Spell of India's 'godmen'

Dawn.com, India/June 7, 2011

India has been witnessing an extraordinary, some would say laughable, spectacle in recent days: A so-called holy man, one Baba Ramdev, has been holding the country to ransom. He first threatened to go on a hunger fast unto death unless the Indian government conceded his demands which centre around corruption and black money.

However, after the first day of his fast, when over 100,000 of his supporters had gathered in one of the largest grounds of the capital, late Saturday night the police swooped down on a sleeping Ramdev and forcibly took him on a plane to his ashram in Haridwar, a city close to Delhi. In the scuffle, several people were injured.

The government has justified its action by indirectly saying that it feared a law and order problem if Ramdev had been allowed to continue his fast. But few buy that argument. The truth of the matter is that he has somehow managed to occupy centre stage and become a political threat to the government, while touching a deep chord in the psyche of many Indians.

He has also got the government scared witless. Last Wednesday, when he landed in New Delhi in his private jet, the red carpet was laid out for him, with no less than four cabinet ministers, along with the cabinet secretary - the senior-most civil servant - there to greet him with folded hands. It was an unbelievable sight. Even a visiting head of state does not get such a high-powered welcome. After that, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, and Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal, both of whom are considered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's main troubleshooters, held talks with Ramdev, trying to persuade him to call off his fast. The talks clearly failed, leading to the police action against him.

We are bound to hear much more of this strange man and it will be interesting to watch how the ruling Congress counters the political ramifications of his movement. The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its religious Hindu orientation, probably sees Ramdev as a natural ally. So, it has smartly latched on to him. Ramdev, in turn, has made no secret of his political ambitions. He says that he will put up a candidate in each parliamentary constituency in the next general election. An alliance between the BJP and him could pose a formidable challenge to the Congress.

Who exactly is this man and how has he become so popular?

A school dropout from a small town in the north Indian state of Haryana, he claims that yoga cured him of a paralytic attack when he was a youngster. In fact, yoga has been his pathway to success, as well as to riches. His TV yoga programme has millions of viewers and the herbal indigenous medicines he peddles bring in crores in revenue. His declared assets total over a mind-boggling Rs1,100 crore. He also has a private jet and an island in Scotland (donated to him by a Scottish devotee couple). A sadhu with so much money, an island and his own jet? question his detractors. Isn't that a damning contradiction in terms? No matter, he has millions of devoted, unquestioning followers, for whom he can do no wrong.

But what has brought him into the political limelight is the ongoing campaign among India's civil society against corruption.

This was initially started by the Gandhian Anna Hazare and attracted a huge groundswell of support, fuelled by a number of scams, in housing projects, the Commonwealth Games of last year, and the granting of telecommunication licences. The government was taken by surprise and furiously back-pedalled: Some of the most prominent scamsters are now in jail, awaiting trial. The Indian public, however, is not satisfied. And Ramdev has cleverly exploited this dissatisfaction and been able to occupy important political space.

On the corruption issue, he has zeroed in on the billions of dollars that Indian politicians and businessmen, have illegally stashed abroad. He has demanded that the government take steps to bring the money back and punish the guilty. Though the Indian authorities admit that illegal money is, indeed, being kept in foreign banks by Indians, they have been slow in trying to get it back and in disclosing the names of the account holders. The suspicion is that these names include Congress politicians and businessmen close to the ruling party, hence the reluctance to come clean. 'Black' money has clearly become a hot potato for the Indian government.

However, yoga and the corruption issue do not entirely explain the popularity of Ramdev. Somehow, godmen occupy an exalted place in the minds of the Indian public, though many of them have been exposed as charlatans. Perhaps no other major society in the world has such a variety of outlandish - and thriving - swamis, gurus, yogis, babas, acharyas, bhagwans, astrologers, palmists, numerologists, faith healers as India does. The most successful of them all, the fuzzy-haired Satya Sai Baba, with a financial empire far larger than Ramdev's, died recently.

Frauds or not, while India moves ahead technologically and economically at a rapid pace, the Indian public somehow also remains transfixed by the sight of a bearded and saffron-robed man who belongs to the Middle Ages. The rest of the world can only look on at this paradox in wonder - and smile. For the Indian government, however, it is no laughing matter.

The writer is a former editor of the Reader's Digest and the Indian Express.

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