takes on Indian Congress By
BANGALORE - A little
over a year after his rather comical exit from
Delhi, yoga guru Baba Ramdev has returned to the
spotlight, this time adopting an overtly political
Discarding his earlier politically
neutral posture - in the past he said he was not
against any party or individual - Ramdev vowed on
Sunday to oust from power the Indian National
Congress, the party that heads the ruling United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. He warned
the government of a "big revolution" if it failed
to act on his demands: announce immediate steps to
bring back "black money" (laundered money) of
Indian nationals stashed in foreign banks, enact
legislation for a strong Lokpal (an
anti-corruption ombudsman) and measures to end
corruption in the country.
five-day fast in Delhi's Ramlila Grounds to protest
corruption drew huge
crowds. He was taken into preventive custody on
Monday when he led thousands of his supporters on
a march to India's parliament building. On his
release a few hours later, Ramdev addressed a
rally where he called for defeating the Congress
in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
has since headed back to his ashram (traditionally
a hermitage, nowadays a spiritual and cultural
center) in Haridwar, in the foothills of the
Himalayas, promising his supporters he will tell
them whom to vote for.
Clearly, the yoga
guru sees himself as kingmaker in the 2014
In June last year, Ramdev went
on a similar fast. Although that attempt at being
an anti-corruption crusader began with him being
courted by ministers, it ended rather badly for
him. Police raided the venue of the protest and
beat up his supporters in the dead of night.
Ramdev himself sneaked out dressed as a woman and
surrounded by his female supporters. He fled Delhi
in his private jet.
This time around, the
fast has ended with Ramdev holding the advantage.
The entire opposition has come out in his support.
On the podium with Ramdev were leaders of the
National Democratic Alliance - Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari, Janata
Dal-United (JD-U) chief Sharad Yadav, and
representatives of the Akali Dal, the Asom Gana
Parishad and the Telegu Desam Party. What is more,
such parties as the Samajwadi Party and the
Bahujan Samajwadi Party, which are not part of the
ruling coalition but support the government from
outside, were present alongside Ramdev.
Fame and fortune came to this
bushy-bearded, saffron-robed, small-time yoga
teacher in 2003, when his yoga program on the
Aastha television channel became hugely popular.
It reportedly drew about 40 million viewers daily.
Millions of Indians and foreigners flocked to his
yoga camps in India and abroad.
projects himself as an ascetic. But there is
nothing austere in his lifestyle and he is neither
spiritual nor detached from the material things of
life. He travels in a convoy of cars and jets
around, and presides over a multimillion-dollar
business empire that includes yoga centers, a
chain of pharmacies selling ayurvedic
(traditional Indian) medicines, spas, etc.
He has expressed views that are homophobic
and illiberal; corrupt officials should be hanged,
he says. His views on India's economy are silly,
if not bizarre. He wants demonetization of the
500-rupee and 1,000-rupee banknotes.
links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),
the ideological fount of the Sangh Parivar, a
family of Hindu right-wing organizations of which
the BJP is a part, were a matter of speculation in
the past. There were allegations that he had
funded some BJP candidates. Doubts on their
proximity have now been dispelled with the open
show of solidarity this week.
Barely a two
weeks ago, an anti-corruption crusade led by
activist Anna Hazare ended with a whimper when he
announced the team's disbanding. The announcement
was preceded by a fast by his team member at
Delhi's Jantar Mantar, which failed to attract
crowds. Over the past year, several members of
Hazare's team were found to be indulging in
financial irregularities themselves, depriving the
campaign of its moral sheen. Besides, the team was
reportedly divided over strategy with some members
wanting to further their political ambitions. A
section of the team has now announced plans to
play a political role. Some of these members were
seen at Ramdev's rally.
commentators in India have drawn parallels between
Ramdev and Jayaprakash Narayan (or JP, as he was
called), a socialist who galvanized India's youth
in the early 1970s against "corrupt Congress
rule". Calling for a peaceful "Total Revolution",
JP had urged them to boycott classes and paralyze
cities with strikes. A jittery government then
under prime minister Indira Gandhi declared an
Internal Emergency, the only suspension of
democracy in India's post-independence history. A
motley coalition of parties came together to
oppose the emergency, and subsequently in the 1977
elections ousted the Congress.
likened Ramdev to Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who
parted ways with another Congress prime minister,
Rajiv Gandhi, and went on to lead another campaign
against corruption, which culminated in the
Congress' defeat in the 1989 general elections.
The elections that followed the movements
by JP and Singh saw the rise of Hindu right-wing
forces. The movement JP led, for instance,
culminated not just in the Congress' defeat but in
the rise of the Jana Sangh, the BJP's forerunner.
Until the late 1970s, the Jana Sangh was a
political untouchable, the RSS's role in the
assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 having
undermined its popularity. It was the coming
together of anti-Congress forces - the Communists
joined hands with the Jana Sangh - under the
banner of the Janata Party in 1977 that gave the
Jana Sangh new respectability.
certainly no Narayan. However, his crusade against
corruption could end up reviving a tired BJP.
Lacking confidence, ideas and energy of
its own, the BJP, instead of leading the
opposition to the Congress-led government, has
lined up behind Ramdev. As the headline of an
editorial in The Hindu points out, the BJP is
"outsourcing vote-catching" to the yoga guru.
For years Ramdev has been teaching his
followers how to rejuvenate themselves by
breathing right. Now the BJP and its allies have
turned to him to breathe new life into their
But this strategy
could boomerang on the BJP. As The Hindu editorial
observes: "Although the Sangh Parivar did mobilize
numbers for Ramdev's agitation, if and when the
flag-waving movement snowballs into a major
political protest, the BJP might not be the one in
control." Indeed, Ramdev revels before the cameras
and clearly enjoys power. The wily and
street-smart yoga guru is unlikely to step back
and quietly cede the spotlight, or the steering
wheel, to the BJP.
Besides, Ramdev is
unpredictable, even a loose cannon. How long
before he starts firing in the direction of the
BJP? After all, the BJP leaders are neck-deep in
scams and scandals too.
More important, by
taking on the Congress in a head-on confrontation
Ramdev just might have shot himself in the foot.
Several agencies including the Enforcement
Directorate, which probes economic crime, are
likely to dig into his empire. He has been accused
of financial malpractices, evading tax and of
illegally grabbing land. He insists he has stolen
only people's hearts, not their money. The ED is
unlikely to be convinced.
The issue of
corruption that Ramdev is raising is legitimate.
And indeed, even an eccentric illiberal has the
right to speak up in a democracy. What is
problematic, however, is that his agitation is a
case of a pot calling the kettle black. Ramdev
lacks the moral authority to question the
corruption of India's political class.
More worrying, Ramdev is capable of
inciting crowds and raising expectations with his
rousing rhetoric. There is a strong anarchist
streak in him. His political rise does not bode
well for the future of India's democracy.
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in
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