Swapan Dasgupta: The Face to Ring in Modi's New India

Swapan Dasgupta: The Face to Ring in Modi's New India

Why you should care

Because whoever hangs close to India’s newly elected PM is about to become very, very powerful indeed.

When you hear him speak, you might think that journalist Swapan Dasgupta got left behind in India by the British. The 58-year-old political commentator was born in the British aftermath, which makes him not a colonial legacy but just a good old Anglophile.

That taste for British conservatism is sure to show itself in Dasgupta as he steps into what is widely rumored to be his upcoming new job: a gig in newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Dasgupta looks to be on tap as either Modi’s media adviser or India’s high commissioner (an ambassador for Commonwealth nations) to the United Kingdom.

Part of a series on Indian politics.

“I would say I’m a Thatcher convert,” he summarizes. Which gets at something interesting: Some modern-day Indian conservatives, more than half a century after British rule, are still drawing on the political legacy of their former colonizers.

The Kolkata-bred, British-educated journalist wears his right-of-centre political leanings on his sleeve as a regular columnist in some of India’s leading English-language newspapers and on television. His overt support for the controversial Modi — a rarity among the literati of India — makes him an obvious choice for either of those roles, which will require him to craft Modi’s image in the English-speaking world.

The prime minister faced criticism for his handling of the 2002 riots as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. In the aftermath of that incident, the United Kingdom imposed a de facto travel ban on him; the United States infamously denied him a visa. However, in 2012, James Bevan, Britain’s high commissioner to India, met with Modi — signaling the start of a fresh relationship with him.

I saw a more reflective Modi during the times when he was, more or less, in exile in Delhi, and a person who evolved as an administrator.

- Swapan Dasgupta

Dasgupta, with his love for Pax Britannica, seems like the ideal candidate to further cement Modi’s relationship with the United Kingdom. But should he not be appointed high commissioner, Dasgupta would be a useful media adviser to the prime minister. Almost nobody in Delhi’s journalism circles knows what is going on in Modi’s mind, because for over a decade now, Modi has resided exclusively in the realm of local state politics. He ran on a platform of economic campaign promises and amid the riot controversy. But nationally, he’s still much of an unknown. Which means someone like Dasgupta could make a career as a spin doctor.

Dasgupta and Modi have been friends since 1991, when Modi was the BJP’s organising secretary in Gujarat. It was when the party moved Modi to Delhi in 1995 — due to internal party politics — that Dasgupta saw a side to him that few believe actually exists: “I saw a more reflective Modi during the times when he was, more or less, in exile in Delhi, and a person who evolved as an administrator,” he said.

headshot of man smiling

Narendra Modi, February 1991

But Modi’s key media messenger will have his work cut out for him in convincing the English-language press inside and outside of India of Modi’s thoughtfulness. Lucky for him, Dasgupta has earned the press’s respect. That’s because even amid a dearth of intelligent Indian political commentary, Dasgupta’s been articulate and sensible. His deep understanding of parliamentary democracy and wide range of historical references give him an intellectual heft.

But that, too, comes with a (controversial) Western tinge: “Unlike regular political journalists in India, he might quote Benjamin Disraeli or refer to the constitutional position of the bishops in the House of Lords to make his point,” the historian Patrick French, who first met Dasgupta in the ’90s during a track II diplomacy conference in England, told me.

In person, Dasgupta is bespectacled; he lives in a Delhi house overflowing with books with his wife Reshmi Ray Dasgupta, a journalist at The Economic Times newspaper, and their 23-year-old son. Educated at the prestigious La Martiniere School for Boys in Kolkata, Dasgupta was born into a family of businessmen who weren’t quite convinced that academia (his first career choice, which he abandoned for journalism — because it didn’t encourage contrarian points of view) was a suitable career for him.

But something came of Dasgupta’s undergrad days at the elite liberal arts college St. Stephen’s in New Delhi: The now-right-winger developed an obsession with … Leon Trotsky, the Russian Marxist politician. He attributes the affinity to academic and peer pressure. “For those who had any interest in politics, it was almost obligatory to be left-of-centre,” Dasgupta said.

Today, he’s swung to the opposite end of the spectrum: the right-of-centre. For that, we can thank Margaret Thatcher. Dasgupta shipped off to England after St. Stephen’s for post-grad studies in the mid-’70s. Thatcher stood for encouraging free markets, smaller government and a reduced role for the state in India’s economic affairs. These are the same planks on which Modi — who’s been talked about as India’s Thatcher — rested his campaign. In the mid-’70s, Britain was going through a period of economic stagnation — much like India is now — and Thatcher, with her policies and leadership, turned things around for the country.

Dasgupta returned to India in the early ’80s — a time when left-of-centre views dominated political, social and economic discourse in India, thanks to the popularity of Indira Gandhi, the daughter of India’s first prime minister and the woman sometimes known as the most Machiavellan of Indian politicians. Anyone who held a contrarian point of view under Gandhi fell by the wayside. But Dasgupta disagreed with her, if quietly.

Today, Dasgupta will likely join a suite of (mostly) men surrounding Modi, who dream of heralding in India’s Thatcherite revolution. It’s been 67 years since the British left India. But that colonial past still looms — Dasgupta is just one of its many manifestations.

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