Beware, this Baba is no Saint

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Prem Shankar Jha

Prem Shankar Jha says Baba Ramdev’s high-voltage agitation against corruption is designed to kill political reform instead of promoting it

THE GOVERNMENT has been roundly criticised for first having cosseted Baba Ramdev and then arrested him. The police action has been compared to the Emergency. It is only a matter of time before someone labels the midnight descent upon the Ramlila Maidan as India’s Tiananmen moment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Photo: Reuters

Two months ago, Anna Hazare won the greatest battle for democracy that the country has seen. But Ramdev was throwing away all the concessions he had wrested from the State. He did this by raising the demands for ‘reform’ till they became impossible for even the most reformist government to accept. He was taking his cue from the more radical of the activists who surrounded Hazare. But unlike them, he hadn’t stepped onto the battlefield to win but to lose.

Ramdev’s predecessors had already jeopardised the success of the joint panel on the Lokpal Bill by insisting that it should have the power to probe and, if necessary, indict not only MPs, ministers and bureaucrats, but the prime minister and Supreme Court judges as well. Only those who know nothing about the way democracy functions could have made such a demand, for if conceded it will make the legislature, the executive and the judiciary subordinate to an unelected body, ironically appointed by the prime minister himself.

Neither the radicals nor Ramdev remembered Lord Acton’s immortal observation: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nor did they stop to ask “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who will police the policeman?) Their casual disregard for these crucial questions shows that their purpose is not reform but confrontation, not the purging of our democracy, but its destruction.

Ramdev went several steps beyond the activists. He not only demanded that the government bring back all the black money lying abroad, but also amend the penal code to make it possible to sentence those convicted of corruption to death. Once again, he seemed not to know, or not to care, that unearthing the black money would require the cooperation of a dozen governments and foreign banks to give up the names of their depositors. Congress leaders did their best to make him understand that the most the government could do was change its laws and seek the cooperation of foreign governments. But he was in no mood to compromise.

As for his demand for the death sentence for corrupt persons, directions for the prime minister and the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 notes, these reflect a combination of ignorance and authoritarianism that makes the blood run cold.

Ramdev’s agitation is different from Hazare’s. His motivation is political, not civil. It is designed to heighten conflict not end it. And it is designed to kill political reform instead of promoting it. Ramdev is no Hazare. Hazare went back to his village after leaving the army, instilled self-confidence and self-reliance in his people, unleashed their creative energies, and ended poverty in a manner that has become the envy of the developing world. Ramdev is a yoga guru with a worldwide following, who has made billions and invested them in more than 200 industrial and yoga training enterprises. He is a modern entrepreneur in an unusual field.

Hazare has made no money from the economic success of his village, and lives a life of Gandhian simplicity. Ramdev’s personal life too seems to be simple, but there is little transparency in the way that his organisations spend his money and what part of it, if any, comes to him. Finally, it is apparent that Ramdev is driven not by a concern for society but political ambition, for he is clearly working in collusion with the BJP. He climbed somewhat belatedly upon Hazare’s bandwagon when it became clear that he had touched the deepest chord of dissatisfaction in the people. He did so even then at the behest of the BJP, which was miffed at having been sidelined after having actively assisted Hazare’s struggle.

The reform of India’s corrupt and criminalised democracy is too serious a matter to be turned into a political football. Therefore, the government deserves praise, not criticism, for the way it has handled the agitation. It has shown Ramdev every courtesy, listened to his every demand patiently and gone the extra mile in trying to meet them. Only after failing has it decided that he has to be stopped. But this has made it all the more necessary to push ahead with political reform, preferably with Hazare and his colleagues, but without them if necessary.

premjha@airtelmail.in

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