June 20, 2016

India: Modi government chose Subramanian Swamy over Raghuram Rajan

The Telegraph - June 20, 2016

The saffron letter - Swamy and friends

by Mukul Kesavan

One of the questions that Raghuram Rajan's exit from the Reserve Bank of India raises is the integrity of the technocrat in ideological regimes. How do you serve a feral government without being appropriated by it? If you are part of a government like this one, what is the distance between Sakshi Maharaj or Sanjeev Balyan or Subramanian Swamy and you?

The argument for serving the government of India in a technocratic capacity is a powerful one. A democracy has only one way of determining legitimacy: elections. Narendra Modi won a large mandate fairly. The oft-made point that the National Democratic Alliance won less than 40 per cent of the vote might help us reflect on the nature of pluralities in a first-past-the-post democracy, but it's no reflection on the legitimacy of Modi's government. That being the case, serving as the governor of the Reserve Bank ought to be wholly respectable.

But this was true in the world before Subramanian Swamy. It is clear now (or it ought to be) that this English-speaking extremist is the Anglophone face of the Bharatiya Janata Party. When Swamy joined the BJP in 2013, the media treated him as a kind of court jester, licensed to say outrageous things but not a real force in the new dispensation. It's an assessment that is being rapidly revised; on the evidence of Rajan's termination, Swamy is the party's most influential voice after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

In late May, Swamy wrote a letter to the prime minister accusing Rajan, amongst other things, of being a 'disruptor' of the economy, of not being 'mentally fully Indian' on account of his green card, and charged him with deliberately and wilfully wrecking the Indian economy. "I cannot see why someone appointed by the UPA Government who is apparently working against Indian economic interests should be kept in this post when we have so many nationalist minded experts available in this country for the RBI governorship." Three weeks after Swamy accused the RBI's governor of being a treacherous, unpatriotic saboteur, the government of India decided not to give him another term.

This is not a coincidence. A month before attacking Rajan, Swamy had been given a nominated berth in the Rajya Sabha. At the time, the journalistic gloss on his appointment was that he would act as a polemical force-multiplier in the Rajya Sabha. Besides, as the driving force behind the National Herald case against the Gandhis, he would be better placed to embarrass the Congress. This was clearly an underestimation of his standing in the BJP. Swamy wasn't in the Rajya Sabha as a useful loose cannon; he was there as its principal ideologue, as the man who could translate its innermost thoughts and ideological attitudes into political English.

When he used his position as a parliamentarian to spit on the governor of the RBI from a great height, the first response of the press was that Swamy was being Swamy. Only he wasn't; we now know that he was explaining on behalf of his government why Rajan wouldn't get the second term that he seemed interested in. Had this not been the case, Swamy's attack on Rajan would have been vigorously repudiated by the government. It's worth recalling its form - it was framed as a letter to the prime minister. Instead we got a tepid, pro forma defence from the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, and radio silence from Modi. The prime minister's silence wasn't surprising. For someone who was mute when Mohammad Akhlaque was lynched, Rajan's discontinuation was unlikely to merit comment; no one died.

The point here isn't Raghuram Rajan's indispensability. India will manage without him in the same way as it weathered the great recession without Rajan at the helm. The point, crudely put, is this: presented with a choice between two economists, this government chose Subramanian Swamy over Raghuram Rajan.

Why would it do this? The answer isn't complicated. Subramanian Swamy is an ideological soul mate. While he is a lateral entrant into the BJP, his sympathy for majoritarian causes is of long standing. He combines a genius for litigation with a real gift for public provocation. He is, like Trump, a great figure on social media. He is an economist with Ivy League credentials. He is, crucially, an English-speaking Hindu majoritarian with a storied, if eccentric, career in politics, and his public profile guarantees attention. He has been saying the unsayable for years, so for a party that wants to let its base know that the respectability of being a governing party hasn't dulled its majoritarian edge, he is a gift. He's like Trump: a provocateur who makes bigotry banal through flamboyant repetition.

His infamous op-ed piece for DNA in July 2011 was the launching pad for his late-career surge. The salient paragraph is worth quoting:

"We need a collective mindset as Hindus to stand against the Islamic terrorist. The Muslims of India can join us if they genuinely feel for the Hindu. That they do I will not believe unless they acknowledge with pride that though they may be Muslims, their ancestors were Hindus. If any Muslim acknowledges his or her Hindu legacy, then we Hindus can accept him or her as a part of the Brihad Hindu Samaj (greater Hindu society) which is Hindustan. India that is Bharat that is Hindustan is a nation of Hindus and others whose ancestors were Hindus. Others, who refuse to acknowledge this, or those foreigners who become Indian citizens by registration, can remain in India but should not have voting rights (which means they cannot be elected representatives)."

Commentators who argue that the BJP is a normal political party that has left its Golwalkar-ite past behind it, should re-read this passage and reflect on the extraordinary cachet that Swamy currently enjoys within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP and the NDA. 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.