Sunday, May 06, 2012

Samanth Subramanian's Profile of Subramanian Swamy

Smart. Opportunistic. Unpredictable. Known for his tenacity as a troublemaker. A a serial failure in politics who dreams of transforming India's economy as its finance minister, and takes an ugly right turn in politics at the age of 72 probably in the hope of realizing his dream.

Swamy's life is also full of zany episodes [his escape from and re-entry into India during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Emergency years is just one example], and Samanth does a fantastic job of bringing them all alive.

Two excerpts from what is sure to become a classic. Here's the first, only because it tickled my inner metallurgist:

... At the ISI in Calcutta, studying for a master’s degree in statistics, Swamy was convinced that Mahalanobis was targeting him for being his father’s son. “Mahalanobis and my father were dead opposed to each other … There was bitterness between them,” he said. Some of his Tamil professors would tell him that they were “under pressure” to grade him poorly. “Everybody was telling me: ‘Your career is over. You better go become an apprentice at the Bhilai Steel Plant.’ Those days, that was the great thing: Bhilai Steel Plant.” [Bold emphasis added] [see also footnote 1]

And the second is about Swamy's troubled and short-lived academic career in India. From his obituary of Paul Samuelson, I knew his version of the story about his non-career at the Delhi School of Economics (Samanth adds some perspectives from Prof. Amartya Sen representing the other side). But this excerpt s about his stint at IIT-Delhi:

... [Swamy] joined the IIT economics department in December 1969. “Swamy came to IIT as a breath of fresh air,” Panini said. “He was saying things that shook me up and made me see my teachers in a different light altogether.”

Panini describes the IIT of the early 1970s as an authoritarian place, which immediately seems to disqualify it as an environment suitable for Swamy. He lasted three years. To the consternation of his peers, Swamy preferred to hang out with junior professors or with his students. Along with Panini and Amit Mitra, now West Bengal’s finance minister, Swamy helped set up IIT Delhi employee organisations, which can only be called right-wing unions, agitating on behalf of their members but not bound to the left, the traditional tent-pole of unionism. He called so stridently for economic liberalisation—blasphemy in socialist India—that even his prime minister was forced to take note; in Parliament, during the debate on the budget in 1970, Indira Gandhi famously dismissed him as a “Santa Claus with unrealistic ideas”. He spoke his mind frequently, and caustically, at IIT faculty meetings. Since he didn’t believe in taking attendance in his classes, he didn’t; he simply signed every one of his students in as “Present” and handed in his registers.

This banal matter of the attendance register, in the end, proved to be ostensibly one of the proximate causes for his dismissal from IIT Delhi. One of the students whom Swamy had been marking ‘Present’ for an entire term had, in fact, dropped the class after registering for it, which brought Swamy’s practice to the attention of the IIT’s director. Swamy told me that his dismissal came as a complete shock; he was sitting in his campus office one day in December 1972, he said, and “they sent me this letter, [saying] as of 5 pm you’re out”. But Panini told me that Swamy must have known he was in trouble. “They didn’t ask him to defend himself in an inquiry, so maybe that was why he was surprised. But he knew they were after his blood.” In the first major lawsuit of his life, Swamy sued IIT Delhi for wrongful dismissal; he won, but he is still petitioning to receive the salary owed to him, with 18 percent interest, from 1973 to 1991.

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[1] Several years ago, at the 50th anniversary reunion of our department's alumni, we asked them about how they chose to study metallurgy (which is what our department was until it changed to 'materials engineering' in 2006). They said there was a lot of hype excitement in the media and among the educated circles about India's huge investments in the steel sector, and about how the country will need lots and lots of engineers with training in metallurgy. [Obligatory link to this scene in The Graduate?] (Back to the post.]

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Thanks to my colleague and friend Ram for the pointer.


  1. Unknown said...

    You describe Dr.S.Swamy as "Opportunistic. Unpredictable.". Have you studied his life & work well ? Have read his articles in the JanataParty web-site ? Cant' u think Samanth Subramanian may have made many mistakes, like normal people, in his article -infact I found lots of factuall errors in it. You don't even seem to follow Dr. Swamy in twitter. Have you listened to Dr.Swamy's lectures on various topics available online. Do good home work before blogging. With Carneie-Melon Ph.D and a professorship in IISc you are expected to do a lot better job.