Subramaniam Swamy, Rajya Sabha MP, has long been a fixture of the Delhi scene and never out of the news. If he is not playing the Scarlet Pimpernel in Indira Gandhi’s Parliament-held-hostage drama during the Emergency, he is exposing the Gandhi Family for some corruption or the other, his latest target being Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case involving dummy companies and suspicious property transactions. At all times his contacts in the Enforcement Bureau and the Intelligence Bureau keep him supplied with photocopies of “documents” supporting his charge that he can wave at television cameras and still the hearts of those he has accused and their effort to take him to Court because, it turns out, he is well-versed in law.
Swamy has held various posts in numerous governments, including as Minister for Commerce and Industry in Chandrashekhar’s (1990-91). Usually he was considered a nuisance and, in US President B. Lyndon Johnson’s phrase, kept inside the tent to piss out rather than that he remain outside pissing in (!), and fobbed off with minor sinecures on the Planning Commission, Standards Commission, etc. Through out his time in and out of government he cultivated contacts who kept him abreast of what was happening at any time in the corridors of power. He exploited this insider information to prop up his reputation as the stormy petrel of Indian politics, eager and ready for a political donnybrook with anyone, any party, any institution at any time. So when not pillorying the Congress party he is publicly roasting his own ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (albeit, media cell) for “going rogue” as he did three months ago supposedly for mounting “personal attacks” on him. ( https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/subramanian-swamy-accuses-bjp-it-cell-of-running-a-campaign-against-him-1719522-2020-09-07 ).
However, for iconoclasts, he is an absolute delight, showing particular talent for being a god awful pain-in-the-butt for the government of the day and its durbaris. Have been acquainted with him for over 30 years now and never failed to admire his chutzpah (gall in Hebrew), and his sheer talent for effrontery. How can one not like a man whose intent is to wreck whatever political dispensation is supreme in Delhi at the moment, and who wears his crustiness and don’t-give-a-damn-attitude and not so thinly-veiled contempt, especially for those holding power, on his sleeve? This even though his overarching ambition is actually to run the government and to set it on the right course. What that course could be is hard to say considering the fluidity of his views! But being erudite, he is normally persuasive when making his point.
It was, therefore, a shocker to read a fortnight back his article attacking Russia for not being India’s “friend”. (See his “Russia is not a friend”, Sunday Guardian, 31 Oct 2020 ( https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/russia-not-friend-india ). Not sure what it is that has got Swamy riled. But the case he makes is so incoherent I can scarcely believe he penned it. Having already confessed my admiration for him I will carefully deconstruct his argument because he carries weight with many in the BJP.
Take Swamy’s 1st line of argument. He writes: “For China, Russia was a trusted friend and a patron of the communist parivar from 1949 to 1960. Then at China’s weakest moment in 1960, faced with a gigantic collapse of the ill-conceived Great Forward Movement and a huge famine, when between 16 to 32 million Chinese died due to starvation, Moscow ordered the withdrawal from China all its industrial projects, its blueprints, and technical staff, resulting in the collapse China’s industrial sector….To collapse this project, the Soviets led by Khruschev cancelled all the industrial projects that were being implemented to modernise China, and also withdrew all the experts along with the blueprints sent to China….Not only did the Great Leap Forward become a disaster for agriculture, but industry got stunted, and because of terrible drought about 16 million to 32 million died in the ensuing famine in 1960-61.”
So Russia’s NOT being nice — more countries shouldn’t be nice — to China is held against Russia’s being India’s friend? This doesn’t make sense and, if anything, suggests why India should have Russia in its corner. If Swamy means by this reference to show up Russia as an unreliable partner, then the burden of proof rests on him to prove, to show, that it has faltered as a friend. This he hasn’t done. The fact is starting in the 1950s the Soviet Union helped set up heavy industries in India, including the Bhilai steel plant and, in the wake of the 1962 War with China, increasing ideological alienation from Mao’s China led to Moscow offering 12 ready-to-fly supersonic MiG-21s along with the licensed production rights for this aircraft and its jet engine. These Russian offers were in the context of a grateful Indian government accepting them less because Nehru was a communist camp follower than because Washington promised than failed to get the US Steel Company to set up the Bhilai plant and, post-1962, failed to provide the supersonic F-104 fighter aircraft transferred to Pakistan that Delhi had sought, offering instead the transonic, low performance, ‘Freedom fighter’ — the Northrop F-5. The record shows the Soviet Union-Russia has supplied its latest military hardware; if there has been a spares problem with them it is because the Indian armed services and Defence Ministry never bothered to segue their requirements with the Russian spares procurement protocols as Indian military stalwarts admit.
Consider Swamy’s 2nd line of argument: “The transition of Russia has been amazing. First there was the Czarist monarchy called Russia, which the royalty ruled from St Petersburg as capital. Then there emerged through a revolution led by Lenin the Bolshevik state, and after Lenin’s death was followed by Joseph Stalin’s communist Soviet Union with its capital in Moscow. Today there is Putin’s Oligarchic Russia being ruled from Moscow. These the government formations spanned a century since 1920.But the bottom line has remained the same—a government led by dictatorship, which is expansionist, an oligarchy and headed for bankruptcy.”
The monarchist/totalitarian antecedents of the Russia state is, astonishingly, wheeled out to support Swamy’s case of Russia being an uncertain ally to China! This is non-sequiter-ish, at best and, in any case, how does it matter to India’s national interest what kind of a state Russia is? Even so, Swamy uses this to also buttress his contention that the US will make for a better partner!! This last view is built on the common belief that democracies get along better with other democracies. Which’s fine in rhetoric but is irrelevant when it comes to the hard business of inter-state relations when considerations of the national interest kick in. Hence, a democratic America finds that authoritarian states are more malleable and relations with them less complicated. It explains Washington’s marked historic partiality for unfree countries usually run by generals. Thus, Pakistan has always been the preferred US partner in South Asia, not India.
Then there are sideline declaratory references by Swamy with no proof or historical evidence adduced for them either, such as: “Nehru was fooled into thinking that leaders in Moscow were permanent friends, but in fact we Indians were more like “Pavlovian dogs”, that is, those who complied on signals from Moscow.” When actually, Nehru, the quintessential upper class Englishman (who unself-consciously told Malcolm Muggeridge in a 1958 BBC interview that he was the last Englishman to rule India!) was contemptuous of Russians — if not of Russia whose leap into the status of an industrialized state inside of a generation he hoped to replicate in India, referring for instance to the shabby clothes his Russian interlocuters wore. And pray, Mr Swamy, which Indians, and when and where have salivated like “Pavlovian dogs”? And, more amusingly, Swamy’s view that “Indian patriots suspect that Netaji Subash Bose, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Deendayal Upadhyaya, and Sanjay Gandhi were assassinated by the KGB to ensure secure entry into the top positions for Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi.” And how “clinching proofs are kept in frozen vaults in tight fisted Russian archives”.
Sanjay Gandhi is classed a “patriot” alongside Netaji, Shastri, Upadhyaya, uh?!! What?!! That the chief goon of the Emergency is so elevated must spin some heads! An awful lot of the “tight-fisted Russian archives” are actually already available in published form as the Mitrokin Archives. And there are, indeed, mentions in them of Indian leaders of the Communist party stripe beholden to Moscow and even some Indira Gandhi-appointed ambassadors to the USSR reacting, as Pavlovian dogs are supposed, to at the first hint of financial consideration and largesse coming their way.
Swamy’s 3rd line of argument is that “the Russians act according to the interests of China. That is, Russia is a ‘junior partner’ of China. Russia, according to Putin’s 23 October 2020 statement, ‘could enter into a military alliance with China’. Since India purchased the S-400 air to surface rocket attachment for jet fighters in 2018, India has been increasingly relying on Russia for weapons. India appears to have accepted Russia as a de facto mediator in the conflict with China since 18 April 2020 in Ladakh.”
Logically, how does the 2nd contention that India is increasingly buying Russian arms follow from the 1st about Russia being China’s “junior partner”? It doesn’t.
Another Swamyism: “In 1972, the US changed its two-decade-old stand and voted to admit China into the United Nations and invited it to take the seat of permanent member with a veto at the UN Security Council. China was greatly benefitted by the US granting it the Most Favoured Trade Clause, thus opening US markets to China, and for Joint Ventures to enable China to produce with its cheap and captive labour, and accelerate Chinese GDP at more than 10-12% growth rate for a decade. China soon rose from 9th position in GDP ranking to second position by the year 2000.”
How this point in any way strengthens Swamy’s view that the US is a great friend of India, is anybody’s guess. But Swamy needs reminding that the US Security Council seat was first offered India by both the US (John Foster Dulles) and Russia (Khruschev) but Nehru in a fit of strategic stupidity wanted it occupied by China instead! Moreover, had Indira Gandhi in 1966 radically overhauled the over-bureaucratized socialist apparatus of the Indian state and opened up the Indian economy as Johnson Administration had advised her to do — and which Dengxiaoping did in China in 1979, India too could have benefited from open access to, and trade with, America and emerged as the global source of low cost consumer items.
Here’s another unconnected remark by Swamy that makes an unclear case more opaque. “Currently, Sino-Russian trade has more than doubled” He writes. “Russia’s central bank has increased its Chinese currency reserves from less than 1% to over 15%. Germany is no more the principal supplier of industrial plant and technology to Russia. China is! Action is taking place in multilateral forums such as BRICS, increasingly sophisticated joint military exercises, and pooling of influence with countries such as Iran. The S-400 missile system built by Russia and sold to India has Chinese electronics. This has alienated the US, which was about to sell advanced military hardware to India, but has put it on hold because US cannot risk Chinese or Russian espionage in India on advanced US weapons systems.”
Well, yes, Russia is increasingly beholden to China to keep it economically afloat but only in the neo-colonial sense of China denuding the Russian Far East (Siberia) of all its natural resources — wood, minerals and oil to keep its industries going. However, his assertion that the Indian purchase of the S-400 has alienated the US and stopped it from selling Delhi “advanced military hardware” is questionable. Of course, Washington is upset that India purchases military goods from Russia, but there’s nothing that the US can do about it. However, what is the mysterious “advanced” hardware that Swamy is hinting at? Surely not the F-21 fighter aircraft — a ridiculous makeover of the 1960s’ F-16 plane because that’s at the top of Washington’s arms sales agenda. So it must be the improbably expensive EMALS (Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System) for aircraft carriers that is costed at one billion dollars and which the US Navy finds too pricey. It is sought to be sold to India for $2-$3 billion! The last one heard, the Indian Navy, fortunately, was in the right mind to reject it.
After pursuing all the above uniformly unsustainable lines of argument to a dead end, Swamy finally rounds in on his main theme. “India has to make a choice: Either we partner US strategically”, he states, “or Russia and China together. If we have a conflict with China, Russia therefore cannot be trusted, nor if we do, will the US trust us. Hence, this dream of isolating China by trusting Russia is short-sighted. Russia is no more, if ever since 1992, a friend of India in the sense of standing up with India against China. India”.
In the hard realpolitik perspective, India shouldn’t care who it sides with — even if it is the devil — just so long as this tilt helps its cause. The US, Russia and China are all equally out to further their particular regional, international, and geostrategic interests at the expense of every other country, including India. For Swamy to think that the US is somehow different in this respect is to be delusional. Still he should be aware that the Sino-Russian linkup is not going at all smoothly, and that Putin’s Russia has always been aware and apprehensive of China’s designs on Siberia, and acted to counter it. That India is a piece in this strategic game versus China is as true as the fact that Delhi uses and can continue to use its relations with Moscow as leverage to, on one hand, extract more from Washington, and on the other, to muddy up Beijing’s strategic calculus and keep Xi Jinping uncertain and on the hop — the reason why Xi is now holding the PLA on a tight leash in Ladakh. Besides, Swamy a little too readily assumes the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and the Russia he leads can be China’s willing plaything, and obviously underestimates the political-military weight Moscow packs in its conditional concert with China.
Swamy’s solution that while “India in a border war with China, does not need allies. But if China expands the war arena with India, then of course the Quad arrangement with Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other nations can form a grand alliance” does not mention the US, and closely resembles the geostrategic architecture of littoral and offshore states organic to Asia conceptualized by me in my 2018 book (Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition) as the “modified quadrilateral” or “Mod Quad” of India, Japan, Australia, and a group of Southeastern nations, inclusive of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
There may be more to Swamy’s crotchetiness though. In his eighties now, the 1939-born politician’s ambition remains unfulfilled and unfettered as is his frustration with not achieving his goal. Despite being mollified by the BJP regime and personally by Modi, Swamy now and again voices his desire to be appointed Finance Minister. ( https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2019/05/29/is-subramanian-swamy-upset-with-bjp-over-lack-of-recognition.html ). But why would Modi want a proven curmudgeon and malcontent in North Block when a pliable Nirmala Sitharaman is there to take his dictation, not make waves? So Swamy knows he doesn’t have a sporting chance and therefore hasn’t quailed from taking potshots at Modi that few on the country’s political stage would dare do. Like when Swamy talked about the “war like” situation on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh this past summer. When someone asked him why he was reticent about using his alleged contacts in China to defuse the situation, Swamy retorted, per ‘Janta Reporter’ of 13 June, that “If Namo does not want to use my economic expertise why would he want [to do so] on China?” (See http://www.jantakareporter.com/india/subramanian-swamy-advised-by-seer-to-show-his-anger-to-pm-modi-bjp-mp-makes-stunning-revelation/293717/ ) Why indeed.