It may take years – and the publication of memoirs – for us to know the true story behind Raghuram Rajan’s decision not to seek an extension to his term as Reserve Bank of India governor. Did he leave because he knew an extension would not be offered? Or did he feel his position undermined by Subramanian Swamy’s attacks and the government’s failure to condemn or even truly distance itself from Swamy?
Whatever the truth, Subramanian Swamy himself appears convinced of his own responsibility for Rajan’s departure. It took less than a week for him to train his fire on a new target within the government’s economic team: Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian. Describing Subramanian as a “trojan horse” within the Finance Ministry, Swamy demanded his sacking on the grounds that he had advocated against Indian interests in testimony to the United States Congress in 2013.
To be sure, there are important differences between the two cases. Subramanian, unlike Rajan, was appointed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and is known to enjoy a close working relationship with Arun Jaitley. As chief economic advistor, he has made no public statements critical of government policy and has refrained from commenting on issues outside his remit, in contrast to Rajan. And Jaitley, who had pointedly failed to stand up for the dignity of the RBI governor, personally asserted his full confidence in Subramanian.
But it is the similarities between the two cases that ought to worry all of us, and most especially Prime Minister Modi and his supporters. Swamy did make some substantive criticisms of Rajan’s performance as governor (although not of Subramanian). But the core of both attacks was paranoid xenophobia: specifically the notion that a person who has worked for many years in a foreign country (in these cases the United States) and has legal status in that country cannot by definition be trusted as an Indian patriot. Swamy asked why Rajan retained his US Permanent Resident status (his “green card”) and suggested that this meant he was “mentally not fully Indian”. He asked his army of PTs (“Patriotic Tweeple”) whether Subramanian had testified before the US Congress as a US or Indian citizen.
As Swamy knows, both Rajan and Subramanian are Indian citizens, and would not have been appointed if they were not. But his allegation that they cannot, by virtue of their professional backgrounds in the US, be patriotic Indians runs counter to 15 years’ worth of BJP overtures to Non-Resident Indians and foreigners of Indian descent.
Reaching out to PIOs
India’s two BJP Prime Ministers, so different in other ways, are united by their vision of a global community of Indians and by their commitment to building links between India and overseas Indians. Vajpayee’s government created the Persons of Indian Origin card and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the annual celebration of the diaspora held on January 9. Modi has taken these initiatives further, making PIO card holders Overseas Citizens of India.
He has stood apart from all previous prime ministers, including Vajpayee, in his direct appeals to the diaspora through speeches and Bollywood-style events. Much of what is thought of as his foreign policy is really an overseas Indian policy – he has visited countries such as Fiji and Mauritius that are historically considered to have little strategic importance, but have large populations of Indian origin. Even in the more traditional venues for an Indian prime minister of London and New York, his largest events have targeted the diaspora. The merger of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs with the Ministry of External Affairs symbolises the government’s approach to international affairs.
But Modi has done more than mere public diplomacy. Both during his campaign and in office, he has hired a number of NRIs. Prashant Kishor had worked for the United Nations for many years before joining Modi’s campaign. Arvind Panagariya had lived 40 years in the US before returning to India as the first head of NITI Aayog. Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Finance, spent two decades in the US and is the husband and father of US citizens. Of all the government’s top economic policymakers, Arun Jaitley alone is without a green card and thus the only one to pass Swamy’s litmus test of mental Indianness.
The BJP’s love affair with the diaspora is two-way. Modi would struggle to find an Indian audience, even one composed entirely of party workers, as adoring as those he addresses abroad. NRIs are an indispensable source of energy, especially online, and also of money. Many influential Modi supporters are not merely green card holders but US citizens. Perhaps the most prominent is Rajiv Malhotra, the writer and businessman from Princeton, New Jersey, who seeks to rescue the study of Indian civilisation from his fellow Americans and their Indian “sepoys”. Swamy took time off from his campaign against Arvind Subramanian to hail Malhotra as “our Hindu New Frontier Warrior”. If he is “our” warrior, then why did he give up his Indian passport?
Many supporters of the NDA government dismiss Swamy as an unrepresentative outsider, and complain that the prime minister cannot be held responsible for the stray utterances of every MP. Too often he is described by journalists as a “maverick”. But Swamy is no outsider and no longer at any rate much of a maverick. He was chosen by the prime minister to serve as one of 12 nominated MPs, a position that was originally intended for distinguished non-politicians but is now cynically used, by the Congress as well as the BJP, as a quick route back to Parliament for those out of office. And his xenophobic campaigns against Rajan and Subramanian have been cheered on by his PTs.
Two months ago, he could perhaps be dismissed as a malcontent raging away on Twitter: now he gets to do so from Parliament. The size of his following was undeniably a factor in his Rajya Sabha nomination – for all the embarrassment he has now caused, Modi bears responsibility, or perhaps one should say irresponsibility.
Swamy’s attacks may serve to deter qualified NRIs from coming back to serve India in the future. Put aside a prestigious and secure career to move to India, taking a large pay cut in the process, work with complete dedication, only to be accused, by a handpicked appointee of the government, of being an unpatriotic foreign agent, and find, as Rajan did, that the prime minister and finance minister are unwilling to defend you, and then watch as your accuser claims credit for your resignation. How can we expect world-class talent to opt for such working conditions?
Swamy has laid bare the BJP’s unresolved contradictions over our relationship to the world. On the one hand, Narendra Modi seeks to project an unprecedented degree of openness, both to the diaspora and to foreign investment. On the other, his government harasses NGOs that receive foreign funding, and Swamy and his supporters accuse government servants of being American agents. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh remains committed to a protectionist swadeshi economic philosophy, although it has little influence on government policy in these matters. And BJP supporters at every level – from anonymous social media warriors to cabinet ministers – continue to demonise Sonia Gandhi and her children as foreigners.
Subramanian Swamy’s induction into the BJP has often been explained by allusion to Lyndon Johnson’s line about FBI director J.Edgar Hoover – that it was better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. No one seems to have factored in the possibility of his one day being inside the tent and pissing in. His latest antics have caused real damage to the government’s credibility, but they have also shown that Narenda Modi’s attempts to win over NRIs and the world are in uneasy coexistence with the BJP’s enduring strain of xenophobia.