AN IMPOSING frame, white robes, a staff in one hand, long hair with a flowing beard, multiple necklaces of large “rudraksh” beads, a “tilak” on the forehead. Chandraswami, who died at 69 following multiple-organ failure at a hospital in Delhi, was a larger-than-life presence — in every sense.
Over the last two decades, he had been keeping a low profile in Delhi. But during the 1980s and most of the 90s, Chandraswami was the toast of the Capital, wooed and courted by all, from socialites and the rich to the famous and the powerful.
The reason? He was closely linked to two prime ministers of that time, P V Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar, and flaunted his access to two of their predecessors, Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi.
He is even said to have used his “tantric” powers to advise former British Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher, to help realise her ambitions. He was also a “friend” to the sultans of Brunei and Bahrain, international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, British businessman Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and actor Elizabeth Taylor.
During that period, he was known in India as a big-time power broker, who could decide Cabinet positions, swing postings for bureaucrats, clinch business deals and influence important people across continents.
However, it was these close links, and his unabashed flaunting of power, that landed him in trouble, earned him more enemies than friends, and finally led to his downfall.
In 1996, he was arrested on charges of defrauding Lakhubhai Pathak, a London-based Indian-origin businessman, of $100,000. Pathak, popularly known as “pickle king”, claimed the money he had given to Chandraswami was meant for Rao. The former prime minister was later acquitted in the case.
As reports emerged of his dubious links to Khashoggi in the Iran-Contra arms-running scandal, Chandraswami was also charged with violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA).
But his darkest hour came in 1997, when the Congress party linked Chandraswami to the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The Jain Commission report on the assassination contains a volume on his alleged involvement.
He was also famously accused in the St. Kitts forgery case of conspiring to forge documents to frame Ajeya Singh, son of the former prime minister, V P Singh — a CBI court acquitted him in 2004.
And yet, very little is known of Chandraswami’s early years.
Born Nemi Chand Jain to a moneylender at Behror in Rajasthan, the family moved to Hyderabad soon. Chandraswami claimed later that he spent his youth meditating in the jungles of Bihar and acquired “tantric” powers.
Very little is known, either, about how he gained entry to the corridors of power.
Former foreign minister Natwar Singh recalled in 2013 that Chandraswami had met him in London in 1975, where he was posted as a deputy high commissioner, with a reference from Yashpal Kapoor, a confidante of Indira Gandhi.
According to Singh, Chandraswami wanted to meet Thatcher and Lord Mountbatten. Singh said he subsequently learnt that Chandraswami also knew Y B Chavan, the then external affairs minister.
In the final years of his life, Chandraswami largely confined himself to his Vishwa Dharmayatan Sanathan, for which he was allotted land at Qutub Institutional Area by the Indira Gandhi government.
At the peak of his “reign”, photos of Chandraswami with the high and mighty featured regularly in magazines and newspapers. But what would remain etched in the minds of political observers are TV images of the aged godman and his close aide, Kailash Nath Agarwal alias Mamaji, dragging themselves to court for various hearings in their final years.