Frontline Special

Politics of divine intervention

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Indira Gandhi. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Dhirendra Brahmachari.

Sathya Sai Baba. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

P.V. Narasimha Rao. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Chandraswami. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A.B. Vajpayee. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ramchandra Paramhans . Photo: AP

Mahant Nritya Gopal Das. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, shares a light moment with Baba Ramdev during an award function in Ahmedabad in July 2012. Photo: PTI

Godmen have always enjoyed political patronage in independent India but the nefarious connection has reached its nadir with the BJP-led government using the association for mutual benefit.

ONE of the proposals that came up when the M.N. Venkatachaliah Commission on Constitutional Review was set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2000 was to include “spiritualism” in the preamble of the Constitution. Although the stated premise for the proposal, made by a group of Hindu sanyasins of Karnataka, was that this “would help arrest moral degradation in society”, its larger political import became part of the discussions among observers of the Commission. It was pointed out during the discussions that the acceptance of the proposal could impart a kind of legitimacy to the relationship and association that the political class, especially those who have attained positions of power, have with the so-called spiritual gurus. Perhaps realising the dangers awarding such legitimacy would pose to the fundamental tenets of the Constitution, the proposal did not become part of the recommendations of the Commission. However, it did bring into focus the nexus between spiritual leaders and the political leadership that has existed in different forms in independent India.

This association has had a qualitative evolution, mirroring the country’s larger political course in some ways. It is a trajectory that has progressively reflected the twin issues of corruption and decadence. In the early years of Independence, the relationships between the political class and spiritual leaders were marked by intellectual and progress-oriented discourses. These were gradually replaced by vested interests to promote the pursuit of power and wealth employing any abject means. This trajectory is also represented by a number of key associations between individual political leaders and spiritual practitioners. In many ways, these individual associations also depict the shift in the larger political course, including in terms of political economy. Consider these associations: Jawaharlal Nehru with Swami Agehananda Bharati and Swami Akshay Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi with Dhirendra Brahmachari, P.V. Narasimha Rao with Chandraswami, Vajpayee and L.K. Advani with Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans and Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Narendra Modi with Baba Ramdev, Asaram Bapu and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. The gradation is revealing at multiple levels, but primarily at the levels of integrity and quality.

In the course of a long interaction with this writer in the 1990s, Swami Akshay Brahmachari, freedom fighter and founder of the Satya Ashram in Uttar Pradesh, spoke about the degeneration in the “Indian league of politics and divinity” . He drew on his personal experience as well as his observations to underscore this decline. He believed that Mahatma Gandhi was more a spiritual practitioner than a politician despite his apparent involvement in political matters. This belief led Akshay Brahmachari to join the freedom struggle and active politics. A proponent of Vedanta and Gandhism right from his teenage, he was an active participant in the political and organisational affairs of the Congress. He would often paraphrase Bengali writer Abu Sayeed Ayyub’s description that “Nehru was a social engineer, and Gandhi a spiritual healer”, adding that he sought to imbibe both the personalities into his own self. In both these roles his main area of operation, geographically, was the Lucknow-Barabanki-Faizabad-Ayodhya region while at the conceptual level, he steadfastly maintained that secularism and communal harmony were the guiding principles of both Vedanta and Gandhism. He sought to advance his teachings and practice of Vedanta from the Satya Ashram, which he set up at Chinhat between Lucknow and Barabanki. He was elected secretary of the Faizabad District Congress Committee when he was in his 30s and a member of the Provincial Congress Committee of Uttar Pradesh later.

As a member of the Provincial Congress Committee he took a firm stand against the surreptitious installation of the idol of Rama inside in the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1949 by Hindutva elements led by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sangh Parivar. He cautioned the Union government, including Nehru and his Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, that this was nothing but a criminal incursion that sought to advance a heinous Hindutva communalisation project by terrorising the Muslim minority community. Akshay Brahmachari followed up these statements made through letters and memoranda with mass mobilisation and agitation highlighting the need to protect social harmony and the rights of the minority communities. Nehru completely agreed with Akshay Brahmachari and supported his actions although sections of the ruling Congress in Ayodhya and other parts of Uttar Pradesh were hand in glove with the Hindutva communalists. Akshay Brahmachari persisted with his spirited opposition to Hindutva communalism until his death in 2010.

This writer had several interactions with Akshay Brahmachari through the 1990s and the 2000s. During one such interaction in 1998, immediately after the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre, Akshay Brahmachari talked at length about the “Indian league of politics and divinity”. He recalled that Nehru, a self-professed agnostic, had described himself as “religious, but not of the temple going type”, and said Nehru’s close association with several spiritual practitioners, including himself and Agehananda Bharati, was a clear testimony to this. “Panditji maintained a steady dialogue with spiritual practitioners of different denominations. While the communication with those like Agehananda Bharati—an Austrian Hindu monk belonging to the Dasanami Sanyasi order and a reputed academic—was essentially at the level of intellectual discourses on subjects ranging from interpretations of Vedanta, materialism and secularism. With those like me, who had a wider connect to the grassroots, he dwelt on direct social and political issues. All these interactions were solemn and purposive and were guided by the fundamental stimulus of evolving a better, harmonious and progressive India.”

Akshay Brahmachari even made a comparison between the spiritual leaders in Nehru’s fraternity and those close to Vajpayee and Advani in 1998. “The so-called spiritual leaders these people are in cohorts with, the ones such as Mahant Ramchandra Paramahans and Nritya Gopal Das, are certified lumpens as per the police records of Ayodhya and Faizabad. There are dozens of cases against them with such grave charges as land grabbing and attempt to murder. Ramchandra Paramahans openly boasts that he had a hand in the smuggling of the idol of Rama into the Babri Masjid, which is evidently a criminal act. Yet, he is accorded an important place even in meetings attended by Vajpayee and Advani. Just as Nehru’s fraternity with spiritual practitioners signified a virtuous acme, the band leaders such as Vajpayee and Advani have put together mark a nadir of nefariousness.”

Akshay Brahmachari, a Gandhian who wanted to assimilate the qualities of the “spiritual healer and the social engineer” in his personality, did admit during the course of the discussions on that day that Nehru’s successors, including his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister for approximately 15 years over three terms, and P.V. Narasimha Rao (Prime Minister in the 1991-96 period), had paved the way for the “nadir of nefariousness that he perceived during the 1998 regime”. The notorious proximity that Dhirendra Brahmachari had with Indira Gandhi and the equally controversial association Narasimha Rao had with Chandraswami were evidently exiguous in terms of spiritual and intellectual value or social significance. The relationship both these Prime Ministers had with the super-rich Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (Andhra Pradesh) was also similarly bereft of spiritual eminence. Sai Baba’s self-aggrandisement propaganda was such that he ascribed to himself the title of God the Creator of the Entire Universe. Both these leaders ignored the accusations of serial sexual abuses against him. Indeed, a far cry from the relationship Nehru had with Swami Agehananda Bharati and Akshay Brahmachari. Like the leaders of the Sangh Parivar, these Congress Prime Ministers, too, employed their godmen associates to strategise for elections, harm their political opponents and, more importantly, strengthen their financial power by advancing questionable patronage regime deals.

Narendra Modi, who would follow Vajpayee and Advani to power, did not figure in Akshay Brahamachari’s comparative analysis that day. That was because Modi was still not a big-time player in the BJP at that time and his connections with godmen such as Asaram Bapu—who along with his son Narayan Sai would be later charged with serial rapes of followers and their relatives—had not been widely noticed. However, there is little doubt that under Modi’s regime, both at the Centre and in the State of Gujarat before that, self-anointed godmen and godwomen got freedom and patronage to operate in whatever manner they wanted. Many of those who had the support of the person in power indulged in a spree of criminal activities and the “nadir of nefariousness” sunk to unprecedented depths. Asaram Bapu is a clear case in point. Right from the time he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has been a regular patron of Asaram Bapu and his veneration of the con guru has been recorded ever so many times. Modi’s association with Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the jailed Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda leader, is well recorded and lays bare a politician’s ingratiation to seek electoral support.

Business interests

Beyond the more and more palpable criminality of the so-called spiritual leaders, which is getting repeatedly exposed through a combination of factors, including disillusioned followers who have made bold to stand up to the con gurus, the support they have received from sections of the media and the dispassionate adjudication of some cases relating to criminal activities of the spiritual pretenders, the substantive financial empires built by almost all of them also stand out. This amassment of wealth is undoubtedly facilitated by the proximity to political leadership of all hues. This is a phenomenon that had been noticed right from the time of the Indira Gandhi-Dhirendra Brahmachari association. The business interest of Dhirendra Brahmachari, the self-professed “yoga guru and world peace promoter”, was of all things, in setting up a gun factory. Investigations in the 1980s had pointed to serious irregularities in the functioning of the Shiva Gun Factory set up by Dhirendra Brahmachari in Jammu. It was alleged at that time that the gun barrels used for manufacture in the Jammu factory were imported illegally.

Chandraswami, too, had connections with arms dealers such as Adnan Khashoggi. But the biggest case against him was the St Kitts affair. He, along with his associate Kailash Nath Aggarwal alias Mamaji, Narasimha Rao and former Union Minister K.K. Tewari, was accused of forging documents to implicate Ajeya Singh, son of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh. The documents allegedly forged by Chandraswami sought to prove that Ajeya Singh had opened a bank account in First Trust Corporation Bank in St Kitts and deposited $21 million. Chandraswami was acquitted in the case in 2004 for lack of evidence. But the controversies over the political conspiracies he hatched and his collusion with the Narasimha Rao regime to expand his own business interests as well as that of his friends and associates remained in focus for decades.

While the benefits Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandraswami reaped from their Congress connections are legendary, the patronage regime that developed under the BJP governments of Vajpayee and Modi was much bigger, in terms of the scale and quantum of money involved. These BJP governments also patronised a number of self-anointed godmen and godwomen. The Modi regime, in particular, extended its promotion of crony capitalism into the realm of godmen entrepreneurship. If Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani are Modi’s favourites in the conventional business sector, Baba Ramdev, who had converted his yoga shivirs (yoga summits) into political platforms for Modi and the BJP, is undoubtedly the Prime Minister’s most preferred godman entrepreneur. The rise of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali empire in a short span of three years is an affirmation of this. Baba Ramdev’s transformation from being a yoga guru to India’s biggest fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) operator, who produces everything from soaps to noodles to energy boosters, is amazing. Patanjali’s turnover for 2016-17 was Rs.10,561 crore. According to Baba Ramdev, Patanjali’s growth is expected to double by next year. He was confident that “Patanjali would be in the leading position, and in most product categories it would be number one”. To achieve this, several Patanjali centres have enhanced their target for production. Mega production units in Noida (Uttar Pradesh), Nagpur (Maharashtra) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) are being set up to manufacture goods worth Rs.60,000 crore.

Along with stories of political patronage that is facilitating all this, there are also allegations of illegal operations in these centres and suppression of those who have sought to expose this. Investigations into charges against Asaram revealed massive questionable financial dealings. Estimates are that the financial empire built up through illegal transactions could be valued at around Rs.10,000 crore. Asaram’s operations included the racket of black money cash loans, property trading and even investments in foreign companies in blatant violation of FEMA regulations. It was also estimated that the lending racket of black money cash loans involved around Rs.1,600 crore and the investments in foreign companies violating FEMA regulations is to the tune of Rs.1,500 crore.

Evidently, the crime graph of the self-anointed spiritual leaders is becoming starker. The usual crime stories of dacoity, land grab and rape are being supplemented with documentation of financial crimes too. This trajectory mirrors the larger parameters of the country’s political economy, especially the way it has developed since the early 1990s since globalisation.

This qualitative dimension has yet another eerie similarity with the power acquirement narrative of the current dispensation. After all, Modi’s emergence into the world of power, along with his close associate Amit Shah, who is the BJP president, was in the background of one of the most criminal minority genocides in world history.