NEW DELHI / The Economist / Asia / Indian Politics / June 9, 2011
The swami's curse
A populist yogi ties the government up in knots
This week’s farce involved the saffron-clad Baba Ramdev, whose wealth, popularity on television and delusions of political grandeur led him to call a fast to the death in Delhi at the weekend. His chosen cause is the repatriation of billions of dollars supposedly stashed abroad by the rich and crooked. He says such cash would pay to wipe hunger from the land. Given public anger over food and fuel inflation, such a claim, however bogus, goes down well.
In more confident times Congress’s long-serving leaders would surely have brushed him aside. Pranab Mukherjee, the canny finance minister, has been atop politics for long enough to remember how a much more powerful guru, the “flying swami”, Indira Gandhi’s yoga teacher, adviser and rumoured lover, was swept into obscurity amid scandals over a personal arms factory and crooked aircraft deals.
Today, the government seems to have lost its touch. Beset by accusations of graft, it may soon have to eject a dodgy-looking coalition ally, a Tamil party thumped in a state election in May. Despite softer economic growth and falling investment, India’s rulers have dared launch no reforms or pass any laws of note this year.
Nor has it known how to tackle problems as they flare up. Instead of preventing the guru’s protest, or letting it take its course, the government tried to control it. First, ministers got the guru to give an empty promise that his gathering would be called off. Then, when he breezily broke that, as tens of thousands of supporters converged, they panicked and sent in stick-wielding police, who lobbed tear gas and attacked the sleeping camp on June 4th.
Beating sleeping anti-corruption protesters while television cameras roll is not the most sensible public-relations policy. Many demonstrators are in hospital and one has been paralysed. Nor does it say much for India’s democratic process, since Mr Ramdev had permission to stage an event (though not, the authorities say, for a mass protest). The saving grace was that the hairy-armed guru was arrested—and photographed—trying to escape while dressed in female attire. Unabashed, he said he would raise a force of 11,000 “so that next time we do not lose any battle”.
The gleeful opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, says the Congress party is showing all the leadership qualities of a “headless chicken”. That insult may be routine, but even senior Congress insiders privately voice dismay.
In April Manmohan Singh’s government caved in to another hunger-striker, Anna Hazare, who extracted a big concession, winning for his supporters a right to co-draft an anti-corruption bill. That annoyed parliamentarians and others who say elected politicians, not activists, should write laws. On June 8th Mr Hazare launched another protest in Delhi, while his supporters paraded with posters showing the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as an incarnation of Ravana, a ten-headed demon of Hindu mythology, shouting “these devils are eating the country”.
Perhaps the summer heat is to blame. Perhaps tempers will ease when the monsoon reaches Delhi next month. Yet the bungling shows that Congress’s back-room managers face a long-term problem: finding able, youthful leaders they can promote. Mr Singh was dutifully wheeled out to defend the attack on Mr Ramdev’s camp, but few believe that he takes day-to-day political decisions. He is 78, and is a technocrat with little appetite for political scrapping. He relies on Mr Mukherjee, only slightly more sprightly at 75. Power is yet further divided, since Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s boss, influences political strategy behind the scenes.
For several years, the youthful leader-in-waiting, who was supposed to inject new blood into the tired party, has been Sonia’s son, the 41-year-old Rahul. Yet Mr Gandhi, who was arrested (and released) in May while trying to speak up for farmers who had had their land stolen, failed to make much of an impression in recent local elections and is facing the most sustained criticism of his brief career. Until Congress can provide better leadership, expect the opposition, social activists and nutty gurus to take advantage.
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2011
Baba Ramdev is the guru of political levitation
The hunger strike will help out my obese brothers and sisters to slim down and also bring back the country’s wealth, says Baba Ramdev. Image: AP. GulfNews
Baba Ramdev ends nine-day-old fast: Yoga guru Ramdev on Sunday ended his nine-day-old fast in the presence of some spiritual leaders.
The Times of India