Two prominent politicians, mavericks in their own rights, Enoch Powell, in the UK, and Subramanian Swamy, from India, have a lot in common. Prof. Ashoka draws an interesting parallel between them, exclusively for Different Truths.
Most sovereign parliaments in a democratic polity have been known to nurture superlative debating talents. The House of Commons in Westminster has presented us with its share of exemplary debaters from time to time.
During my sojourn in the United Kingdom, I used to very carefully follow as many debates as I could and there were two outstanding debating figures who stood out from everybody else. The interesting fact was that I perhaps disagreed with almost everything they had to say and on careful analysis of their performance, I always thought that one of their many formidable talents was one of over-simplification. But while they spoke in the august chamber, they had the remarkable capacity to hold everyone spellbound. And for a very large part, they represented opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The first was the irrepressible Anthony Wedgewood Benn, the quintessential darling of the left wingers. And the other was again the even more irrepressible Enoch Powell who, at least during my time in the country was the undisputed darling of the Neanderthal conservatism.
Today, Enoch is primarily remembered for the rivetting but notorious speech he delivered in Birmingham, in 1968, in which he prophesised that unless the immigration from the Caribbean and British Commonwealth was curtailed, he could “like the Roman see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
He was dismissed immediately from the Ted Heath Shadow Cabinet and no less a newspaper than the pro-establishment Sunday Times called him a ‘racist’. He never held any official position again despite being in the House of Commons for another few decades. His position within the Conservative Party became untenable and he was treated almost like a political pariah and an unpredictable maverick despite the quality of his debates.
It is again very simplistic to view Powell as a racist. And his words still continue to reverberate with a large section of the racist elements within the British society. But one particular incident suggests otherwise. While being part of the British Army in India, he once refused to enter an Officer’s Club unless his fellow officer of Indian ethnicity was also allowed. The Indian officer who later on rose to become Field Marshal Cariappa confirmed this statement in an interview.
It would be instructive to look at Enoch’s entire career. A brilliant student, he won practically every award that was on offer during his student days in Cambridge where he studied Greek classics. Such was his erudition that immediately after obtaining his qualification, he was appointed a full professor of Greek Classics at the University of Sydney. He was all of 25 years old and was identified as the youngest professor in the British Empire. He wrote several scholarly papers during his tenure.
When the Second World War broke out, he resigned abruptly and decided to enlist in the British Army. He was accepted only as a Private and was assigned to Military Intelligence Units in several sectors. He was known to have single headedly produced several important reports some more than 200 pages long which proved to be very beneficial to the commanders. Although he spent only nine years in the armed forces, he was able to rise to the rank of a Brigadier. I personally am unaware of a Private making it to a brigadier rank let alone in such a short time.
Immediately after the War, he resigned for the armed forces and joined politics. He was able to enter the House of Commons after an unsuccessful previous attempt. It is remarkable that he was elected from Wolverhampton, a constituency with a very high coloured immigrant population.
His early political career was marked by several distinguished debating performances leading to his swift elevation to a parliamentary secretarial position and then to a junior ministership in the Treasury. During this time, he was known to have made a very brilliant speech on the French problems in Indo-China. His hopelessly simple suggestion was to ask the government of the day to leave the NATO and help the French establish a firmer foothold in that region! He was then made the Health Minister during which time the National Health Service recruited maximum people from the Commonwealth.
His debating performances were outstanding as usual but he kept taking on unbelievably unpopular causes. He even contested the leadership election of the Conservative Party against Ted Heath. It is widely believed that had he not made the very controversial speech, in 1968, he was destined for higher things.
Following his ostracisation from his political party , he openly asked the voters to vote for the socialist Labour Party in 1974 (which won) and moved over to the Northern Ireland to join one of the regional parties (Official Unionist) which made him a parliamentary candidate from South Down, a constituency he represented until losing the election in the 1990’s. Even there he continued to ruffle feathers by attacking Ian Paisley the most powerful Unionist leader in the region describing him as a bigger enemy of the British people than the IRA terrorists. There was a time he became virulently anti-American and even criticised the Queen for hosting the American president. But his parliamentary performances continued to keep him in limelight for their sheer brilliance. In particular, the speech he delivered in favour of British abandoning its independent nuclear weapons was noted for its compelling logic. He was a diehard anti-European Union and it is interesting that Britain is about to leave the European Union, something he would have dearly liked in his lifetime.
In all, he was a figure who despite being in limelight could never make it to the top despite being recognized as the most outstanding parliamentarian Britain has produced in the last century.
There is a specific reason why I am recounting Enoch Powell. I note that there is a politician in India who resembles his profile a lot.
Subramanian Swamy had an academic record perhaps comparable to Powell and is generally known for his razor-sharp intellect. He also functioned as a professor and is regarded as an authority in his area of economics.
More relevantly, Swamy is known to be just about as prone to adopt maverick positions as Powell. Hebecame an overnight hero through his mavericky appearance and disappearance in the Parliament during the Emergency. Although mostly anti-Congress for a large part of his career, he has during different phases been very close to Rajiv Gandhi. Like Powell, he has also served in the Cabinet at different times. And like Powell, he had to dissociate with the Harvard University, his alma mater, because of some of his political positions which were perceived as anti-Muslim. Many tend to view him as a diehard Hindu extremist but that clearly is a very simplistic interpretation; he is married to a Parsi lawyer and his younger daughter is married to a Muslim! From all accounts, he gets on very well with her. And like Powell, he has had an impact on General Elections.
There are other similarities between these two brilliant individuals. The one major difference between their respective profiles is that Swamy has never served in the armed forces.
Even his worst enemies would concede that Swamy is one of the most brilliant minds in India today. We should hope that he does not meet Powell’s fate in politics!
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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