Swamy “used and abandoned”? This is what happened in Gujarat

By Rajiv Shah
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have “cleared” his views on BJP’s maverick politician Subramaniam Swamy. However, whatever I know of Modi as chief minister of Gujarat during my nearly 15 year stint in Gandhinagar as the Times of India correspondent, it wasn’t at all surprising the way he reacted. His “critique” of Swamy, if it all it can be called that, came after Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan had decided to quit and return to the academia in Chicago. So, was Swamy “used and abandoned”, to quote a phrase used by Gujarat’s top cop GL Singhal in the “Gujarat Files”, a book based on stings by journalist Rana Ayyub to “expose” government role in 2002 riots and fake encounters?
In fact, any reference of Swamy as a “maverick” would remind me of a Gujarat-based maverick politician, with whom I had, I must admit, an uneasy relationship. Looking back, I sometimes feel it was perhaps a mistake on my part to be ill at ease with this IPS-turned-politician, who had been a Cabinet minister under Keshubhai Patel’s chief ministership of Gujarat between 1998 and 2001. Thanks to his rebellious ways, Jaspal Singh was pretty popular in Vadodara, from where he won polls four times, first as an independent MLA. He acquired fame fighting against Congress’ “corrupt” ways.
I came in contact with Jaspal in 1997, when he, considered a charismatic MLA from Vadodara, participated in a meeting of BJP legislature party at Keshubhai Patel’s residence in Gandhinagar. It was called to work out a strategy against the ruling Congress-backed Rashtriya Janata Dal government under Shankarsinh Vaghela, a BJP rebel. We had an informal talk. I asked Jaspal whether he thought that the BJP should shed its hardliner Hindutva image and become a normal right-of-centre mass party which every democracy would need—like Republican Party in US and Tory Party in UK.
Jaspal readily agreed, “of course, it should turn itself into a centre-right party, as in any other democracy. The BJP must reform itself.” I was impressed. I thought I could deal with him. Born in Kapurthala in Punjab and belonging to the 1957 IPS batch, he even spoke such excellent English!
In the elections in December 1997, the BJP under Keshubhai Patel came to power, and Jaspal was taken in as food and civil supplies minister with Cabinet rank. I, like other journalists, would go to his briefings about his “campaigns” against Saurashtra’s groundnut oil hoarders, “responsible” jacking up the price of the oil every Gujarati family would use in food.
Slowly, as Keshubhai became unpopular, several of the ministers began showing signs of belligerence. Among the more prominent ones were culture minister Mahedra Trivedi, Narmada development minister Jay Narayan Vyas and, of course, Jaspal.
The reason for Trivedi turning into a rebel was clear—he wasn’t happy with culture being given to him. He wrote a poem, where said, and I paraphrase, “Nothing happens in Sachivalaya, except meeting, eating and cheating.” Vyas, an M Tech from IIT Bombay and a former technocrat was perhaps the most educated among ministers. He would speak on economic issues with an academic bent of mind, something his boss utterly lacked. In an open forum, if Keshubhai floated the “idea” of zero unemployment, Vyas declared, without mincing works, “There’s nothing like zero unemployment.” Keshubhai wasn’t much educated, though in order to suggest where he stood, he would claim to be a classmate of Dhirubhai Ambani in a Saurashtra school. “Both are good friends ever since”, Keshubhai’s aides would say.
If all these three ministers would go out of the way to brief the journalists whom they trusted about insider stories of the Keshubhai government, Jaspal was the most vocal. He would sometimes tell us, off the record but in great detail, about what happened inside the Cabinet. He would encourage us to interact with those who weren’t happy with Keshubhai. All through, I was told later, he was in touch with Modi, then all-India BJP general secretary. In fact, as he told someone, he had the perfect backing of Modi.
Once I met well-known danseuse-turned-politician Mallika Sarabhai in his chamber. Two of us, Bashir Pathan from Indian Express and I from the Times of India, waiting outside, were called in to listen to a “complaint” she had brought with her—about “mass” cutting of trees in Gandhinagar, the state Capital. We were even told how many thousand trees had been chopped off in the “greenest city of India.” A day later, the chief of the forest department was called in and reprimanded, all in front of us. We ran stories, again much to the chagrin of Keshubhai.
Jaspal would always do “unusual” things. Before I met him, I remember, how he as a minister in the first Keshubhai Patel ministry (1995-96) had a scuffle with a senior bureaucrat. Reason: How dare the bureaucrat’s car overtake his (minister’s)? It’s other thing that later on this bureaucrat and Jaspal became great friends. Both were unhappy with Keshubhai. The bureaucrat, a refined official, made his way into the chief minister’s office when Modi overthrew Keshubhai in October 2001. But Jaspal couldn’t, thanks to his “maverick” ways.
Jaspal would often make fun of those ministers who supported Keshubhai, telling us how “uncouth” they were. One of them was Savji Korat, a Patel from Saurashtra. In charge of the public works department, once Korat went to make an “on the spot” survey of the Narmada canals to see if they were built in accordance with norms. Jaspal said, “How would he know? Does he understand any of the technicalities?”
Jaspal once wrote a letter supporting senior BJP leader Madanlal Khurana, who had rebelled in “national interest.” Though the letter was never released and wasn’t reported, so terribly upset was he when a senior journalist tried to find out its contents, that he threatened this journalist with “dire consequences” if it found its way into a newspaper.
After Modi came to power in Gujarat in October 2001, Jaspal, who was sure to make it to the Cabinet, felt led down. After all, he had helped Modi so much. Yet, he wasn’t taken in. Thereafter, though he went in and out of the BJP twice, he had an uneasy relationship with Modi. In 2009, he wrote a letter to SIT to “probe” Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. In December 2013, he joined the Aam Aadmi Party. Clearly, he was hurt: He had supported Modi so much, unearthing everything under Keshubhai. He was “used and abandoned”.
What would happen to the “maverick” Swamy? One has to wait and see…

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