Saturday, June 4, 2016

The paranoid style in politics

Should the ruling party of the world’s seventh largest economy give a conspiracy theorist a platform to tarnish a widely respected public official? This is the question raised by Subramanian Swamy’s series of intemperate attacks on Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan.
Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan speaks at a forum on financial development at the 2016 IMF World Bank Spring Meeting in Washington April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan speaks at a forum on financial development at the 2016 IMF World Bank Spring Meeting in Washington. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
In publicly released letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Swamy claims that Rajan is an “anti-national” out to destroy jobs and willfully ruin small-and-medium sized industries. The governor, warns Swamy, belongs to a shadowy global organization responsible for gutting the Japanese economy. Not only does Rajan use (gasp!) a foreign email address, but he’s also (the horror!) “mentally not fully Indian”. On his Twitter feed, Swamy goes further, dragging in Rajan’s father and trafficking in ugly hearsay.



At issue here is not whether Rajan deserves a second term at RBI after his current one expires in September. By now, pundits have churned out a small forest worth of op-eds arguing both sides of the case. Rajan’s many supporters laud the governor’s global credibility, deft handling of the economy and impeccable integrity. His detractors criticize him for cutting interest rates too cautiously, and for holding forth on national issues outside his remit. Each view has its merits, and reasonable people can come down on either side.
Swamy’s attacks, by contrast, are not rooted in a sober debate about inflation targeting or the proper role of a central bank governor in public life. Laced with innuendo, personal smears and wild conspiracy theories, they embody what you might call the paranoid style in Indian politics. For BJP, still in the process of consolidating its position as the country’s natural party of governance, embracing this style could prove fatal. Simply put, responsible parties govern from the center, not by emboldening the fringe.
In 1964, the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a famous essay in Harper’s Magazine detailing a similar phenomenon in American politics. “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind,” wrote Hofstadter. He was talking about elements in the Republican party of half a century ago, but his words equally fit the Swamy element in BJP today.
Consider some of Swamy’s lurid proclamations. He accuses Sonia Gandhi of conspiring with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to murder her husband, Rajiv Gandhi. He claims that a mysterious Russian poison killed Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s third wife, Sunanda Pushkar. Until recently, Swamy cast aspersions on Indian democracy itself by declaring that Congress won some elections by rigging electronic voting machines.
These views stand out not merely for being fantastical, but also for their utter tastelessness. Evidently no low is too low for Swamy, no theory too farfetched as long as it fulfills the twin goals of battering the current object of his hatred and keeping him on television. Nor is Swamy bound by the most elementary sense of party propriety. Behold his thinly veiled attacks on former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and finance minister Arun Jaitley.
Generally speaking, Indians value sobriety in their leaders. Not surprisingly, over the years Swamy paid a price for his vivid imagination and venomous tongue. Before BJP breathed life back into his career by admitting him to the party in 2013, Swamy had been banished to a political netherworld of loony YouTube videos and Non-Resident Indian conventions. He had last won a Lok Sabha seat 15 years earlier, from Madurai in 1998. His Janata Party was effectively a one man band with an email address and a personal assistant.
Why don’t more people in BJP oppose Swamy? For some, he’s a genuine hero. In this view, his tenacious pursuit of corruption scandals such as the 2G telecom scam and National Herald real estate deal more than makes up for his unhinged statements and lifelong political promiscuity. In the 1990s, Swamy famously called BJP “a party of semi-literates”, and accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of “creeping fascism”.
Other Swamy fans apparently confuse crassness with courage. Swamy’s willingness to say outrageous things – such as demanding the disenfranchisement of Muslims who do not publicly acknowledge Hindu ancestry – has earned him a following in the Sangh Parivar. Indeed, a senior BJP leader once told me that this was what gained Swamy entry to the party.
Some party supporters appear genuinely appalled by Swamy’s newfound prominence, but they keep mum out of fear. With some 2.7 million followers on Twitter, Swamy has the power to drag just about anyone into the social media gutter with him. You can’t blame people for choosing discretion as the better part of valor.
Nonetheless, while such considerations may make sense for an individual, they make no sense at all for a serious political party. As long as Swamy was just an ordinary member, BJP could simply shrug off his wild excesses. Now that he is an MP it no longer has that luxury. Either Modi and Amit Shah will find a way to tone down the paranoid style embodied by Swamy, or they will find it impossible to recast BJP as India’s natural ruling party.