A Government and a Yogi Face Off: World View

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Two important Indian entities, one individual and the other corporate, hit a rough patch last week. The first is Baba Ramdev, a prominent yoga guru with millions of followers.

The second is the Indian government, which at its lowest moment in the crisis appeared to have the support of no one but the members of its parliamentary majority.  The two produced a spectacle -- some would say a farce -- that riveted the country, along with a story so rich in rhetoric and incident that it seems almost criminal to sketch it out in just a few paragraphs.

The Baba, a voluble, charismatic, long-haired, saffron-robe-clad figure in his 50s, has been a national figure for at least a decade because of his work as a tele-yogist on the spiritual television channel Aastha. Earlier this year, he achieved a new level of fame by entering the national battle against corruption and political malfeasance. By general consensus, this has become the most pressing question in Indian democracy over the last year, following the revelation of several scams inside the  government resulting in a loss to the public exchequer of billions of rupees,.

 The Baba, whose own vast empire has  annual revenue  of almost $250 million and whose bases include a small island in Scotland bought for him by two of his followers, put his own particular spin on the matter, saying that if all "black money" were to be confiscated and returned to the public coffers, "our economy will be so huge, our currency will be so strong that our one rupee will be equal to $50" -- an idea with great romantic appeal in a country that is beginning to think of itself as a world power.

The government was already embarrassed in April, when the social activist Anna Hazare began a fast unto death -- a concept with a particular resonance in Indian politics because of its use by Mahatma Gandhi against the British Raj -- on the issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill, a proposed law that would create an independent agency in the central government and in each state with authority to investigate corruption . So it had reason to be worried when the Baba demanded some action on the issue of black money and made several other demands (such as the application of the death penalty for those convicted of corruption) in a letter to the government in May. The missive, while full of slapdash logic and contorted syntax, is worth quoting at length:

We fully agree with the honorable prime minister who has previously accepted many times publicly that corruption is the biggest hurdle in the growth of the nation, and it is the root cause of poverty, hunger, paucity, illiteracy and Naxalites, etc....Today China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is Rs.265 trillion and her external debt is only Rs.18.3. trillions with a public debt of merely Rs.46 trillion, whereas the GDP of Bharat [India] is only Rs.69 trillion. Economically China is five (5) times stronger than Bharat and due to her strong economy and modern military power China can attack India anytime which she has indicated many times in the past; so if we succeed in eliminating corruption and bringing back black money then we will be five (5) times stronger than China. Therefore, to save this nation and make her prosperous we ought to eliminate corruption at any cost and if we do not hear any positive response to our demands within a week then in the interest of the nation we will be compelled to resort to this sit-in hunger strike.

So, when Ramdev arrived in Delhi on June 2 with plans to begin his own fast unto death two days later, the government decided to act preemptively by engaging with the yogi. In a widely criticized move, it sent a delegation of four Cabinet officials, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, to the Delhi airport to " 'explain and convince' Ramdev of the steps taken to flush out black money and end corruption and, in the process, persuade him to call off his proposed fast."

Ramdev hedged for a while, apparently agreeing at another private meeting with the government the next day to call off his protest after a symbolic duration of one day: Saturday, June 4. But when  his fast, attended by about 50,000 supporters at New Delhi's Ramlila Grounds, showed no signs of coming to an end the next day, the government, in another widely criticized move, sent in the police to clear the grounds morning and dispel Ramdev's congregation with tear gas and sticks.

 The result, unsurprisingly, was pandemonium, with many of the Baba's supporters complaining of having been beaten. Ramdev's response was not without an element of farce. Having disappeared among his followers, he briefly went missing, and was detained by the police close to dawn as he was trying to make his escape dressed as a woman, with a cloth wrapped around his beard. He was flown to Dehradun, and the next day reappeared at the site of his yoga trust in Haridwar, where he gave his own version of events, said he would bring claims of police brutality to the courts, and vowed to carry on his crusade.

Ferocious mudslinging from every interested party ensued. The Congress Party accused Ramdev of being a fraud, and alleged that his crusade was being "remote-controlled" by the main opposition party, the BJP, and its parent body, the RSS. The BJP was guilty of rhetorical excesses of its own in comparing the crackdown to the Emergency of 1975. Of all the responses, some of which can be read here, perhaps the most cogent reaction came from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which said,  "Clearly the backstage deal between the government and Ramdev fell apart, but this brings little credit to either party and indeed raises question about the credibility of both."

The responses in the Indian media to this ugly episode were predictably sharp. Writing in the Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan observed that "sending four senior ministers to the airport to welcome the yoga instructor-turned-upstart politician and then hundreds of policemen to extern him were both acts of gutlessness which the Congress party will find hard to live down." The Baba also came in for criticism:

Everybody...agrees that corruption is a serious issue and that all efforts must be made to end the curse of black money. But it is meaningless and even nonsensical to demand the framing of a new law to confiscate black money when we do not know where this money is, how much it consists of and who it belongs to. If the authorities had this information, they would be legally empowered to seize the funds and place their owners behind bars. But the passage of a new law will not make the gathering of this information any easier. Either the Baba is not a very serious person or he has allowed emotion and his broader political ambitions to cloud his judgment.

The editor of Open magazine, Manu Joseph, mocked Ramdev's pretensions and also those of the wider middle-class anti-corruption movement at large, saying:

That such a man now represents the anti-corruption movement is the worst thing that could happen to the movement and lays bare the fact that television revolutions that excite the politically impotent middle-class, which was what the Hazare farce was all about, are exaggerated momentary triumphs. The government may be scared of Ramdev and of what the media would do with his revolution, but the nervousness of elected leaders does not necessarily always mean a victory for the people.

It is interesting to note that the middle-class hysteria that followed Hazare’s fast did not affect states like Kerala and Bengal much. The degree of involvement with the apparent revolt was significantly less. That is because the educated population in those states is very much a part of the mainstream political process. They vote, they attend political rallies. So they had no need for Hazare’s fast. They know that in a democracy, the most intelligent and meaningful mass movement remains elections… But outside those states, in the metros, the middle-class behaved like amateur citizens -- they got excited by the idea that they can circumvent the political process to reform the nation. As the self-destruction of the nascent anti-corruption movement shows, it was a naïve notion.

In a piece entitled "Political Leaders Go AWOL" in the Indian Express, the columnist Tavleen Singh was harsh on the government and drew attention to its lack of connection with the governed:

When political leaders fail to lead, you get Baba Ramdev. We have three political leaders at the head of our present government. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh. All three vanish when there is a political challenge. This is what happened again last week when Baba Ramdev made his first political speech in Delhi. I listened carefully. And, discovered that his economic ideas are nonsense, his statistics fantastical, but politically he is raising issues that our political leaders have failed to address. He talked not just about corruption and black money but of a long list of other things. Like the need to make it possible for students of engineering and medicine to study in Indian languages to give rural Indians a fair chance. Like the need to do something to enhance the incomes of farmers. He pointed out that while farmers are driven to suicide by desperate poverty, peons make Rs 15,000 a month. He spoke for that vast majority of Indians who have not benefited from the economic boom of the past twenty years but who can see on their television screens that others have.

It is ridiculous to assume that those who have are only those who have black money in foreign bank accounts but it is an assumption that many Indians make. This is because no political leader has dared lead from the front when it comes to explaining why the economic reforms became necessary or the prosperity they have brought. Not even the Prime Minister, who was the architect of these reforms, has dared to defend them, so people like Baba Ramdev can easily take the lead.

Meanwhile, the civil-society representatives on the committee for the Jan Lokpal Bill boycotted a scheduled meeting with the government to protest the raid on Ramdev. The Hindustan Times reported that the government had begun an investigation into Ramdev's assets:

While Baba Ramdev is leading a nationwide movement against corruption in austere outfits and with earthy idioms, his key aide Acharya Balakrishna — often seen huddled with the yoga guru — controls a huge business empire of 34 companies, all incorporated between 2006 and 2011.

Some good sense may eventually emerge from this churning, but you shouldn't hold your breath. Or maybe you should:   Ramdev says it's good for you.

(Chandrahas Choudhury is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net