It was the middle of 1991. India lacked the foreign exchange to pay for its imports. The government resigned itself to borrowing from the International Monetary Fund. Chandraswami, who died this week in Delhi, had other ideas. He promised prime minister Narasimha Rao that his friend the Sultan of Brunei – one of the world’s richest men – would loan the amount. Not only did Rao agree, he ordered the use of a government plane to collect the money. It was only when finance and commerce ministry officials protested that Rao balked. The rest, as we know, is history.
I met Chandraswami 25 years later while researching my biography on Narasimha Rao. His forehead was smeared in red, his wavy hair and beard streaked grey. Slowly dying, he was lying on his side, his saffron garb like a patient’s gown. It was his eyes that unnerved me – sunken deep, otherworldly. He offered lunch but I hesitated; Chandraswami has been accused of murder. I was amiss, it turned out. Gatte ki khichdi, kadi, chapaati smeared with ghee – I was treated to the best Rajasthani meal of my life.
The food not only hinted at Chandraswami’s epicurean tastes, it betrayed his origins. His father had migrated from Rajasthan to Hyderabad, and named him Nemi Chand Jain. From here, Chandraswami’s biography is artfully veiled. All he would say was that he had spent years honing the art of tantra by meditating in the forests of Bihar. This gave him the power to read people’s futures, to heal bodies from a distance, and to perform sacrifices that felled the enemies of his patrons. He had learnt, above all, to earn the trust of the powerful.
These skills were perfected at just the right time. Prime minister Indira Gandhi’s destruction of the Patel-ite party organisation in 1969 created an information vacuum within the Congress. Who would now carry news from the provinces to Delhi? Chandraswami cultivated Andhra Congressmen as well as the Delhi-based coterie around Indira Gandhi. He was an adept go-between, as chief minister Narasimha Rao realised when they first met in Tirupati in 1971. They were inseparable from then on, each using the other for career advancement.
By the 1980s, Chandraswami had rebranded himself as an international guru. Not only would he introduce businessmen to politicians and regional chieftains to kingmakers, he now claimed Adnan Khashoggi and the Sultan of Brunei as devotees. And when “friends” Chandrashekhar and Narasimha Rao became successive prime ministers of India, Chandraswami had access to the ultimate seat.
Chandraswami was now so close to power, he fancied a constituency of his own. He sought to become a spokesman for the Hindu saints and swamis whom Rao patronised to curb the growing power of the BJP. This was one world – opaque, ideological, and simply too fragmented – that Chandraswami couldn’t “fix”. He told me his enduring regret was not being able to convince the Sangh Parivar to protect the Babri mosque in 1992. “I can see other’s future. I could not see my own.”
He also failed to predict his own fall. He was soon accused of foreign exchange fraud, blackmail, corruption, and murder – and jailed several times. Still devoted to Narasimha Rao (he stood by his friends), he saw too late that power had shifted within the Congress. He turned bitter, claiming that “Sonia has been poisoned against me”. He spent his last decade catering to Delhi Municipal Corporation officials rather than to heads of state.
Chandraswami was hardly unique in peddling his spiritual talents to political clients. Indira Gandhi had Dhirendra Brahmachari, Arjun Singh was a devotee of Mauni Baba. Perhaps politicians love godmen because theirs is a career that is especially whimsical. Victory or defeat is often a matter of chance, luck, what Machiavelli called “fortuna”. In these irrational seas, politicians need someone who can sense the stars that they cannot see.