Proxy battles

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

Baba Ramdev on a hunger strike at his ashram in Haridwar on June 8. - GURINDER OSAN/AP

Baba Ramdev on a hunger strike at his ashram in Haridwar on June 8. - GURINDER OSAN/AP

The Baba Ramdev episode deals heavy blows to the credibility of not only the Congress and the BJP but also civil society groups.

THE intervention of civil society groups in mainstream politics has acquired a qualitatively new dimension with the agitation against corruption launched by Anna Hazare in April and the follow-up to it by the self-professed spiritual guru Baba Ramdev in June. At the same time, the new dimension also threatens to undo the very benefits of the engagement. To start with, the movement has become more aggressive in a physical sense, complete with police action against civil society activists. The proclamation by Ramdev about raising a fighting force for self-defence has added to the turbulence.

Another qualitative dimension is the increasing exploitation of the so-called neutral civil society groups by the two mainstream political forces in the country the ruling Congress and the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to advance their own agendas. The exploitation is such that it could well be termed as reverse intervention. In the net political situation thrown up by these developments, the two parties and civil society groups stand to lose their credibility significantly. In this context, questions about the stark deficiencies in terms of political creativity in the leaderships of the Congress-led ruling dispensation and the BJP have come up. In fact, it was the emergence of this qualitative dimension that resulted in the turbulent night at Ramlila maidan in New Delhi on June 4-5. A little past midnight on that day, armed Delhi policemen descended on the venue where Ramdev and his supporters, who had apparently gathered there to stage a hunger strike on the issue of black money, were sleeping. The police reportedly resorted to a lathi-charge and fired tear gas shells after detaining Ramdev. The days preceding the police action were marked by secret and not-so-secret parleys between Ramdev and some senior Ministers of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, including Pranab Mukherjee and Kapil Sibal. The discussions reportedly revolved around the main demand of Ramdev, that immediate action should be taken to bring back the black money stashed away in foreign tax havens.

However, the run-up to the police action as well as the events that followed it made it more than clear that Ramdev and the senior Ministers had entered into an understanding not only about the demands but also on the question of how and when the agitation would be called off. By all indications, this understanding was not implemented in its entirety. Sibal went to the extent of stating that Ramdev had gone back on his word after giving an assurance about the withdrawal of the agitation.

This alleged backing out by Ramdev as well as the events following the night of June 4-5 have brought into focus the possible penetration by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, including its political arm the BJP, into the yoga guru's organisation, the Bharat Swabhiman Trust, and his agitations.

According to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the Centre is convinced that this is part of a well-planned subversive move by the Sangh Parivar. A statement issued by him pointed out that the government had taken note of the resolution passed by the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha of the RSS on March 10-13 at Puttur in Karnataka declaring the formation of an Anti-Corruption Front with Baba Ramdev as its patron and former BJP leader K.N. Govindacharya as its convener. Chidambaram also pointed out that the RSS affiliate, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), had decided on May 12 to float an organisation called Youth against Corruption to coordinate with Ramdev. Chidambaram also stated that a circular was issued on May 20 by Suresh Joshi of the RSS to all swayamsewaks (volunteers) to render all possible cooperation to Ramdev's campaign. Similar instructions were issued on May 28 by Ashok Singhal, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), another affiliate of the Sangh Parivar.

The developments following the midnight swoop on the Ramlila grounds, particularly the manner in which Ramdev reached Haridwar (Uttarakhand) and continued his agitation there, has somewhat corroborated the Home Minister's observations. The Sangh Parivar has been the most important source of support for the yoga guru. So much so that the top leadership of the BJP, including the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, made prominent appearances at the venue of his hunger strike against corruption.

According to a section of the Congress leadership, including party general secretary Digvijay Singh, who has run a sustained campaign against the yoga guru, his activities and his organisation, all this is part of the long- and medium-term efforts that the Sangh Parivar has made to build up a civil society platform against the Congress and its allies. The Sangh Parivar has been at this for quite some time and they have used different faces and different organisations to advance this strategy. Why they are doing this is anybody's guess. In all probability they are convinced that their own political outfit, the BJP, has lost all political and moral credentials to advance an anti-corruption struggle of this sort, Digvijay Singh said. Incidentally, he had raised doubts about Anna Hazare's credentials too, when the Gandhian staged a fast against corruption in April.

Whatever may be the final verdict on Digvijay Singh's observations, there is little doubt that the Sangh Parivar, particularly the BJP under its current president Nitin Gadkari, has made systematic efforts to reach out to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in various spheres of social and cultural life ranging from anti-corruption campaigns to environmental awareness drives to swadeshi promotion to abolition of caste inequities. In fact, a number of Sangh Parivar observers had cited these enhanced activities involving NGOs and pointed out in the past few months that this could well be the new political-organisational thrust of the Sangh Parivar, especially in the context of its failure to fulfil its political role as the principal opposition. This assessment gained greater credence in the face of the BJP's repeated failures to highlight and corner the Congress-led UPA government on the several corruption and misappropriation scams in the past two years. Even during the Anna Hazare-led agitation, many politicians and observers had pointed to the large presence of Sangh Parivar activists in the day-to-day management of the agitation.

Interestingly, sections of the ultra-Hindutva groups also affirm that Ramdev's agitation was essentially a proxy social and political battle fought by the Sangh Parivar leadership. Comments that have come from the ultra-Hindutva web group the United Hindu Front essentially mean that the RSS mindlessly gave its entire cadre strength, middle-level leaders, etc. for the bogus movement of Anna Hazare and that when RSS-BJP realised that they were totally used and thrown, they retaliated with the Baba popularity card, and the galvanisation was stupendous. But, a commentator adds, the man [Baba Ramdev] was not up to the task, and it was obvious that the government was up to no good.

Comments on the webpage also assert that the RSS made a mistake when it deputed the firebrand Hindutva sanyasin Sadhvi Rithambara to the venue of Ramdev's agitation for it impelled many people, particularly the secular supporters of the anti-corruption agitation, to move away from the movement.

All these corroborate the contention of Digvijay Singh. On its part, however, the leadership of the Sangh Parivar has pointed out that it is the Congress that has consistently sought to rope in NGOs and social activists associated with these groups to advance its political aims. According to BJP leader Rajnath Singh, the UPA under its current chairperson Sonia Gandhi has literally outsourced all thinking and law-making on major policy issues to an elite group, which has been incorporated into the National Advisory Council (NAC).

It is through this mechanism that Sonia Gandhi wields her illegitimate status as a super-Prime Minister, thus usurping the power and authority of legitimate constitutional position-holders and institutions, he said. He added that a number of veteran political observers had pointed out that the idea of putting a non-governmental watch over your own government undermines the very idea of elected, constitutional democracy.

Another BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, pointed out that the Congress and the UPA government had sought to play politics even with Ramdev. The manner in which four senior Ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee, the number two in the Cabinet, went to the airport to receive Baba Ramdev and engaged him in dialogue was a clear effort to create divisions in the ranks of the civil society groups that had come together during the Anna Hazare-led agitation. The idea was to prop up Baba Ramdev against others in civil society groups. But this game plan failed to take off, he pointed out.

Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, there is little doubt that the UPA government made a spectacle of itself by first sending a high-level delegation to negotiate with Baba Ramdev and later cracking down on him and his supporters. Whatever the later justification for this, the contradictory actions highlighted the total lack of political creativity in the Congress and the UPA. A senior South Indian Congress leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stated ruefully that Pranab Mukherjee was the only remaining political mind in the top echelons of the party and he too was faltering and seemed to be losing his touch under the double duress of the apolitical leadership provided by Manmohan Singh to the government and Sonia Gandhi to the party.

In a nutshell, the events of early June underscored the lack of political vision on the part of mainstream parties and the absence of creative socio-political intervention by them. The events have also dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of civil society groups, which were thought to uphold probity in public life.

Clearly, these are interesting times, as the Chinese would say.

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