The media for the last week is talking about two men, two very different men in India. Both are in politics and seem to always be in the limelight. One is Subramaniam Swamy and the other is our Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. While Swamy seems to thrive on creating issues and controversies, the Prime Minister has to communicate to the Nation and the world not only his Vision for the country’s future but also constantly negate some of the issues associated with the past.
I have had the privilege of having met and interacted with both of them and found them so very different. I met Subramaniam Swamy when I was at Harvard. Having heard about this maverick person from India, a few South Asian colleagues suggested that we invite him to lunch and have a chat on many of the issues that he was raising back home in India.
The lunch that we had on that day in August 2009 was indeed memorable. Swamy was a walking encyclopedia and seemed to know just about everything about Indian and South Asian politics and policies. He could hold any conversation by himself and explain with facts and figures why he believed in what he believed. He left us all impressed with his intellectual brilliance, his erudition, his impish smile and his ‘never care for anyone or their feelings’ attitude. When I wanted to know where he found his courage to take on powerful people, his answer was straight and simple – “Having nothing to hide, gives me the courage and the power to expose others who have something to hide.” Beneath his apparent arrogance, I could see that he did have a lot of valid substantiation to his arguments. His conversations were built on the foundations of data and authenticity and one could not find any fault with the content of what he said. What some people have a problem with are the manner in which he says it. While he may not fit into the definition of a regular politician, I felt that in a country like India where our politicians and senior policy makers have a lot of skeletons in their cupboards, we need some one like Swamy to show the common man the filth that lays beneath the actions of the sophisticated and powerful people safely ensconced in their ivory towers. I left that afternoon thinking that Swamy was truly a master craftsman at Politics. He seemed to know which side of the bread is buttered and intentionally picked his fights and adversaries. For him, there seemed to be no distinction between politics, policy, publicity and people. All of this gave him the adrenaline that he needed and he drew his affirmation from both the hatred that his adversaries gave him and the love that his fans showered on him.
I got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office in mid October 2014 informing me that the Prime Minister desired to meet and interact with me on my ‘Development Vision for India’ and what i thought should be the new ‘policy body’ (the present NITI Aayog). I was both surprised and happy. Having just two days to prepare left with me nervous and hesitant, but I decided that I would speak from my heart and not worry about anything else. My appointment was for 20 minutes beginning that evening at 4.30 pm. I had reached Delhi in the afternoon and I got a call from the PMO asking if I could come at 4 p.m. itself. Hurriedly, I reached the PMO and was made to wait in the outer waiting area outside the room where the PM met with visitors. Sharp at 4 p.m, the Prime Minister walked in and greeted me warmly. I was stuck by the punctuality, the warmth, show of interest and the positive vibes that he generated. His entire team of senior bureaucrats had already assembled and I was nervous at the full audience that I had. As I hesitantly started my presentation, the PM stopped me. He patiently mentioned that I had not introduced myself and took it on himself to introduce me and what I did to his senior officers. I was stuck at the level of details that he seemed to know about me. As I rushed thru my presentation keeping the limits of time in mind, he politely asked me to go slow and mentioned that he was keen to listen and that he would make the time for me. What was supposed to be 20 minutes turned out to be the best two hours I have spent explaining my views on what India’s development should be. What left me floored was the level of detail that the PM wanted to dive into. He was full of questions and patiently listened as I explained my views. He mentioned to me that he was a man in a hurry and that he had no time for academic theories and wanted to know from my grass root experience what would work and what would not. His love for the country and for raising her to her rightful place in the comity of nations was very palpable. Though he constantly encouraged his team to challenge and question my views, I found them to be mostly numbed into silence in his presence. His sincerity to learn and understand, his commitment to resolve the challenges of poverty, his determination to make growth inclusive was very evident to me. I was touched by his gentlemanly gesture of walking me out to the door and asking me to call on him whenever I visited Delhi. I left that evening feeling hopeful and confident that the country had someone at the helm who could now steer her to great heights.
Looking back, reading and listening to the media description of both these persons, I feel that both seem to be more misunderstood than understood. Both of them are so very different but also so very similar. Both are difficult to comprehend, predict and understand. But surely both seem to love what they do and one cannot fault their sincerity and commitment to the cause that they believe in – that of making India greater than what she is today.