The Story Rules Podcast E09: Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar – Chronicler of the India economic story (Transcript)

5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E09: Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar – Chronicler of the India economic story (Transcript)

This transcript has been created using a combination of AI transcription tools and (some painstaking) human effort. Please excuse any typos, grammatical mistakes, inaccurate time stamps, or other errors. Specifically, the time stamps would not account for the intro portion of the podcast.

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Intro hook:

“You have to woo the reader. You have to persuade the person, first of all to read what you have written that’s the very first thing. If you have failed there then you’ve already failed. It doesn’t matter what are the gems of wisdom. So the notion that you have to woo your reader was important.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, aka Swami, a legendary and long-serving columnist for the Times of India and one of the foremost chroniclers of the India economic story.

(I want to try and see if it makes sense to stop the music earlier this time)

Growing up in Mumbai, the Times of India was a daily habit at our household. Here’s what I would unfailingly do, when I got my hands on the newspaper:

  • I’d look for ‘interesting pictures’ in Bombay Times (I mean, let’s be honest, I was in my mid-teens)
  • In the main paper I would chuckle at RK Laxman’s cartoon of the day
  • I’d then ignore the rest of the front page and head straight to the sports pages.
  • And when it would be the Sunday Times of India, I would head to the edit page and first read the ‘Swaminomics’ column

Today, I’m not exactly big fan of the Times group – but I still like the Sunday Times of India, especially that edit page and especially Swaminomics.

Since my early teens I have marvelled at Swami’s ability to demystify complex economic and political news and distil the key essence for the lay reader. He would take contrarian perspectives and back them with solid data and clear analysis. You might disagree with his opinion, but you couldn’t ignore it.

And so, to me, it seemed like a moonshot – what if I could interview THE Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar for this podcast?

Well, dreams do come true.

After a few mails and some help from his daughter Pallavi (who I knew from earlier) I was thrilled when he agreed to come on this podcast!

In this conversation, Swami narrates key milestones from his 56-year writing journey … (That’s right, 56 years – he’s been professionally writing for 14 more years than I’ve been on this planet).

He shares his research sources, how he records his ideas, his contrarian approach, and the focus on lucid writing. 

It’s a memorable conversation. Let’s dive in.

One point before we begin though – my apologies for the poor audio from Swami’s end… We’ve tried our best to clean it, but you might hear some sound disturbance and echo. 

A long time back, I must start with this other personal anecdote, you had written an article again in Times on an interesting tax… potential tax loophole. Right, it was about Deemed Dividend, and I was just fresh out of CA and joined L&T and at that time. Now I don’t remember anything at all, but that time I still remembered some stuff about tax, and I remember writing a letter to you. And that letter was written by a probably 21-22-year-old me. Not at all very nicely written it was very brusque. But I remember you responding so elegantly, so sweetly you actually published that letter in full and said that you know, okay this was a mistake and this is an error that has been pointed out. I did apologize to you saying that you know, my letter was not so good, you immediately responded back on email saying that ‘You should not pull your punches young man’ types, so I that was really a very sweet of you and an inspiration.

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast Swami. 

Swami 03:15 


Ravi 03:16 

Yeah, very happy to have you here. I must tell you that over the last 20 plus years I think… since how long have you been writing Swaminomics?

Swaminathan Aiyar 03:26 

Started writing in 1990. 31 years now.

Ravi 03:29 

My god. So I have probably started reading it in the late 90s. And the one thing that one behavior which has not changed in these 20 plus years for me and 31 for you is that every Sunday when the Sunday Times of India comes, I’ll open, I’ll go to the last page, go to the Edit page, and then start with your column. So that’s an incredible habit that you know we all have at home. I am just gobsmacked with this longevity; like how did you manage to keep it on for such a long time? Did you ever feel that too I think I must take a break? or was it this… What was the inspiration for you to continue for so long?

Swaminathan Aiyar 04:08 

It started actually because it started, not by appearing anywhere else, it started appearing on the commerce space. It was Dina Vakil who was the Bombay resident editor of The Times of India who said, we write some of this stuff, full of jargon, people don’t understand what it is. So why don’t you try to explain Economics issues in simple words for our readers? So that is how it began. It began basically as trying to explain and, the Economic reform was just beginning. So it was a very exciting time. So the question was to try and explain to people, in simple terms, what is it that we are trying to do. But very soon one discovers that Economics is linked to Politics, Economics is linked to Social issues, it’s linked to gender, it is linked to Education, you’ll soon discover that if you really want to write about it, then you can write about every damn thing under the sun. There is nothing which is not touched, in some sense by Economics or does not have some impact on Economics. And since I had the great freedom to write, I continued writing. After some time I was somewhat disturbed, to discover that I was being referred to, by the management as a brand. I regarded myself as a writer and to be turned as a brand, being treated as a shampoo or soap or some such thing, but it turned out that what they really meant was that it had attained, ‘Swaminomics’ itself had attained a position where it has some value of its own, to the point where the management warned me that if I ever tried to leave the Times of India, they would not allow me to use Swaminomics because they would have the copyright … I mean I  had no idea what, how these things were valued. But so it became something which they regard as ‘brand value’. And that is the reason why … the retirement age in the Times of India formally is 58 years old. I am 78 years. I am the oldest person I think was ever been given a contract by The Times of India, with the possible exception of RK Laxman, I mean he was not a writer but he was a cartoonist, he was, he obviously got his thing until he died but as a writer, as far as the writers’ are concerned I think I’ve broken all records because I’m a brand. I’m like a shampoo I’m like soap. Like they feel that they can’t do without me.

Ravi 06:58 

That’s incredible. But you mentioned this simple thing that ‘writing Economics’ issues in simple language’ right, and why do you think that is, it’s simple to say but so difficult to do? Why do people when they write it, typically use a lot of jargon and they go into all the technical detail, what’s the challenge with making things simple?

Swaminathan Aiyar 07:21 

I think, you see, I’m surprised, people say Swami makes things simple. I say wrong, I make them lucid and lucidity is anything but simple. Lucidity is actually extremely difficult. The aim is when you are writing, you have to keep two things in mind. First, what is the audience you’re addressing? Very often Economists who understand issues are used to addressing other Economists or used to addressing Economics students. So they allow themselves the liberty of assuming a certain amount of knowledge, most of the technical terms and the issues by the reader. Now, Swaminomics was started with precisely the opposite intention, the whole intention was that you have to explain. So on every issue, go the extra yard to assume the person doesn’t know. All this creates problems because you spend, you have a column of 800 words to spend 200 or 300 on explaining something basic is taking away one-quarter of the entire column. Luckily in those days I could write 1200 words. I have been shrunk gradually to 800, which is fine, I mean I think the world-over 800 is now recognized as the ideal kind of mind space that people have. On average, 20 minutes to read all the newspapers come together, then the amount of time they’re going to read on any one piece will not be more than 800 words. I think that is the kind of reductionism that has come, and therefore a newspaper column these days tends to be a standard 800 words. And then one learned to write. So very often when I write basically produce my first draft and 1000-1200 words, then you chop, chop, chop. And this particular process helps you focus, focus, focus, every time you do a re-read, you say, “Aha, I can do without this, I can do without this”. So the entire issue becomes on ‘how much can you exclude’. And this is something that helps enormously in sharpening focus, sharpening the language. As a journalist, we received articles from lots of people of 1600 words. And we have to chop it down to 1200. It’s normally quite easy. But whenever I write for my staff their complaint is that it’s almost impossible to chop it down. I’ve done so much chopping down myself. That there is not very much more, you can’t get rid of the fat without the meat getting impacted.

Ravi 10:15 

Fascinating and in your weekly column, how many rewrites, does it usually go through once you have done your first draft, re-edits, or writes?

Swaminathan Aiyar 10:24 

No, no, all this depends on the topic, and what’s happening. I… the moment I read, whatever I read, if I have an idea that comes, I immediately send an email to myself. So I have a long list of Swami ideas. More than 50-60 accumulated over time. So when the time comes to commit that my column, I have the ability to just look at that list. Sometimes something so big has happened that, obviously you’re going to write about that. Topicality is extremely important. You leave a thing for 10 days, and it doesn’t have the same significance… It doesn’t have the same thing. But on the other hand, there are very many weeks when nothing of great moments happen, or rather, things that happened to me, irritating, rather than I think a great moment for someone to know. Either be, somebody said something, or there was one more lynching. So I have a large number of ideas ready, which is very important. You need to have a very wide range of things to go to. One of the things I pride myself on is that if I write on something, I try not to go back to that subject for quite some time. The only exception is sometimes the aim of a column in 800 words, if you’re trying to get your message through, typically you can make only one point. You try to make three, four points, it may be an excellent piece or you may in some academic sense be more comprehensive, but you’re losing the point of the story, that what you’re writing is not an academic article, it is not a textbook, it is not a novel. What is it – it is just the newspaper column, you’re trying to get one single point through lucidly and clearly, and don’t clutter it up with other things. Now by not doing that, actually, you end up sounding very fundamental. Because, if you don’t have all the caveats …


..Ya and disclaimers


You can be very fundamental. In some of those circumstances, there have been times where I’ve even written a series of three pieces. I remember, for instance, the Asian financial crisis. Nobody knew what the hell was happening. And it was difficult to explain because what was happening in Thailand, was different from what was happening in Indonesia, which was different from what was happening in Korea, Although it was called the Asian Financial Crisis it was not one thing. So you know I wrote a series. And you can do that from time to time. But in that case, each should be telling a story of its own and should hold interest on its own. It shouldn’t be somebody trying to write a long boring piece …. But otherwise, as I said, one of the things that I tried to avoid doing is returning to the same subject again. I believe in breadth. I believe in covering a wide range of things and not being seen as a single point fundamentalist, we just want to return to the same theme, Again, I mean I’m not a campaigner I’m not a crusader. I’m a journalist. I’m an explainer. I have very strong views, but I have strong views on so many things, that at the end of it I’m not a single point fundamentalist, I’m not a crusader

Ravi 14:05 

I love that part about your work Swami that it’s not ideological, you don’t have a particular ideology you are  trying to put across at the same time, it’s very contrarian, almost every headline, every piece that I see is going against some very commonly held view on whatever topic it might be right?. So for example, there is an article where you say that there is this, chatter or that there is this kind of news in the media that all the business in India is controlled by Ambanis and Adanis, rubbish, and I loved that use of the word, here is Credit Suisse report which talks about 100 unicorns. And that’s just one example right, almost every article of yours has this contrarian thinking so, Is this something that you look for, that when you’re reading something why, (or) what is it that I find different or wrong about this?

Swaminathan Aiyar 14:56 

Oh, that’s all important. Why should, I mean, if I’m writing what everybody else is writing, I can never become the name that stands out, right? So instead of being a brand, I will become a generic soap.

Ravi 15:11 

Ah, brilliant differentiation, yeah 

Swami 15:14 

Yes. So the whole idea is (inaudible). So when I am reading, it strikes me again and again and again, that there is some key issue which is being avoided or that, there are some simple assumptions which are in fact misconceived. So, whenever I see that the in what I’m reading something is getting missed out. I love to focus on that. Now, it is not always the case that people leave things out. It is not always possible to be contrarian. A whole lot of issues … I’m with what other people are saying, except that I do try to find a new angle that others have not. So as I said, the final, the best journalist is, you have to think of an angle that even Euclid would admire.

Ravi 16:06 

Wow! That’s an interesting line, never heard that. This point of, I love that small tactical process that you do that when you come across an idea when an idea strikes you, you just email it to yourself so in your email, do you have like an inbox or a folder where it’s just filled with all ideas.

Swaminathan Aiyar 16:28 

I just write ‘Swa-idea’, and then ‘Swa -idea’ and I put down

Ravi 16:34 

The idea and so when you have to write a column just look at that and then say “Okay what might be interesting for this one.”

Swaminathan Aiyar 16:40 

Yes, and very often, I’m astounded to find out what good ideas I had to say I’ve already forgotten you very much need to have that list.

Ravi 16:50 

Ya, list, can’t remember. Now…

Swaminathan Aiyar 16:52 

That is, again, is the thing that ensures that means you return to the same subject, what you were reading. Can be another …

Ravi 17:03 

Can you tell us a little bit about your reading diet because it’s important to have a very fairly diverse diet of stuff that you read, so how do you… Do go about deliberately choosing the sources of, stuff that to read?

Swaminathan Aiyar 17:15 

Basically, I try to read, I mean things are changing now because you need to pay for everything, but I used to read all the four or five Indian newspapers, Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times of London, Washington Post. So these were the wide range… Weeklies I will be reading The Economist, reading the ‘Finance and Development (Magazine) which the IMF produces from time to time. Other things that people… There was a time when I used to read Economic and Political Weekly regularly, which I have stopped doing for various reasons, but there was a time, see there are so many business magazines and so on… I remember when I was much younger in the 1990s. I was reading one magazine every evening. There are so many of them, then finally I decided, forget it, I don’t want to know this. And as the quality and output improved it became impossible. If you go back to the 1960s, there was very little of quality that was worth reading or you could miss things out. Newspapers used to be only eight pages long in those days. So, everything was much simpler. I would get at six  newspapers in the morning, I would be finished in one hour.

Swaminathan Aiyar 18:41 

That was, in 1960. So I’m always in the position that apart from that reference you give them, I am not a Facebook, Twitter person, because that becomes too much. I just don’t have the time. So  I am sufficiently old-fashioned, I say “I don’t want to receive any more emails I don’t want any more alerts, I am already flooded by too many things. So I stick to what I have, and what I have is already too much to read. So many interesting things that are suggested to me, I just blank out. I don’t have the time, and still, as I said, what I read is enough. I think the ratio of reading to writing has gone down, which is a bad thing. It could be better if I read more. Reading books have gone down a lot because I have various health problems. Again, books are very good.

Swaminathan Aiyar 19:45 

They get me ideas.

Ravi 21:15 

Brilliant. Now, let’s say you pick a theme that you have written about and you’ve read some about it but you might do more research, some topical stuff. Now, when you do that research, right, typically when I try and read a lot of articles and write-ups about one topic, there is that feeling of being overwhelmed with that information, right, How do you figure out from all the data points that, what’s the theme that’s emerging? Do you kind of take notes while researching? How’d you figure out that big picture?

Swaminathan Aiyar 21:51 

Well, you see I think that Google is all-important these days whereas in old days there was the World Development Report or the World Statistics from the World Bank and other things which I use extensively, or there is some article I read Economic and Political weekly or somewhere else, or in some books. So one, we make a note of this is what I read about. Google has made has revolutionized everything. It is now possible that every single sentence will say, “is this really true, is this really true”, and so you can go back and Google and check. And because of that, there have been several occasions when I have abandoned the column. This is not sustainable. That you know, when I do the research, I find that argument cannot be sustained because various things I have left out. And once you bring those in, the thesis will fall. So there are times when I said the importance of researching is not just for the facts but sometimes, to realise that, sorry the column is wrong.

Ravi 23:08 

And then you have to go with another idea and then do the whole thing again.

Swaminathan Aiyar 23:11 

Fortunately, I have a long list so. I do try to write one day before the deadline initially. Again, not succeed. In fact, I not only try to do it one day before, I have a mailing list of people who I’ve known for a long time. Many of them will respond. And I’m able to incorporate their responses in a revision, if I send it one day before. If I send it only on deadline, then obviously, you can’t make use of your friends.

Ravi 23:48 

Writing. One of the things that I really admire about your words, is that it’s very layperson words. Hardly you would come across technical words and, in fact, it’s words that you would use in everyday conversation. And what was that a style that you kind of always had, even while growing up or you developed over time?

Swaminathan Aiyar 24:11 

Actually, it was, when I first started reading for the Economist. This was one of the things they stress in the stylebook. For instance, I wrote about petrochemical, they would knock it down to chemical. Because this is just the main chemical, the fact that it comes in petroleum is a minor issue. So, that in one sense was an indication of, avoid jargon. ,But even more important, as I said was the very fact that I had been asked by Dina Vakil to write this column was for people who don’t understand as well. So it’s quite possible that at an earlier stage. I myself would have been guilty of something. But writing for The Economist was again, very good exercise. Not that the Economist does not have jargon, in the banking page or the business page, we could find it in some of the earlier pages or there (inaudible) explain. So, the importance of moving the audience, instead of just assuming you’re talking down to them what are important things I learned was that, don’t assume, I had (inaudible) his name was Balasubramiam who used to talk on (inaudible) as I said it was completely wrong reports. You have to woo the reader. You have to persuade the person, first of all to read what you have written that’s the very first thing. If you have failed there then you’ve already failed. It doesn’t matter what are the gems of wisdom. So the notion that you have to woo your reader was important. I used to write funny pieces. They used to have something called a middle column in the Times of India back in the 1950-1960s. So I mean, I used to write small funny (inaudible). So that again was an important way of saying that you have to woo the reader because writing (inaudible) is entirely about wooing the reader and (inaudible) so all of that helps

Ravi 26:32 

Apart from the Economist, any other major influences on you, as in when it was when you were as formative influences on you as a writer, that made you feel that “Hey this is what needs to be done.”

(For Ravi: Start transcript editing from here)

Swaminathan Aiyar 26:46 

No, I will say you learn from (inaudible). Including of course your mistake. For instance, when (inaudible) started (inaudible). See there are many standards in journalism (inaudible) somebody writes something (inaudible). I have seen (inaudible) complete rubbing (inaudible) because when you write, it to somebody called a subeditor, who in the Indian hierarchy is regarded as very low in terms of salary and so on. I’m told abroad and in places like England, a subeditor is a very a senior person, and somebody said chief subeditor is God so, this is that set-up, whereas here, thanks to something called the Wage (inaudible) which sets wage rates for journalists out there subeditor was at the bottom, then chief (inaudible) then you got to the special correspondence, assistant editor, and so on. So there was, there was no question of this very junior person to do fact-checking nor do they have the knowledge. They were the junior-most fellows. They were the guys with the least knowledge so there till today I would say the editorial pages there is no fact-checking. But if I write for the Financial Times, (inaudible) if they’re willing to consider the article they immediately come there and say I want (inaudible). And there is the setting of (inaudible) there is one in India, but I make it a point because I’ve written for Foreign Firms (not sure), (inaudible) at the moment I write Indian article, “Is this valid too?” Google it ‘Can you find it? Can you get a quote?’ So the importance of checking those facts. This certainly came from writing for foreign publications, which would not have come, I think if I (inaudible)

I mean, out here (inaudible) you say what you would like. And even if you’re completely wrong. If you are seem to be in the right camp, they’ll say ‘Wah wah (inaudible)’

Ravi 29:01 

There is the definition of storytelling that we use that good story at least the work stories is truth, well told, it needs to be true, but it also needs to be told well. I think you’re, really managing two kind of, bridge both those challenges. One more point about your writing, which is, I love the fact that you know there are strong perspectives, you’re not afraid to be you know, unequivocal about something so I this quote I wanted to use from one of your articles, this was on the farm protests, where you conclude this article with this line. I quote “So, the farm agitation supports a terrible farming system that kills aquifers, maims neighbors through stubble burning, and now kills them by spreading Covid. Those failing to condemn this are hypocrites or cowards” and strong language, I love that. You’re not trying to sugarcoat it by saying those who are failing to condemn this should not do this or, leaving it to weak again deliberate?

Swaminathan Aiyar 30:05 

Actually, I try to avoid (don’t know the word). This is in fact was one thing that Ram Nath Goenka of Indian Express (inaudible) back in the 60s. This is the best writing is not hitting somebody on the head because the bubble, you have to prick the bubble. That is the way you do it. Of course, he was sufficiently (not sure) hypocritical that he himself (inaudible) not against the (inaudible) people (inaudible) at all, but it was an important insight that if you want to make a point very often it’s made much better, do it in other words. One of the things that I often employ is I will write an open letter to Modi. Or, instead of saying that all this is wrong, you write a formal letter. It’s a different way of putting the same thing. And you can prick this guy up (inaudible) So the same points are made and (inaudible). The other thing I’ve discovered is, wherever possible, try to avoid criticizing somebody by name, unless he happens to be the minister or the person in charge in which case obviously, you have to mention. There are other people who take on what some other columnist said or somebody else has said. I say the moment you do that, I discovered that people began to think there is personal animosity (not sure) and personal values (not sure). So the importance is to focus on the issue and not on the person. So for this reason. Again and again, when I’m doing my second draft where I find myself (not sure) removing names, unless there’s an important point, and obviously if it’s the whole thing is about the statement of Amit Shah and Modi (inaudible). But otherwise, it does no harm, or remain cool, for instance, you keep saying the government-the government-the government instead of saying, Modi-Modi-Modi. It does not change the substance of what you’re writing, but it makes it a less personal attack. And I think it’s important to avoid personal attacks, to the extent that (inaudible).

Ravi 32:32 

At the same time. I appreciate that, if something is wrong, then, to be forthright in calling it out because a lot of people don’t do that too, right.

Swaminathan Aiyar 32:46 

Okay, I’m not afraid for various reasons. I mean as said I lasted so long, (inaudible). The advantage is that you know, if you are Shahrukh Khan, you can say some things and you get away with it. So I want to the extent of violating company guidelines. you know when Hussain caught into that controversy ‘you are hurting Hindu sentiment by depicting Goddess Saraswati like this’, so the official line was we are not going to support Hussain. But I wrote a column absolutely slashing Hussain (inaudible) said “Swami, who do you get away with this?” I said I get away because I don’t know the rule in the first place and I don’t bother. This is seen as a special (not sure) bar of soap, you have to keep… Then you don’t have to follow the normal rule. 

So I have managed to achieve that particular position where I’m treated as an exception. So I think that helps, but I’m afraid there’s a huge amount of self-censorship going on (inaudible). I’m willing to accept that self-sensitive to this limited (inaudible). Why do you keep saying Modi Modi Modi, criticize the BJP, or say government. Why do you write, personalize? so that I see as the point. And that is not just a question of covering or anything that’s also good journalism. Need to focus on issues.

Ravi 34:28  

Yeah and disassociate with personality

Swami 34:31 

We need to focus on the issue instead of trying to claim that everything is the fault of one particular human being or two particular humans. I mean I know some people who explained a riot (not sure) by saying, Amit Shah visited the places two weeks ago. Okay, why mind the idea that Amit Shah visited this place and riot two weeks later is so ridiculous. (inaudible) that BJP is a communal party but to link it to this personal thing is ridiculous. So I try to avoid that kind of

Ravi 35:01 

But, you mentioned this about self-censorship, do you worry that has there been any fundamental change in the way journalists, think about writing their pieces?

Swaminathan Aiyar 35:11 

Oh yes, huge, in the Times of India, the thing that, I mean, it’s a commercial newspaper, right? Aim is to make money. It is not ideological (not sure) right?, Congress will have its own newspaper, if the Congress Party will have its own newspaper, they will have their own angle. The only angle of the Times of India, is we want to make money. (inaudible) ideologically forcing you ABC or D, now what’s happened is that the Times of India among other things, depends on advertising and makes money out of what are called events sponsored events so you give an award to give an award for that or there’s some Indian National Forum, and for that you expect various ministers and possible finance minister or prime minister (inaudible) nominated and all these are into money. If you have an event where the Prime Minister has agreed to come and inaugurate, then automatically two-three other ministers will also agree to come. And when they all will agree to come along the more and more sponsors will buy them. And instead of making a profit of three crores. They will make a profit of 10 crores. There was an event a few years ago 2017, that been UP election Rohini Singh from New Delhi was sent to oversee the election, she in her view thought the Akhilesh person (not sure) (inaudible) Samajwadi Party. She turned out to be completely wrong. BGP absolute support. A few months later, there was some Times of India event, which Mr. Modi was supposed to inaugurate because he was (inaudible) going to come it (inaudible). Two days before the event, Amit Shah calls up and says, you, Economic Times, this is not Economics Times, not even Times of India sue against us, you (inaudible) thing. Where this woman called Rohini Singh was in charge was kind of completely misled everybody, why should we come to some event that you are hosting and trying to make money out of us. By inviting us. So, Mr. Modi has decided that he’s not going to come because of course, the Times of India then got

got rushed and made a huge analysis of all our news articles written by different people to try and prove that no while we were wrong, we’re not (inaudible) but it was waste of time. So an exercise of power, they want to teach you a lesson. And so at the end of it all, Mr. Modi did not come because (inaudible) did not come, others did not come and a message was sent out, ‘we have ways of hurting you’. So when that goes off, did it make a difference to my writing? No. But did it make a difference to the general ethos, the message that goes out to people? And the answer to that is yes.

Swaminathan Aiyar 38:25 

It goes out, and there are individuals, like Rohini lost her job. She lost her job for doing the best she could do, she was wrong (inaudible) outstanding young rising star. So as I said these things have consequences. recent health consequences. Yeah. That’s unfortunate. Go

Ravi 38:57 

Yeah, that’s unfortunate coming back to your writing Swami, You’ve been writing for 31 years now. And similar thing, as you said it, it started off at 1200 and then now the one thing that has changed is the word count. But what have been some other key milestones in your evolution, as a columnist, as a writer, for example, has there been an impact of just a sheer increase in the amount of data that is available, any impact of technology do you have you know people who help you from a research point of view and any other major milestones.

Swaminathan Aiyar 39:33 

Okay, I may have started Swaminomics 31 years ago but I’ve been writing from 1965. So I’ve been writing for 56 years, much longer periods, and there were many of the milestones came much earlier. As said Ram Nath Goenka’s advice ‘Prick with a needle, don’t hit’, that was an important lesson I learned. The issues of being contrarian, which I learned the writing for The Economist, writing the foreign journals the fact-checking the importance of (inaudible) getting on. So I, there were number of those things. In 1980, I became a (inaudible) editor, Eastern Economist. Its a magazine that had some standing in that time magazine, (inaudible) magazine, which was close down in 1982, but it has some particulars back then (not sure). But you know, the point was, you could write anything you like. So I remember we were considering what would be the headline for this particular thing that (inaudible) the Soviet Union and headline, finally came was balls to (inaudible), you couldn’t have possibly have done this kind of headline in a newspaper, with a (don’t know the word) because we are out there, and we’re having fun. It was quite possible to engage in stuff like this. So all of the citizens be bold and strikeout

Ravi 41:07 

Post you started writing Swaminomics any other milestones that come to mind, from your own evolution point of view?

Swaminathan Aiyar 41:15 

No, it’s simply the way one diversified from being a commerce page, economics then one… The importance of the fact that at the end of all, you’re talking about the well-being of people, Economics is part of so many other aspects. So, I mean, there was a time when it was thought that people who write on economic issues know nothing about politics and vice-versa. That was the case in 1960s, when there was that kind of narrow specialization, and you didn’t get people writing across topics like that, (inaudible) few. In some sense, this is where the Economist was all-important. Because the Economist was interested overwhelmingly in the political issues didn’t (not sure) matter economically in 1970s. So it  was very difficult to get an Economic piece. So I was writing, almost weekly (not sure) (inaudible) so I was writing for The Times of India on Economic issues and on the Economist on political issues and I think that was a very important turning point. Then again, one reads very little and has only a limited point of view in the Indian media, because you know very little actually about the author states of India, and you know very little about other countries you know nothing about Latin America, you know nothing about… 85 to 87, for 2 years I went to the world tour (inaudible). The very things that made me succeed in journalism made me fail that (not sure). I was constantly getting the ______ and so the 2-year contract was not renewed and I happily came back to India. But while I was there, the international perspectives that I got for the first time I learned all about Asia, Latin America, the various debates that were taking place all these different (inaudible). So to me it was like two years’ sabbatical, in which I really learned. Subsequent to that, while I came back to India I then knew enough people that I would get occasional consultancy for the World Bank (inaudible) bank so whenever I went back. Then there would be this once again, getting up on that. So in terms of reading what’s happening in Economics new issues. I was way above all the Indian Economist (inaudible) had no access to all this. They knew nothing, but so I could read a piece on Peru, and then say Do you know what Peru did (inaudible) India did not do this. I was in a position to write an article like this no Indian journalist (not sure). This was because I had become an international consultant. So the getting that broad picture became all-important. So, you earlier, you see when these big international conferences (inaudible) used to take of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, they were in those days were as regarded as very important that they will determine the future flows, aid, flow of this and that and the other. And for some reason, I, the ones was held in 1968 in Delhi was supposed to be one month but went on for two months and I covered it every single day. In retrospect, I covered it with all kinds of very dubious information which was not doubly checked. But, as a young reporter, I made my name that Swami knows more about his international subject and these traditional (inaudible). After that was another (inaudible) meeting in 1972, 1976, and 1979. So, again this global perspective, I was almost the only guy who had attended all of these, because the Times of India had the money to send somebody out for one month and no other newspaper had the money to send somebody out for one month. So, for meetings like this. So there again I got the international perspectives and international ads. I managed to get for this paper.

Ravi 45:44 

This is an important part of any field, right, you keep kind of broadening your horizon. In the last, let’s say, 5 to 10 years, one aspect that is permeated every part of life is technology. And whether that is, you know, technology in the form of the actual devices and apps and software that we use, or even the way it has changed how we go about life, including, you know, areas like cryptocurrency. So what’s your approach to keeping abreast of what’s happening in this, crazy, wild west frontier of technology?

Swaminathan Aiyar 46:19 

I try to read what I can. I don’t read too much. Because I’ve also discovered that some things which I was suspicious about, I was writing this when 3d printer came out, (inaudible) the point of it, whereas others (inaudible) gaga about technology, I fundamentally could not sing. I said, to rather to make a product layer by layer. Sounds to me inherently inefficient; does not sound to me an efficient process, I can understand that if you’re customizing a thing for one particular… I mean, if Inder Gujral, Satish Gujral, is making a sculpture, I can understand is that kind of thing. But for the purposes of mass economic production, it seemed to me that, I can’t see the point of this. And I turned out to be correct. I mean, after more than 10-15 years, nobody talks about 3d printers. It will have some niche. But is okay. As far as cryptocurrencies are concerned, as far as I am concerned, this is an area for speculation. Of which (not sure) there are many, if you know enough about if you knew enough about (inaudible) swaps, made a lot of money. I said in order to gamble, there are all kinds of ways of gambling, or else cryptocurrency, as far as I’m concerned is for people who are ascribing all kinds of economic value to it. I mean, I find it hoax. I advise everybody to stay alert. I said it’s entirely possible to make money on that as it’s possible to make money and in all kinds of schemes in the past. I remember there used to be this craze or something called Beanie Babies. They were little toys made of a kind of artificial beings. And there was a time and they were selling for $10,000 for each because of some limited supply. So when I have seen all these cases, I said, it’s entirely possible to make money for some time on these, but unless that turns out to be a long-term use for it. And as of now, I do not see a long-term use. Now, the argument has been now made that this could be the new digital gold. You could argue, gold has no use, I mean (inaudible), but they have decided that people have decided that the thing has value it has value. It is like people have decided that Van Gogh has value and actually if you look at the painters of the 19th century, there are 20 guys as good as Van Gogh (inaudible). So once people decide that a thing has value, it has value and the argument is being made that Bitcoin maybe, one be a kind of digital gold, which has no value. And yet, as long as people believe that it is there, it may have some value, okay. But just as I don’t write therefore on fluctuating price of gold, I don’t write on fluctuating price of Bitcoin. I don’t have anything significant to say about it. So cryptocurrency I have avoided, on the other hand, there’s talk about digital currency to be produced by the Central Bank, to our mind that has no relationship whatsoever to the Bitcoin. I mean the blockchain technology, perhaps, may be used by various people for various things. But the so-called digital currency by Central Bank, as far as I’m concerned, there is already a currency called rupee produce. And if you say all transactions will be digital, and we have a digital currency, rupee already. Currently China has got to that stage where apparently the use of cash is called almost zero and everything is being done by card, by Credit Card or all digital means. So in some sense, they’ve become digital. SO as far as I’m concerned, I’m suspicious, I’m interested in things that are new. I’m also suspicious if I don’t if I can’t see the point of it. So I’m in no hurry to rush into these things and say the latest world changer. On the other hand, if I do think something is the world-changer I thought the internet was a world changer. So certainly, when wrote about that. That is now of course (inaudible), Internet has penetrated every tribal hamlet now in India. And so

Ravi 50:57 

Ya, but at that time, in the early 90s, it was a lot of people might have also regarded it with suspicion and skepticism

Swaminathan Aiyar 51:08 

Nobody what it was. It was introduced in see, I first came across it on one of my consultancy trips in 1992. The word internet was unknown in India at the time, it was just coming in, in the West. And in order to get you have to have this connection, you have to have enormous patience, so much time, download, then time changed, (inaudible) and on talk of the (not sure) digital divide that, the internet is for a small, tiny elite and everybody else (inaudible). So what has actually happened? It’s been absolutely amazing. So yes, there are some things that are world-changer. More than that, see, we used to be this old argument in India, that, you have to be worried of the press monopolies that if somebody is very big in the print media, should he be allowed to have a TV channel? Should he be allowed to have a radio channel? There’s too much power going into one hand. And then when, of course, the internet came into place. I said, Mr. (unable to find on google) had complete control of all the press and of all the radio and of all the TV, and he was still overthrown because of the internet. So, in other I said, all those old arguments and all those things, they’re all junk. Similarly, I read there used to be the issue (not sure) of concentration of economic power in India, what proportion of the market belongs to Mr. A, Mr. B, and C. And I had to say this repeatedly in the early 1990s, the moment you drop import license and anybody can import, monopolies disappear. So every single calculation made about purchase about market power and this being monopolistic that monopolistic everything disappeared at once stroke (inaudible). So, some of these changes weren’t immediately known. But there are other things like 3d printing or cryptocurrency not being _________

Ravi 53:23 

Fascinating, moving gears to the topic of reforms and the narrative around reforms, right, so there is always this tension between good economics and unfortunately, the politics of it and I saw a video where you made this interesting point that during the 1990s, when India liberalized, there was no idealogue for reforms, there was no you mentioned, there’s no Reagan or Thatcher, in India at that time, basically, it was reformed by stealth. And yet, although an opposition party would criticize reform, when they would come to power, they would remain committed to it. So they might have socialist rhetoric in public, but in the policies, they were not reversed. Now, over time, over the last 20-25 years of reform, are you seeing any change that the government is now also attempting to tell a good narrative around because sometimes it’s all about you know, how do you position the reform, how do you frame it? How do you put the narrative? So that’s also to me interesting example of storytelling. Do you see that changing, especially in the last, you know, four or five years,

Swaminathan Aiyar 54:32 

Ideology has been a preserve of over tiny elite in India. And when you go down to the election level, none of this matters. I remember in the 1996 election, because of Narasimha Rao, Harshad Mehta, Lakhubhai Pathak, it looked as if Congress, the entire left said that this is an issue on economic reform. And when he lost the election, they said “Ah! this shows the failure of reform”

At the same time there was Yogendra Yadav, a psephologist who now became a politician who actually did a survey. And the survey question was very interesting. It didn’t ask directly about reforms. It said, Are you aware of any change whatsoever in economic policy?

Are you aware of any change at all? 80% of the people said, No. But I said, for all we’ve been talking about this in the newspaper over the last five years, people claiming that this is the issue as far as most people are concerned that they have no idea, they didn’t understand. So you know, it’s not ideal, not only is it non-ideological, the extent and the way it took place was so partial piecemeal, bit by bit, that there was never any coherent thing. When he said that there was no, there was no Thatcher, there was no Reagan. That’s an absolutely important point. But equally important is that there is no ideology at all. And if it works, then we don’t mind. The real reason, I mean, when you started the economic reforms, the economic-political weekly, everybody says, “Ah, you know, what had happened to Africa, you know what happened to Latin America, they had two decades of negative development, they were all finished, the GDP will go down, your industry will be finished, international companies will take over your consulting, there are these long, gruesome series of doomsday scenarios. And at that time, all one could do was hope that things will be different. I had to point out that India does not lie in the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and Latin America. It doesn’t follow that what happens there is relevant. On the other hand, if you see what happened to the rest of Asia, we might get a very different picture of the (inaudible) someone wrote about it. But at the end, what really happened was in the first place, the Indian conditions and entrepreneurship were such that even that first year, you see, we now call the word reform. When a company in the country goes bust, the IMF says the first thing required stabilization. Stabilization is when you are living beyond your means. So you have to cut down your growth. The aim is not reformed, the first aim is cut, cut your growth, you are living beyond your means. (unable to find), the world bank was the chief at that time I asked him this five years, I said, What is the biggest surprise? My biggest surprise was that in that first year of reform, everywhere else there is minus 5%, GDP minus 6%. In India, that was plus 1.8. So he says, the thing that really astonished me was the resilience of the Indian system, that even with the cuts that took place in public spending, the other things we were able to grow. Second-year we grew by 5.3. Then the next three years, we average more than 7% growth. So the reason why reforms can Why did they continue? Their reforms continued because when you had a system that produces 7% growth, no matter what politicians said in their speeches, what was working, they weren’t. I mean, nobody was so ideological, that they were going to bust something, which at that time seems to be getting results. You had a situation. And this is one of the points I used to make the early 1990s. I said Congress is in power. People are worried ‘What happens if it loses power?’ I said it will be an excellent thing if Congress loses power and others come into power. they too will then find that the old ways are impossible. They do I mean, I was all in favor of Jyoti Basu becoming the next prime minister saying ‘once he becomes Prime Minister that he will realize all the dates (inaudible). But that is what happened anyway. So all the other parties came to power one by one who had sworn in 1991 that they would reverse economics. And yet once when they came in, they went along with the tide because it was a rising tide. And ultimately when you are some people who I know in the RSS after Modi came to power, I said, tell me really what is the difference in economic policy between Congress and BJP. (inaudible) there is no difference.

We are a highly non-ideological country when it comes to things like economic policy. Economic and political weekly, we have desperate debates on left-right Marxism and the (don’t know) God knows who else (inaudible) but at the end of it all, in practical terms go to a market village into a village (inaudible) into election time, what are the issues they’re discussing? I mean, I have by now covered sincerely an elections, overwhelming number, the issues are local, that particular gutter overflowed that particular bridge collapse this thing, you know, nobody is talking about national issues. Even the state capital is quite a distant place than national capital is like a foreign country. The issues that are being discussed in the election time are overwhelmingly local, Mr. Modi, I think managed to change this. And that is how he became the first regional chief minister to become a national leader. No other chief minister has managed to go beyond and become a National leader. So Modi was able to do it, that’s a very remarkable achievement, Sharad Pawar tried his best and so on, these guys got nowhere. They couldn’t get beyond the state.

Ravi 1:01:10 

So what were some of these pan-local issues that you found were resonating with the national audience? National security was one of them, which is like a

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:01:22 

No, so national security by definition is a national one. And in 2019, I think Modi (don’t know) to the maximum. And he won that spinning (inaudible) because of that. The Economic Times, I remember we used to have these local inputs (not sure). And there was before (don’t know) and after. And after (don’t know) on our opinion poll, which BJP votes went up 7%. And believe me, in the actual election, BJP got 7% points more in 2019 than (inaudible). I mean I’m not claiming with the Economic Times survey was God. But correlation is fascinating that the big difference. The big difference was the National (inaudible). Of course, (inaudible) saying that now Modi will plan a war with Pakistan before every election, whether you can plan these things? I don’t know.

Ravi 1:02:24 

No, but economics as a, especially economics, issues at regional, if not national level. Do you see them coming into the election into the political narrative for

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:02:36 

They will come in each on their own, not as a part of an ideological thing of this leftist or rightist. The word reform, I mean, you could have reform in all kinds of directions. Many reforms, I think are (inaudible). There are good reforms and there are bad reforms (inaudible) started off by the general idea of moving towards a more liberal economy. But the large number of liberal reforms that were brought in, there’s a long list of (inaudible), of which the latest which is just getting reversed is this idea of retrospective taxation of orange companies. I mean, that is certainly not an act of liberalization. But there were many reforms, some good some bad, and if you have the index of economic freedom of the Cato Institute, where I’ve worked where India has 121st position in the world. So (inaudible) in the case of the Heritage Institute that has a similar index, I think India is 123rd, and in the categories of unfree free, India’s who does mostly on free. In other words, despite all this talk of reform, this talk of reform, at the end of it all, we’ll see what’s actually happened. Every businessman is terrified of the government because he believes that he can be squashed like a fly. I mean, we certainly didn’t have anybody like Jack Ma, who was willing to sneer and… I mean ultimately Jack Ma paid the penalty for being too tough. But in effect, he turned around into a (don’t know) or a bunch of dinosaurs who have no idea what’s going on in the financial crime, (inaudible) just shut up and let us get on with our job. Okay, that was a bit too much, even in China, but otherwise, those guys were willing to talk out and, and have views in India I’d seen after every single day, every time on budget day, all the business will be asked out of 10 how many marks will you give? No businessman will be less than eight out of 10. They just don’t want to be seen (inaudible). So and that’s an indication therefore the extent of controls that are still there. And you feel over the latest farmers’ agitation. It is agitation in favor of controls of every single possible kind. It is 100% anti-market, 100% anti-corporate, and it has this useful one. So I mean,

Ravi 1:05:17 

that’s a great example to me. Sorry.

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:05:22 

So it over reforms. I said it’s a question of issue by issue. There is no Muslim left or right. As far as the ordinary voter is concerned

Ravi 1:05:33 

On the farm protests the farm laws there, I felt that the reform, probably the idea was good. But did you feel that the narrative could have been better? And what would you kind of suggest to the government if you were to advise them, How would you, How would the narrative be?

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:05:48 

As far as I was concerned, the government was enormously surprised at what happened and so was I. I had expected the resistance. I had not expected the resistance of this extent, and this (don’t know). And obviously, that was partly held by the fact that the farmers are getting support from every opposition party you have been supporting and helping them but that’s only to be expected. But the funny thing, of course, is that the Congress Party manifesto itself had promised the same reform. So, it has nothing to do with ideology at the end of it. The Congress Party manifesto said APMC will have to go when it was in power in various places during Maharashtra I remember, they abolished a APMC (inaudible). So it is not that Congress is against all this stuff. But at the end of it all, it is short-sightedness and its issue by issue. And at the end of it all, because this is a country where there isn’t short-termism comes in because issue by issue, there is an overwhelmingly focus that the job of the government is A] subsidies and B] reservations. These two topics people believe government can do. You can give long lectures on morality and improve on governments, people don’t believe governments can do. But they do they believe governments can do two things, governments can give subsidies and can give service. Therefore, you will find an overwhelming big issue that people that worked upon tend to be (inaudible). This has nothing to do with left and right.

Ravi 1:11:28 

Going forward Swami, are there any things that you’re looking up to apart from writing the weekly column any other projects that you’re planning to do one thing that I feel it’d be nice if Is there any long-form writing that you have in plan? Any book or any such project

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:11:46 

No no no (inaudible) complete waste of time, as far as I am concerned. In India, if you get my daughter she’s an author. She wrote her first book, ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ on her experience in China. And the first product, it was a hit. But the entire half of the college (not sure) production run was only 2000 copies. I say I am told I have 2 million readers. And I’m going to make the effort of writing a book which sells by 5000 copies. What what what do I get out of that? So, now it is true that there is a shelf life to this. Then it went into reputation. And then those circles, where all the literary festivals, you’re called and all those. So there are for some people like my daughter, that’s very important. And I wish them luck. I am not in that circuit. I’m already overwhelmed with the amount of work that I have to do. I’m unable to do justice to my commitments even now. So I don’t even dream of. I mean, I wrote the last book was ‘Collection of Swaminomics’ (inaudible) came out back in 2008. And the print run of 10,000, it sold out. So you could argue, very successful book, even though there was no publicity or anything. Then another one came out on which I had the initial part the first half was a combination of new material and some long papers that I have written for the Cato Institute. In retrospect, actually, I should have done…, then to that, I added service Swaminomics columns. In retrospect, that (inaudible) I should (inaudible) the book as it was. (inaudible) important to the book rat race as (inaudible) from the other thing. In which case the Times of India would not have been a suitable publisher, in which case (inaudible) the Penguin or Harper Collins. or somebody. I wish I had done that. That would have been a (inaudible). I mean, I think the original stuff I wrote there is something really worth reading. And it would not have been read because most people took it to the (inaudible). But I said to go through that effort once again, never. And I’m now in 78. I mean, (inaudible)

Ravi 1:14:17 

But you are still regaling us week after week. Entertaining us, Educating us, and moving us week after week with fascinating content contrarian and high-quality writing, thinking and making us really I think see the world in a different way. So you keep doing that. Thank you so much. This has been a huge pleasure to have this conversation with you. It’s, I wouldn’t say childhood dream but it’s a dream for a long time to be able to speak to it.

But thank you so much for coming on to this podcast.

Swaminathan Aiyar 1:14:47 

All the best!

And that was Swaminthan Anklesaria Aiyar, one of the foremost chroniclers of the India economic story.

A few things which stayed with me:

  1. Have the courage to state contrarian views 
  2. But don’t fall in love with your ideas – if the data doesn’t support, be prepared to ditch them
  3. Edit, edit, edit – Every word needs to earn its place.
  4. Woo the reader – they don’t owe you their attention

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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