The fast & the furious

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The Anna Hazare-Ramdev campaign against corruption has queered the political pitch. Revati Laul tries to make sense of the claims and counter-claims of this national drama

Sleeping over it Baba Ramdev rests during his protest fast in Haridwar, a day after the Delhi fiasco
Sleeping over it Baba Ramdev rests during his protest fast in Haridwar, a day after the Delhi fiasco
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

ON A punishingly hot afternoon, after addressing a crowd of over 20,000 followers, Baba Ramdev tried to make his way back from Jalgaon to Aurangabad in Maharashtra. But his car was abruptly halted over and over again, as news travelled across the highway that Ramdev was passing through. A sea of people emerged out of nowhere… encircling the car, pressing their faces against its windows and bonnet. Forcing Ramdev to stop, clamber onto the roof like a rock star and wave. He threw his head back into a characteristic laugh, then used the opportunity to remind his captive audience of the task before them. “4 June… you know what to do on that day?”

“Yes! Yes Yes!” echoed the dizzy crowds in unison.

And then Ramdev would edge himself back into the car, remarking to his aides. “It’s going to be madness on 4 June when we begin our satyagraha.” Of course, he had no idea then just how disturbingly true that was going to be.

But even during that four-hour car ride in early May, Ramdev was absolutely clear what his fast was all about. It wasn’t just about black money or corruption. It was mostly a show of strength. Pulling out the biggest weapon in his arsenal: a devoted following of two crore people.

By now there’s a surfeit of stories of Ramdev’s mysterious yoga empire and swirling dark clouds around its unexplained financial edifice. There’s also a surfeit of charges and counter-charges being beamed out to a billion television sets, where politicians on both sides of the box engage in a political slugfest over who is the rightful champion of the anti-corruption movement. What needs to be unmasked is the doublespeak on both sides of the political divide and indeed in Baba Ramdev’s camp. The lies being told to capitalise on Ramdev’s two-crore audience. The truth about an increasingly indignant population with no place to go. And just what the storm over corruption, from Anna Hazare to Baba Ramdev, has actually thrown up so far.

First, the lies.

Anyone watching Baba Ramdev on television can see the half-truths and lies his discourse is peppered with. For instance, after an invigorating yoga session, a woman in the crowd described the life-altering impact Ramdev had on her life. Clutching triumphantly at her child, she said she had polycystic ovaries and couldn’t conceive for nearly eight years. Then she took up yoga. Ramdev leapt out of his seat and declared to the crowd how polycystic ovaries is a very serious, alarming medical condition for which there is no cure in medical science. Lies. Ask any gynaecologist and she will tell you how common this is in women today, and it is indeed treatable.

When his letter was brandished before the media, the smiling yoga guru turned aggressive. Ramdev claimed he was forced and duped into signing that letter. Lies

THE SAME half-truths also run through the Baba’s political discourse as he made rousing speeches about bringing back black money stashed in tax havens abroad. The easy math he was handing out for popular consumption was this: “ 400 lakh crore is the amount of black money in foreign banks and tax havens. If all of it comes back, it will add up to 60,000 crore for each district in the country, or 100 crore for every village.”

Nothing wrong so far, but then TEHELKA asked him, “If the system is so corrupt, what prevents the black money, once brought back, from being siphoned off again? How will these crores ever reach the people?” In other words, what is he proposing to really get rid of corruption… bringing black money back doesn’t do that.

“For that,” Ramdev told us (‘Why Am I Seen as Being Close to the Sangh’, 4 June) “the biggest solution is to get up and do your yoga in the morning. And meditate. If a person works every day on his body and mind, that person’s body and mind will be so pure that he will not want to cause harm to another being. Improving the spiritual quotient of society is the best way to reform it.”

For Ramdev fans, joining these dots wasn’t important. Their guru was making a legitimate demand and they were backing him, one hundred percent.

In fact, two days before the satyagraha was to begin, his fans had already started arriving at the Ramlila Maidan. Some even began their fast a day earlier. Among them was 97-year-old Jagjivan Choksi from Mehsana, Gujarat, whose birthday it was on 4 June. He decided to celebrate by fasting with his guru. Unaware of the fact that his guru had already struck a deal with the government, for which a letter signed by his close aide Balkrishna, is now testament. A letter where Ramdev says in black and white — yes, the government has already agreed to all my demands, so I will go on a two-day tapp or meditation on 4-6 June. A deal that Ramdev did not reveal to the more than one lakh devotees gathered at the Ramlila Maidan.

When his letter was brandished before the media, the smiling yoga guru turned aggressive. Ramdev claimed he was forced and duped into signing that letter. Lies

And so, when the government, on the evening of 4 June, nailed his lie and brandished this letter before the media, the smiling yoga guru donned a visibly aggressive avatar — eyes bloodshot, face gnarled in a twist. He claimed he was forced and duped into signing that letter. Lies.

But Ramdev wasn’t the only liar in this story. The UPA government, having sent in four of its most prominent ministers to the airport to receive Ramdev, and spend two days negotiating his terms and conditions, suddenly and schizophrenically did a complete volte face.

The gang of four, whose most visible face was Education and IT Minister Kapil Sibal, went from a defensive, combative stance before the media, to a preening confidence and self-righteousness, as talks with the Baba got them nowhere. They claimed the Baba didn’t have permission for a political rally, that he didn’t have clearance to gather so many people.

And the lies got more and more blatant as the truth emerged on 5 June about the violent midnight crackdown. Rajbala, a yoga teacher from Haryana is lying strapped to catheters at the LNJPHospital, after her cervical bone was smashed, leaving her paralysed in all four limbs. Sunil Kumar with his blood-stained bandages and a skull fracture wanted to talk to TEHELKA about the horror he witnessed, claiming most exit routes were blocked by the police. He had nowhere to run.

All the PM’s men Congress leaders Bansal and Sibal at the Delhi airport
All the PM’s men Congress leaders Bansal and Sibal at the Delhi airport
Photo: Indian Express Archive

Yet, Kapil Sibal’s initial statement on behalf of his government the morning after justified the police action, saying he didn’t know of any police brutality, that it was Ramdev who was wrong, to not confine himself to a yoga camp. Later that day, Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh added to this volley — “Ramdev is a thug and a cheat.”

IT WAS time now for the opposition parties, principally the BJP, to point out the government lies, papering over some doublespeak of their own. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley drove the most effective nails into the government coffin when he said — if Ramdev was a thug and a cheat, and was only given permission for a yoga camp, why did the UPA government scurry to the airport to negotiate with him?

But both he and Sushma Swaraj were careful even in the heat of their finger pointing, to keep a safe distance from Ramdev, saying they supported the spirit, not necessarily the actual demands of Ramdev’s movement. Publicly, they condemned the government’s brutal crackdown. Sushma Swaraj even drove down to Haridwar, sitting with Baba Ramdev in solidarity. But off camera and in careful whispers, even the BJP admitted, the Baba’s politics is at the very least, naïve. That the Baba signed a letter to the government while telling his followers they needed to fast was worrying. They were even more worried when they saw how Ramdev literally fled the burning deck… in the guise of a woman, leaving his stunned fans to face the full force of the police lathicharge.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was less duplicitous. Their members were instructed to support Ramdev’s anti-corruption agitation and they did. They were also amongst the people who stayed back, much after the Baba had fled, ferrying the injured to hospital. Publicly however, they also choose to still maintain a distance. RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav explained — “On the larger issue of corruption, we are with them (Ramdev and his team)… on the finer aspects of it, there can be discussions…”

Midnight raid Baba Ramdev’s followers face the fury of security forces

Photos: AFP

Surprise! Balkrishna talks to the media in Haridwar after resurfacing

Saffron site BJP leaders Joshi, Swaraj, Jaitley and Gadkari on satyagraha

Photo: Vijay Pandey

After the break Anna Hazare during his day-long fast at Rajghat on 8 June

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

To wrap up the core of the lies, halftruths and doublespeak, it’s interesting to pose one overwhelming question. What was Ramdev’s movement really about? If it was just anti-corruption, then the government conceded those demands even before the movement began. The only plausible answer is this — that it was in fact a demonstration of raw power. His charisma and unique ability to draw lakhs of people from across the country to one maidan is something no political party or social organisation can pull off. The other side of this question is equally revealing. Why was the government so interested in Ramdev? Especially since they were already drafting an anti-corruption law. The answer, once again, is Ramdev’s numbers.

Numbers is in fact what started the whole ball rolling in the first place. In January this year, when Arvind Kejriwal and the people from the India Against Corruption movement were flagging off their campaign, they needed numbers. And so they went to Baba Ramdev for support. It worked. Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption from January on, owed much of its numbers to Ramdev’s band of believers. Of course, team Anna did not know then, the unwritten conditions attached to bringing in such large numbers. The need to be centrestage.

Things came unstuck when Ramdev was seen with people from the ideological and political right — ushering in RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav on stage during the Anna Hazare agitation. Insiders in the India Against Corruption movement said they quickly asked Ram Madhav to leave, not wanting their movement, whose moorings were politically liberal, to mix with the ideological right. They claim the rift with Ramdev began then.

Ram Madhav denies that any of this happened. And so does Ramdev. He says this is not why he decided to have his own show of strength a month later. But privately, there is near consensus across the political spectrum that this is indeed how and why the Baba’s fast against corruption was announced — If I can’t have centrestage here, I’ll have my own show that will be bigger and grander.

In this melee, you may ask what has happened to the fight against corruption? At last count, this seems to be split at least six ways.

First, team Anna. Their current thinking on the Jan Lokpal Bill is, it will end up being an institution of 15,000 people, needed to look into cases of corruption in every government department across the country. “That’s only the equivalent of a midsized government department,” says draft committee member Arvind Kejriwal in its defence. Team Anna also wants the Lokpal to investigate crimes of corruption against the prime minister, Cabinet ministers and Supreme Court judges.

When asked who will police this “midsized” institution, they say so far this part of their draft is still weak and needs much more work. They foresee another independent body being set up to do that job. A body consisting of retired judges, the comptroller and auditor general and other such senior officials. Which brings up another tangle in Team Anna’s draft. If the Lokpal can investigate Supreme Court judges and the Supreme Court can investigate cases against the Lokpal, what prevents this from becoming a vendetta game? Where a corrupt Lokpal escapes charges made by the Supreme Court by slapping counter-charges against judges?

THAT BRINGS us to version two. Ramdev’s vision. He says corruption cannot be stemmed only with a strong Lokpal Bill, although that must be an important part of the process. He adds, black money both within and outside the country has to be brought back into circulation and declared a national treasure. Also, those found guilty of corruption must be hanged or receive severe punishment amounting to a life sentence.

Other civil society groups, such as Aruna Roy’s Kisan Mazdoor Shakti Sangathan and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information have still other ideas. Their critique of the Jan Lokpal has included issues with its size, with the inclusion of judges and with the checks and balances on the Lokpal. By not sitting together in public consultations with team Anna, they are seen as yet another camp in the spectrum of opinions and drafts on anti-corruption.

Then there is of course the government version, that’s currently undergoing a metamorphosis as they try and draft legislation with team Anna. The major differences with Anna’s version are on the inclusion of the Prime Minister and judges in the draft bill, over which talks broke down at the last meeting. And the BJP that’s demanding a joint parliament session on drafting anti-corruption laws.

Finally, there are leaders from the CPM, like Brinda Karat, asking: What of corporate corruption? Who will protect whistleblowers who dare to speak out against entrenched corporate corruption? Or has the current tsunami of scams around the government blinded those drafting the law from previous avatars — like Harshad Mehta? Have they forgotten the godfather of modern Indian corruption was a stockbroker who cost thousands of shareholders their life savings by tinkering with the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1992?

Even more crucial questions remain to be asked, however, about whether new laws, implemented by the same set of people, will actually yield results. Or whether serious administrative reform is really the core of our problem. Taxman and special secretary Durgesh Shankar, who’s just retired from the Central Board of Direct Taxes, has this gem to offer. “Baba Ramdev is suggesting an allopathic cure to a disease; he is seeking to suppress the symptoms, and not addressing the core of the problem, which is poor governance and poor delivery systems.”

Imagine the plight of an income tax official, who has to wade through the lakhs of crores of money in bank vaults abroad to find what is black, and what is white. Our economic life is very complex, Shankar explains. There are companies, trusts, societies, individuals, any of which could open an account abroad for legitimate business interests. The Swiss banks have been in existence for the last 800 years. And this forms the backbone of that country’s economy. They are not going to offer the list of people banking with them on a platter to the Indian authorities.

For example, the wealth of Dalip Singh, the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, is locked away in Swiss vaults. “Undoubtedly, we should get back this treasure, but it is not the proceeds of crime. So we have to operate under different laws,” says Shankar.

The day after Delhi Police personnel camp at the site where Baba Ramdev staged his protest
The day after Delhi Police personnel camp at the site where Baba Ramdev staged his protest
Photo: Vijay Pandey

“In government you need to work with a very dogged cold-mindedness to establish the due process of law. Because foreign governments and foreign banks are not going to respond to your emotional outbursts,” says Shankar. “They need hard facts.” And the rich and powerful and ingenious are not leaving behind plumes of black smoke that helpfully connect the dots of the money in foreign accounts back to them. Getting this evidence is nothing short of performing a miracle.

Even so, some significant strides have been made. The surge of public indignation against corruption has already put DMK leaders A Raja and Kanimozhi in the dock over the 2G spectrum allocation scam; and Suresh Kalmadi on bungling in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Next in line is former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran.

BUT EVEN when a case reaches the court, investigative agencies need to have such a watertight case that it establishes an unbroken chain linking the allegedly corrupt person to the money, or it won’t stand up in a court of law.

Which is why not just taxman Shankar but many in the administrative services say the current solutions being proposed by civil society groups and Baba Ramdev smack of administrative naivette. More agencies and more legislation many not be the best answer.

Look what happened when the government reacted to the Mumbai terror attacks by setting up the National Investigative Agency. Only recently, this institution left Union Home Minister P Chidambaram red-faced, dealing with the embarrassment where the agency had served up a red hot terror suspect list to Pakistan, that included names of people already in their custody. What’s needed, many in the administration say, is a leaner administration, leaner laws, not more of the same.

Try telling all of this to the dial-asatyagraha angry middle class, that’s sat first on the Anna Hazare fast, then Baba Ramdev’s, and then again the Anna fast part two. This is a class of people who have seen the world around them implode, then expand and then contract again at such an alarming rate, it’s created within them, “a new barrenness,” writes Pavan Varma, in his book The Great Indian Middle Class. He says Gen Next that grew up in a liberalised economy, thirsty for new wealth and what it can buy, saw old family and social ties break down at a terrific speed and turned to New Age gurus like Ramdev. These are not people who want to hear that democracy is a slow, sluggish beast. That it has no easy answers. That there are no quick-fix recipes for a malaise that goes back at least a few hundred years.

The UPA government’s arrogance and ineptitude, and its visible disdain for both the Anna and Ramdev movements, has now handed the BJP an issue on a platter

These are the same people, Shankar the taxman points out, who will agitate against corruption on one hand, and then find it perfectly okay to scan the property pages of newspapers and websites for the best deals in town. Properties they known full well, cannot be bought without paying some money in black. If the corrupt are to be hanged to death, as Baba Ramdev wants, then every property agent and house owner will need to be hanged.

And the questions swirling around Baba Ramdev’s own 1,100 crore empire make the few people who aren’t his fans point accusing fingers at him for not being the appropriate candidate for campaigning against corruption.

And so, an anti-corruption movement that was originally drawn up by a group of liberal and left liberal activists, ended up conceding space to the religious right. The UPA government’s arrogance and ineptitude, and their visible disdain for both the Anna and Ramdev movements, has now handed the opposition BJP, the RSS and Ramdev an issue on a platter. In 1991, the same middle-class anger congealed into the Ayodhya movement as well as the anti- Mandal Commission agitations.

The new middle class rising is now at a crucial crossroad and its followers have before them two choices.

To be led by charismatic gurus whose ideas aren’t thought through, or to understand better just what it takes to put their money where their mouth is. If systemic change is what they want, then they may have to break out of their adolescent, Rang De Basanti sloganeering and understand democracy.

As that other crusader against corruption Jayaprakash Narayan put it, “If you really care for freedom, liberty, there cannot be any democracy or liberal institution without politics. The only true antidote to the perversions of politics is more politics and better politics. Not negation of politics.”

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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