POLITICS
01/05/2019 7:13 AM IST | Updated 10/05/2019 2:24 PM IST

Subramanian Swamy Interview: BJP Would Have Got Only 160 Seats If Not For Balakot

The Rajya Sabha MP on where the BJP government went wrong and whether Narendra Modi will be PM again.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

NEW DELHI — Harvard-educated economist Subramanian Swamy recently beat Prime Minister Narendra Modi to become the most interactive Indian politician on Twitter. In an interview with HuffPost India, the Rajya Sabha lawmaker seemed pleased about this, even as he suggested that Modi would be unhappy about coming in second. “I think that is something that hurts him because he values Twitter a lot,” he said.

Swamy, who has eight million followers on Twitter (Modi has 47 million), has often said that he is the second most popular person in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after Modi. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be Finance Minister if the BJP returns to power.

“I’m unhappy because he (Modi) has kept me out. Maybe because some of his close friends feel threatened by my presence,” he said.

Swamy, always outspoken and often irreverent, is a six-time parliamentarian, and an unapologetic proponent of Hindu nationalism. Following an opinion piece that he wrote in July 2011, which contained inflammatory statements against Indian Muslims, Harvard University dropped the two summer school courses he taught.

Swamy served as a cabinet minister in the Chandra Shekhar government. His public appeal goes back to the Emergency, when he sneaked into Parliament and declared, “I have a point of order. There is no obituary reference for democracy. It has also died.”

He has since cast himself as an anti-corruption crusader, pursuing the 2G scam under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and unearthing the disproportionate assets case which put former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in the dock. He is currently pursuing cases against Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and P. Chidambaram. 

In an interview with HuffPost India last year, Swamy had said that the Modi government had failed on the economic front, but it would be re-elected with a majority on Hindutva.

But with four phases of polling over, and three more to go, Swamy says that BJP could wind up with 50-60 seats less than its 2014 tally, making a coalition government the most likely scenario—unless Modi promises the construction of the Ram Temple when he visits Ayodhya on 1 May.  “If he goes there and says ‘I pledge that I will I get this built in my next term,’ everything else will be swept away,” said Swamy.

Modi did not visit the make-shift Ram Temple when he went to Ayodhya in 2014, and he is likely to skip it again.

If the Modi government had not carried out strikes inside Balakot, Pakistan after the Pulwama attack, Swamy says, the BJP would have been looking at only 160 seats in the election.

In this interview, Swamy spoke about where the Modi government went wrong, whether Modi will be PM again, and how he would tackle unemployment if he was finance minister.

“The main problem is his (Modi’s) extraordinarily unhealthy centralization of decision making. And the utter disregard that party president (Amit Shah) has for the worker,” he said. 

The main problem is his (Modi’s) extraordinarily unhealthy centralization of decision making.

Is there a Modi wave?

His credibility is certainly very high. People do think that of all the leaders in the fray, he is the best.

There is a lot of discontentment over the poor performance of the economy in the past five years. My view is that this discontentment would have been submerged if we had begun the construction of Ram Mandir. There was an expectation that he would do it if we get absolute majority, but Modi didn’t give much attention to that. Even at the last minute, he could have handed over the government land to start the construction of the supplementary parts of the Ram Mandir, but he didn’t do it.

Why didn’t he do it?

That is something he only can answer. And he’s got one last chance. He’s going to Ayodhya (on May 1). If he goes there and says ‘I pledge that I will I get this built in my next term,’ everything else will be swept away. If he doesn’t do it, well, Ram is Kshatriya (warrior) god.

How many seats will the BJP get?

It is very difficult to say. One thing that I would place a very high probability on is that the government will be of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — whether it is with a larger or smaller number of partners than we have today — whether BJP gets majority or doesn’t get majority. Supposing BJP stops at 230 or 220, and then 30 seats of the NDA, so 250 is guaranteed. So, we will have to get 30 more. And being the single largest pre-election combination, the president is bound to call the BJP-led front and give two weeks time to form the government. Thirty is not difficult at all.

People do think that of all the leaders in the fray, he is the best.

Will Modi be PM again?

It depends on whether the other partners — the extra 30 or 40 — if they say no, we can’t accept him. (Naveen) Patnaik has gone on record to say that he does not deserve a second term, and if we are going to bring in Mayawati, she has not disclosed her mind.

You are assuming that Mayawati’s BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) would join a NDA coalition?

BSP could join and I would not be surprised if she wants a change in leadership.

BSP is fighting with SP (Samajwadi Party)against the BJP in UP. Are you saying that Mayawati would ditch Akhilesh Yadav after the election?

No, no, no. Mulayam Singh Yadav would come with us. He has already congratulated the PM on the floor of Parliament. Both will come.

But the SP-BSP caste alliance is the most formidable force against BJP in this election.

So what? The BJP wiped them out in 2014, and they don’t want to be wiped out again. Getting 73 seats of 80 (BJP and allies) was essentially wiping them out. Mayawati did not even get one MP.

You really think that SP and BSP can back the BJP after the election.

They can, but I don’t know what conditions they will put. They are obviously going to put conditions, they won’t come like that. But they haven’t articulated that.

Do you think Mayawati can be PM?

Mayawati is an admirable woman. I’ve known her for a long time. She can be prime minister, but whether she will be prime minister now, I can’t say. She will have to retool it differently. She became chief minister when she took the Brahmins into confidence. She has to do some national thing. Some of her rhetoric has to change.

If there is no Modi wave, how do you explain his appeal?

I would say that we are benefited by the lack of an alternative.

What about Nitin Gadkari?

He is a nice man. A great friend of mine. Lovely man. What more do you want to know?

Is he an alternative to Modi?

If he is, then it would be wonderful. He is qualified. He is as good as Modi.

There are also rumours of BJP trying to sabotage him.

That happens all the time in politics. 

I would say that we are benefited by the lack of an alternative.

Do you think Modi deserves a second chance?

He is my good friend for a long time. I’ve known him since 1972. I have known him when he was pracharak. During the Emergency, we have moved around together for sometime. Both of us were underground. When nobody was proposing his name for PM, I did. I earned the ire of all my American friends after the media typecast him on that Gujarat thing (2002 Gujarat riots). I’m not happy that he has kept some of us out of the government. But BJP getting absolute majority was a new experiment, so we did not want to rock the boat for the past five years to benefit the Congress party.

But this time, if we form the government, then we expect those who have worked for the party — I’m the second most popular person in the party today after Modi — he just can’t keep me out, especially when I’m highly trained in economics. I need to be in the economic decision making. For all my long sacrifice, fighting the Emergency, fighting corruption — I’m the only one who has fought corruption — the government has fought nothing. Even when he talks about the bail of Sonia Gandhi and others — bail gaadi as he calls it — it’s all my work. There must be some sense of reward. I’m not saying that I should get whatever I want, but there should be some proportion to the contribution I’ve made.

Do you think Modi deserves a second term?

I don’t know what you mean by... Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t deserve even a year of that seventeen years.

But that’s not answering the question.

How can I be so judgmental? Jawharalal Nehru got 17 years. Indira Gandhi got 16. Narasimha Rao got only five. So deserving, undeserving, it’s difficult to be objective about it. I’m unhappy about him because he has kept me out. Maybe because some of his close friends feel threatened by my presence.

Who?

I don’t want to say who. I know how to take care of them. Last time, I didn’t want to rock the boat. This time, I will be ready to.

I’m unhappy because he has kept me out.

Where did the Modi government go wrong?

The main problem is his (Modi’s) extraordinarily unhealthy centralization of decision making. And the utter disregard that party president (Amit Shah) has for the worker. He was a machine man, like some guy from Chicago — you know, efficient. When the going is good, he produces results. When the going is bad, we have this problem.

Modi is also highly inaccessible. I’ve worked with many prime ministers. There are some senior men in the party and they should have easy access to him. It should not be like a corporate — asking for appointment — and some flunky comes and tells you that he is busy today. The minus point has been over-centralization. If he gets another term, which seems probable, he should become more open and less subject to bureaucrats telling him who he can and cannot meet. Or if someone goes and tattles and you believe the tattling. Those are some of the things he needs to correct. 

Can you explain centralization a bit more?

Decision-making is left too much to… it all comes down to his (Modi) okaying it or two or three people in his immediate circle deciding what ministers decide. Normally, you decentralize. It’s too big a country to centralize. Decisions get delayed.

Can you give an example?

You know, Ram Setu. I want to make it a national heritage monument, which has certain criteria in the Act. And it satisfies it. The Culture Ministry had okayed it and they could have announced it, but they didn’t. It had to go to the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and it’s been lying there for the past five years. That’s an example. It shouldn’t go to the PMO.

Has the economy suffered because of centralization?

No, the economy suffered because of the incompetence of Mr. Jaitley. He doesn’t know any economics. He said our GDP has become the sixth largest. Rubbish. If you are an economist, you will know that it is the third largest. You don’t measure by exchange rates. Nowhere in the world is that a practice. It’s measured by purchasing power parity. If you are an economist, you will know right away. We are the third largest economy. It’s complete ignorance of economics that is responsible for the state that we are in.

Do you think it would have helped the BJP if the Modi government had just owned up to the economic problems? 

Well, if he (Modi) says, ‘sorry we have made mistakes’ then he has to rectify it. He can’t say I made mistakes in the second year and then in the fourth year, you continue to make the same mistakes and have the same incompetent people handling it.

It’s complete ignorance of economics that is responsible for the state that we are in.

Okay, so mistakes were made…

It’s not mistakes, its incompetence.

But how could they have played it in the election to minimize damage?

For the election, I don’t think one needs to be bothered about economics at all. This — economy, unemployment — this is all westernization. In no time, after we took that (air) strike against Pakistan, our ratings went up. Otherwise, we were running at 160. Now, we are definitely within reach of the majority. This is because of tough action against Pakistan, dismissing the Kashmir government, and then of course, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi came out on bail.  And (P.) Chidambaram going up and down for bail for two weeks. I might have done it, but the government has claimed credit. Those are things which matter and that should have been done more extensively. Also, very subtly, the fact that we had warned Sri Lanka — not once but twice — that there is going to be an ISIS terrorist attack.

So you are saying that BJP would have wound up with 160 seats if the government had not struck Pakistan after the Pulwama attack?

Yes, that and dismissing the Kashmir government. Our seats would have come down to 160 if we didn’t do that. 

How is discussing unemployment in an election a western notion?

No, I’m saying the economic thing is a western notion, not unemployment.

On unemployment…

Listen, I don’t want to argue with you on what is the correct unemployment figure. Some five economists stand up, I don’t trust them. (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee said, oh, India is shining. What did the media say, oh, that he is the man of the century, he is secular, etcetera etcetera. Narasimha Rao only talked about the economy, how he generated growth rate from 3.5% to 8%, but it didn’t matter because sentiment is what drives India. Indira Gandhi also did a lot of good work on the economic front during the Emergency, but people said no, we want our freedom.

Sentiment is what drives India.

What can be done about unemployment?

I would lower interest rates for small and medium-sized industries to not more than 8%. I’ll say you don’t have to give a mortgage, give me on your future profit. I’ll abolish income tax, and say if you invest in the labour industry, we’ll even give you a subsidy. There are many ways.

India’s problem is not skilled manpower or unemployment. The real problem is this large semi-skilled or totally unskilled labour. This huge existence of 60% of our labour force in agriculture. To move them out, you have to create incentives. And that is not by giving doles. I’m totally against this handing money, 72,000 rupees and all that. It will just go into the pockets of Congress party workers.

I want to say — if you do this — then we will give you these concessions. Reduce the number of levies, taxes, this GST should be scrapped. It’s the biggest madness that we have done. It’s one of the reasons for our unpopularity also. This country responds to incentives like nothing else. This is the only thing that we have not experimented with because we still have a feudal mentality of bossing around.

This GST should be scrapped. It’s the biggest madness that we have done.

Has announcing 10% economic reservation been a boost for the BJP.

I wouldn’t say boost. It creates a good feeling that we are ready to think out of the box on this. We are not afraid of anybody. I won’t say that it is a deciding factor. The deciding factor for the upper caste is nationalism.

This has more resonance in the northern than in the southern states?

No, no. I’m Tamil. A northerner is telling a southerner that it doesn’t resonate in the South. Did you know that in 1999, during the Kargil War, the maximum donations from the public came from Tamil Nadu, per capita and aggregate. The Air Force chap (Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman), he is a Tamilian, and what a reception he got. I know the Tamil mind. They are the most national minded people. The number of jawans that join the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), BSF (Border Security Force) — Tamils are everywhere. The only problem that happened is that the British had poisoned their minds about the Aryan-Dravidian bogus theory, which we are repeating.

But with the exception of Karnataka, the BJP is hardly present in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

We don’t have a network there. People sitting in the north have relied on intermediaries for building the party up there. The intermediaries are people who came to office when BJP was nowhere, not even in the north, and they don’t allow anyone else of any talent to come in. Twenty five years ago, we had an alliance (with the AIADMK) and we were given five seats. Twenty five years later, five seats. And we will win one because Kanyakumari has a special Hindutva appeal. Otherwise, we would not have won one. And all the five candidates are the same. They won’t allow anybody to come. And if someone from the North goes, there is maximum hospitality. I call BJP in Tamil Nadu a hospitality centre. I don’t go there.

(Editor’s note: Three of the BJP’s 5 seats in Tamil Nadu have remained unchanged).

And the SP-BSP alliance is strong in UP. The BJP could go from 73 to 30-40 seats. Where are the seats coming from?

That’s a shortfall of 30. We’ll make up in Orissa, we’ll make up in Bengal, we have already made up, in my opinion, in the northeast. In Karnataka, we’ll get three seats more than we got last time. So, we will make up.

How did BJP gain ground in Bengal?

Hindutva, nothing else.

Where did Mamata Banerjee go wrong?

Mamata Banerjee is a woman of great grit, but she has this in her mind — not because she is anti-Hindu, she is a pakka Hindu, she worships Durga every morning, she has a small temple in her house — she thinks that if the Muslims desert her then the CPM will come back to power because Muslims can’t go to the BJP. BJP is only cutting her Hindu votes.

Do you think Priyanka Gandhi should have run from Varanasi?

She should run away from the country.

People respect people who put up a good fight, even if they lose. Like Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi in 2014.

I know. People still remember that I fought the Emergency, that I walked into Parliament, made a speech and disappeared.

Listen, they (Gandhi family) have got so many minuses. I don’t want to speak about it. Then, you will ask me for proof. I never speak without proof. I have never lost a defamation case in my life. In the last 25 years, no one has filed a defamation case against me because I’ll defame them in court.

BJP lost three state elections and Rahul Gandhi appears to be doing much better.

That’s your perception, not mine. We didn’t really lose. It was very very narrow. That was because of bad candidates and the working style of the party president.

Congress is even doing better in Rajasthan in the Lok Sabha election.

Let’s see.

Is Modi bigger than the BJP? 

Modi was never bigger than the party. I’ve been elected six times to Parliament. I know what it takes to get elected. You need to have booth workers. Without the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), Modi is zero. 

Without the RSS, Modi is zero.

You’ve beaten Modi as the most interactive Indian politician on Twitter.

Yeah, that is something that hurts him because he values Twitter a lot. For me, it is just a past time.

Have you been working at it?

How can I work at it?

At interacting with your followers.

Well, that’s because I’m a professor. If somebody says something, I react.

So you’re happy about it?

I’m doing what I like. And I’m surprised that the media, which generally doesn’t like me, has mentioned it. And that is not to the liking of Modi.

How do you know he doesn’t like it?

He has very often caught all the MPs and asked them how much following do you have, how much following do you have, he keeps asking. He has said very openly that I don’t care for the mainstream media, it is social media that matters. The amount of money that we have spent setting up (social media) units shows that he values it. He is a modern man. He is in the age of the cyber world.

He has said very openly that I don’t care for the mainstream media, it is social media that matters.

You speak very bluntly about the PM. You also think he should make you Finance Minister.

It is not a question of him making me. I’m qualified to be Finance Minister.

If you speak so bluntly against him, he will probably be miffed.

That is because of a slavish mentality. In no other country, which is truly democratic, do these things matter. I’m telling him the truth. I told him in the second year that the economy has started going down and I was proved right.

Would you have a greater chance of being finance minister if the BJP gets a majority or if there is a coalition?

Some questions should not be answered.