narrative. And of course, addressing the questions that spring from no identity, but miserable human conditions.
Having his take on the complex mosaic of multiple realities of India, E M Foster had once said, “Every statement about India is correct. So is its opposite”. Democratic detailing lies in identifying and making space for as many opposites, not-so opposites and similarities. Multiple and fragmented, that’s how realities are in complex socio-cultural formations like India. Perhaps Swamy realises it too. He has details with him when he wants, Indian courts know that. Why is he so myopic with details of democracy and plural identities that sustain it? Hope he answers that someday.