Ramdev’s anti-graft fast: new face of communal politics

The police crackdown on people assembled to participate in the anti-corruption fast by Baba Ramdev on Sunday night, 5 June 2011, needs to be condemned no end. As the police methods are brutal by their very nature, in their effort to evacuate the Ramlila ground, they did resort to firing tear gas shells and lathi (baton) charge leading to injuries to many, including women and children. The police action was the culmination of the failure of negotiations between Government and Ramdev. Ramdev is continuing his fast at his Patanjali Yoga Ashram in Haridwar.

A brief rerun of the background and few details of the event are in order. After Anna Hazare started his fast for Lokpal bill at Jantar Mantar, Baba too latched on. The fast by Anna Hazare got a lot of support from middle class sections. Everywhere one could see the work of a well-organized machinery trying to crystallize the spontaneous upsurge of people in support of the anti-corruption movement led by Hazare. This, one can see, came in the backdrop of massive scams, 2G etc. The scale of graft shook the people and the middle classes spontaneously supported the fast. The RSS too backed the fast and made the upsurge more organised. During the fast, whole attention was focused on Anna Hazare who was labeled as the ‘Second Gandhi’! Baba had his differences with Anna, as he had his own scheme of things to capitalize on the issue using his popularity which has been built up through his very successful business of Yoga training. This Yoga is being lapped up in the country because of the new lifestyle and its attendant anxieties and to overcome the new tensions of the globalized era.

Baba claims to have a massive following and after Anna’s fast, he declared that he too will go on fast with a focus on the illicit money stashed away in foreign countries. He began his mobilizing work and his advisors included the RSS-trained Govindacharya. His protest hunger strike was well-organized. A sort of five star arrangements were put in place with massive expenditure. The support base of Ramdev is a big section of the middle class including the business community and the ones with organizations like Khaps who joined in large numbers. Those who have seen the dharnas and protests of the deprived sections of society must have been gripped by shock that such massive funds can be mobilized with such a huge number participating in a protest which, though genuine, still just looks at the issue in a superficial way.

One concedes that corruption is one of the major scourges of our country but one also knows that corruption is a superficial manifestation of the deeper rot of the system as a whole. The attempts to weed out corruption without addressing the gross inadequacies of the system and massive injustices prevailing in it, the society cannot work, as repeatedly demonstrated during the agitations led by Jaya Praksh Narayan and later by V. P. Singh.

The fact is that sections of population which participate in these protests are very different from the large suffering masses of the country. Generally, this section is based on whom the BJP slogan of ‘Shining India’ depends. In addition, there is another section of the followers of Baba, whose own source of wealth may have dubious origin. Coming to Baba himself, he is quite a phenomenon, a successful yoga teacher turned businessman and now he is at the threshold of a political career, hiding it all under the cover of saffron garb and religious profile.

To pick up the sequence of events, once when Baba was about to begin his fast, the Government got panicky for the obvious reasons of electoral politics. RSS combine has parallel support base like that of Baba. Negotiations with RSS were already on about starting a new political party or to undertake manoeuvres which can shift substantial votes in the kitty of RSS groups to its progeny BJP working for a Hindu Rashtra. The Government was keen to prevent his fast and to achieve this, they prostrated in front of Ramdev. The negotiations began and in the second round an agreement was reached that the government will expedite measures to ensure getting back the illicit money from abroad and tighten the noose around those who have stashed away such wealth. Ramdev’s associates signed the agreement and Ramdev declared that 99% of his demands had been met. Obviously it meant that there was no need for him to sit on the hunger strike any more.

Yet once he came to the Ramlila maidan, he persisted on going on the fast. Now, his associate claims that they purposely gave a letter of approval as they feared being arrested. At this point of time the Government felt duped. Normally, these agitations are undertaken so that one’s demands are met and “99%” is the highest success rate possible. So what was the intention in continuing the agitation? Obviously, the fast was a pretext to ensure that the mobilization done for political goals should be consolidated and not be allowed to fritter away.

The anti-corruption label was just a façade while the real goal was to strengthen the politics for a Hindu Rashtra, something which had led to divisive tendencies in the country. Interesting things followed. Manmohan Singh says the crackdown was inevitable. The details are not given so one cannot say as to what was on the Government's mind. It is at this time that the state authorities decided to take Ramdev away and get the Ramlila maidan cleared of those who had assembled there. When police arrived to take Ramdev away, he jumped into a crowd of his female supporters and disappeared. Two hours later he was spotted wearing the clothes of a woman and covering his face to hide his beard with a duppata, from helped his arrest.

So far the experience of such agitations is that the leader takes the first blow. The leader is there to protect his followers from the wrath of police action. But this is politics of a different hue. Here cowardice is paraded as bravery and honesty is replaced by tricks. After giving the letter to the Government, Ramdev backed out from that deal and like a 'brave' leader when the police wanted to take him away, he hid behind women and ran away wearing women's clothes, leaving his followers to face the consequences of his mobilization! While giving the letter to call off the fast and after this disguise to escape, Ramdev justified it by saying that these tactics were followed by Shivaji! This argument lacks all the principles of a democratic society. Shivaji was a king, battling with other kings for power. In a democracy, agitations and discussions are undertaken to put pressure on the Government. Leaders court arrest in a democracy to make their point and tricks are a cheap escape route for some. So here cowardice is being paraded as emulating a king's methods.

The political aspects of the whole phenomenon are very curious. The RSS combine has underwritten the whole movement. It seems, after two defeats at the general elections, this political outfit is on the lookout for another issue which can give them electoral rewards the way communal violence gives or the way Babri masjid demolition did. The present dispensation is the same as that working for the Hindu Rashtra, by and large, which is opposed to the rights of the Adivasis, Dalits and all marginalized sections of society. This was the pattern of the mobilization of Babri masjid demolition as well. Things are not so clear by now. All the actors of demolition politics are very much around. Govindacharya, Sadhvi Ritambhara, Uma Bharti, overt or covert, are all with Ramdev. Other actors of demolition, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi et al have joined post-dispersal condemnation protests. RSS functionaries have been the ones who are the major backers of Ramdev. They have so far kept quiet after the atrocities against marginalized sections, and the violence against farmers or against minorities. Now, the Babri demolition gang is leading the procession to Rashtrapati Bhawan and having a 'celebratory dharna', dancing and singing at Rajghat, calling for a joint session of Parliament. The Parivar is offering unconditional support to Ramdev.

While the issue of corruption and measures against the corrupt are to be supported to the hilt, one has to distinguish the genuine and deeper efforts to root out the phenomenon of corruption from sensational efforts and still bigger sensational presentation of the same by a large section of media. The glorification of Ramdev is aimed to create mass hysteria of the pre-Babri Masjid demolition days. The efforts for rooting out corruption had been on at various levels even earlier. What adds to the suspicion about the motives of the breast-beating against corruption now is the very timing and the well-organized nature of the protest.

The current protests also should take our attention to another part of our democracy. In a democracy, should the Government be seen as less responsible than the civil action groups? While the civil actions groups play a most valuable part in a democracy, by putting pressures on the government in a multiple ways, we need to see that it is still through the elected government that the programmes can be implemented. So where do we draw the line? If Government accepts “99%” of your demands, where is the need to continuing your agitation? If there are differences in the joint committee formed by civil action groups and the government, what should be the weightage of each group? After all, government is an elected body. The trend of Babas and Swamis coming to the political arena portends a very dangerous trend. Do we want to emulate Pakistan where Mullas ruled the roost for long and even now have a lot of weight in political affairs, and that is one of the major reasons for the problems which Pakistan is going through currently. Baba Ramdev, Sadhvi Ritambhara, Sri Sri Ravishanker have full right as a citizen, but to dabble in politics with the claims of a spiritual following is the abuse of religious spirituality.

Many theories will be tumbling out of the whole Ramdev episode, one of the role it has played is that it has diverted the attention away form the Sangh terror trials which have ravaged the country from Malegaon to Ajmer. The deeper links of those involved in acts of terrorism with functionaries of affiliated organizations is out in the open now. One hopes that the authorities will not lose sight and ensure that the guilty of acts of terror are given the punishment they deserve.

One reiterates that any violation of the peaceful protest for social issues is condemnable; at the same time the betrayal of compromises and five star dharnas may be having more to it than meets the eye and this is more than clear by now.