WHAT DID GIANI Zail Singh, Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Taylor, the Sultan of Brunei and Egyptian business magnate Mohamed Al-Fayed have in common? They were all guided at some point in their lives by a bearded godman, variously described as a likeable rogue and an ill-mannered power broker, whose reputation was nowhere as pristine as his flowing white robe. Trickster, conniver, fixer and counsellor to dozens of politicians, businessmen and criminals, Nemi Chand aka Chandraswami died in obscurity following a long illness two decades after playing Chanakya to former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao (1991-96). A Youth Congress leader-turned- tantrik who impressed hardened rationalists with his astrological stunts, Chandraswami effortlessly cosied up to people in power. He was an eager intermediary in questionable affairs, transmitting bribes, conducting esoteric rituals to ward off enemies, funding illicit endeavours, and enjoying the kind of extra-constitutional authority that is a successful godman's privilege.
Former diplomat and Union Minister K Natwar Singh first met Chandraswami in London in 1975 during his stint as Deputy High Commissioner, and was astounded by his studied arrogance. The swami, still in his twenties, wanted to be introduced to yet- to-be prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Singh was the reluctant translator who relayed to her the assurance that she would rule for up to 13 years. The future Iron Lady was spellbound, and upon the godman’s request, agreed to wear an amulet and a red dress to their next meeting at Singh’s residence.
Meetings turned into allegiances of every stripe and it became clear that the swami would stop at neither fraud nor murder to ensure a loyal following in the halls of power. His wealth and potbelly grew in proportion to his indiscretions. The sulphurous air of his south Delhi ashram expanded to shroud the Capital and its politics through the 1990s. Burning controversies engulfed him and every scam that made headlines—the Lakhubhai Pathak cheating being a case in point—bore his mark, amplifying his mafioso halo, and he passed unscathed through most of it. Chandraswami wasn’t a lone escape artist. His army of helpers may or may not have included Saudi arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi who was a loyal client, Babloo Srivastava, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim's alleged hitman, who claimed to have been sheltered by Chandraswami, and at least two Indian prime ministers.
Indicted along with his assistant KN Aggarwal alias Mamaji in the St Kitts forgery case involving Rao and VP Singh, the swami was nevertheless let off the hook. A dozen FERA violations were not enough to send him to prison, even as he bragged that his was one of a handful of cars that weren’t inspected upon arrival at 7 Race Course Road when Rao was prime minister. “The tradition of this country is that kingship and religion are inextricably interwoven. The relation between the raja and the rishi and the relation between rajneeti and dharma are like the relation of soul and body,” he said in an interview at the peak of his career. Not that anyone could mistake him for a rishi. Most infamously, Chandraswami was allegedly involved in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, though the Jain Commission was never able to prove it. He fell out of favour and did time in prison. From covering 118 countries by chartered flight, he was now confined to his palatial home in the Capital. Never again would his stars align favourably and he would die an ordinary death at the age of 69, sparking a vague memory of a perfidious time in Indian politics.