The Fast and the Furious – Starring Baba Ramdev

A media-savvy baba

The easiest way to capture the imagination of a nation glued on to its television sets is to don a saffron attire, embrace a cause and sit on a “fast unto death”. The strategy of ‘satyagraha’ that Mahatma Gandhi so effectively deployed to raise the consciousness of a nation during the British rule, has in modern day India become a handy stunt for the attention-seeking types… And it is as if the media and its predominantly middle-class consumers are waiting to lap it up all.

Or that is what it appears like as I watch the Baba Ramdev starrer anti-corruption drama unfold, sitting here in Delhi. My day begins with reading stories of Baba in the front page of the paper. I call my dad in Chennai and he is in a hurry to put the phone down because “Baba is there on TV!”. Lunch time conversations in office revolve around Baba…

I read this article by Ramachandra Guha in ‘The Hindustan Times’ aptly titled as ‘Performance Artists’ in which he criticises the Baba as hungry for publicity and lacking in spiritual quotient.  Of course, Swapan Dasgupta has ignored the critique saying on Twitter “Ram Guha’s charge of Ramdev lacking spirituality is misplaced. Ramdev merely championed good health & patriotism. Y must all gurus b same?” After all Baba’s attention grabbing antics and the series of corruption charges against the Congress and its allies have generally meant good times for the BJP and its ideological allies like the RSS who can be seen sharing the dais with Baba most of the times.

While the cause of addressing the problem of corruption itself is not trivial, the manner in which Baba &co. have sought to address the issue has trivialised the matter. A colleague of mine at work who is an avowed Baba bhakt says that Ramdev’s style of speech is very amusing (a reason why he likes him) and he usually has the crowds bursting into peals of laughter with his jokes. The man, he says, is against the English language, foreign-manufactured products  and even beverages like Horlicks and Bournvita as they are “not of Indian origin”.

Raamji ne kya Horlicks peekar Raavan ka vadh kiya tha?” Ramdev apparently told his disciples during a pravachan.

It is unfortunate that a man of such credentials is leading the anti-corruption brigade against the UPA. What is lost in such hullabaloo is the real issue. At least two articles I recently read on the real challenges of tackling corruption emphasised how rooting out corruption or the problem of black money must not become just another television drama we ought to enjoy and forget.

One was Siddharth Varadarajan’s opinion in The Hindu in which he condemned the police action against Ramdev’s followers at Ramlila Grounds (which I do as well…) but draws attention to what we are missing in this melee. He writes, “Any serious campaign against corruption by civil society or politicians, Babas or babalog must zero in on the system which generates illegal gains for those with power, influence and money”. He also points out the case of inaction on the part of the Ministry of Home Affairs against a case of corruption raised by the Lok Ayukta in Delhi to prove the point.

The second article was an interview by Tritesh Nandan of Governance Now of British expert Tim Daniels on the importance of prevention rather than cure in the case of dealing with black money. The interview points out that India must move away from a culture in which nothing can be done without paying a bribe, because bringing back black money stored in tax havens is not as easy as it sounds. There are many a legal and financial hurdles to achieving this.

But of course, the discourse over rooting out corruption in India has today been seized by a motley crowd of opportunistic politicians, who see it as a chance to revive their sagging careers and of babas who can improve sales for their organic soaps and shampoos in the process. To know more about Baba’s thriving ayurvedic empire at Haridwar, see this this report on CNN-IBN  and also check out this website targetting tourists advertising the Patanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar.

The fact that what we are seeing on TV is no ‘satyagraha’ of Gandhian stature is proved beyond doubt by this SMS from ‘India Against Corruption’ that landed on my mobile phone a while back “Police gives permission for holding a peaceful protest at Rajghat. No danger of arrest or police action. Reach Rajghat in large numbers tomorrow by 9 a.m.” Also when the police entered the Ramlila Grounds to evacuate the ‘satyagrahis’, Baba escaped on a chartered helicopter leaving his hapless followers to take the blows or get crushed in the stampede that ensued…

I am thinking about the still from the movie ‘Gandhi’ (which I watch unfailingly every August 15 on TV) in which Gandhi and his co-workers continue to march in spite of the blow of lathis from the British police during the Dandi march.

Ready to take the blows for a cause

The great soul would be turning in his grave tomorrow…

Related reads:

Pranayama was never so painful‘ by Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Now, Ramdev will raise an army to counter police action 

‘On linking Baba Ramdev with the RSS‘ by Smita Gupta

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

7 thoughts on “The Fast and the Furious – Starring Baba Ramdev

  1. True.

    But the measures to reduce corruption mentioned above will at best be ineffective. The one about moving away from the culture of bribes is downright naive.

    Ramdev also has a huge amount of secular support. That is not so surprising when one considers that most of what we consider secular is a surface reading and that too reversible. Policy in India has never been secular and most probably will never be. There may be brief spurts of fairness followed by degeneration.

    Ramdev along with Hazare tap a certain latent middle-class discontent. It will be interesting exploring that.

    1. First of all, thanks a ton for visiting the site and posting your comment! The article was not about measures to reduce corruption at all. In fact I am working on a follow-up post for this on the chequered history of anti-corruption efforts in India and what happened to them all. What I was worried about was how today fasting for a cause has become a tool in the hands of rabblerousers like Ramdev, who escape at the first sight of trouble leaving the hapless supporters to get the blows!

  2. I am a fan of Baba, but I agree that he is fulfilling his own political ambitions. But also look at the larger picture. That even for a day people did gather on the ground against corruption is a big thing and forget Baba while thinking this.

    Yes, and I did enjoy Baba on the TV.

  3. As far as Baba’s antics for gaining popularity is concerned, I would blame the media which is giving him so much importance. Why telecast him the entire day!!

    Also to be blamed are those ministers who went to meet him in the Airport… Also I donot think that all the people who came to Ramlila grounds, came to protest against corruption. M sure 50% of them would not have even known why they were there.

    Now talking abt corruption, I feel that one of the cause for corruption is the real low pay checks given to these government employees. As a first step, the government can look at increasing the salary of the employees by increasing the various ‘Fees’ by 30-40%. Instead of paying abnormal amounts as bribe, citizens can pay higher fees. This would help the government as well.

    The beginning can be as humble as this, but it has to start!
    Corruption cannot be wiped over nite, but I am sure with efforts on part of every citizen, it will surely be wiped out someday.

  4. Baba Ramdev will be known as a Baba who had a chance to make it big in the political scene but he blew it, big time. His demands were in resonance with the current political agenda against the UPA govt and if he would have played his cards right, then he would have had the support of civil society and a large vote bank associated with them. But he showed his immaturity by saying that he is going to raise an army, thereby losing out on public sympathy that he would have got so easily. Well, there’s always next time! 🙂

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