The Indian Budget 
1996-97 The Indian Economy Overview

IEO PROFILE: Chandraswamy, Disgraced Godman and Kingmaker

Chandraswamy, godman and swindler with friends in high places

India's high-flying guru, Chandraswamy, is up to his bejeweled neck in criminal allegations, and is likely to drag former prime minister P V Narashima Rao along with him. According to a London-based Indian pickle baron, the two men conspired to cheat him out of $100,000 in exchange for a lucrative paper pulp and newsprint contract.

India has throngs of bogus holy men, but few are as successful or controversial as Chandraswamy, 47, who looks like an over-fed werewolf. Wearing white robes and with golden talismans clanking around his neck, the hairy "godman", as the Indian press calls him, was led off by police to Tihar jail, one of the most violent prisons in Asia.

The swami's arrest is also a measure of how far the former prime minister himself has fallen these days. Until now, Mr Rao's patronage has given Chandraswamy far greater protection from the law than any sorcerer’s talisman. But with Mr Rao's Congress party defeated in parliamentary elections, Chandraswamy's spell of invulnerability is fading fast.

It was a chief magistrate in New Delhi who finally had Chandraswamy arrested, after Supreme Court justices and cabinet ministers had tried in the past --and failed. They were blocked by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was under Mr Rao's control.

"The CBI , India's federal investigation bureau, which operates directly under the prime minister, had been dilly-dallying on the investigation due to the government's lukewarm attitude," said the chief metropolitan magistrate, Prem Kumar. "Such people who felt they were beyond the clutches of the law are now facing prosecution. Such people are no longer untouchable."

What finally brought the jet-setting swami into a nose-dive was an eight-year old complaint made by a British-based Indian pickle merchant. Chandraswamy allegedly cheated the businessman, Lakhu Bhai Pathak, out of $100,000 on the false promise that he would use his government influence to obtain a newsprint contract.

On 9 July the same judge ordered Mr Rao to appear in court on the charges of helping the holy man extort money from Mr Pathak. Mr Rao and the swami had been friends for 27 years, and when Mr Rao became prime minister in 1991, Chandraswamy was accorded better access to him than even cabinet ministers; only the guru's Mercedes-Benz was allowed entry up the driveway to the premier's mansion on 7 Race Course Road, earning him the nickname of "Mr Rao's Rasputin". The guru often boasted that the prime Minster called him every day.

Chandraswamy's intrigues go beyond India. Among his devotees are the billionaire Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi gun-runner Adnan Khashoggi, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and a pair of African presidents. Acquaintances claim that the supernatural powers of which Chandraswamy boasts --mind-reading, prediction and spell-casting-- pale beside his ability to dupe his high-flying followers through flattery and greed.

"I have never done anything wrong," he once protested, "Can the clouds ever eclipse the sun? They will ultimately scatter and truth will prevail." In India, plenty of politicians are dreading the day when the truth about their shady links to the "godman" finally shine through.

Tim McGirk is the South Asia correspondent for the Independent of London, and The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia. He is also the author of a book on Salvadore Dali's wife. McGirk lives with his wife and two sons in New Delhi.

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