When the French writer Andre Malraux asked Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958 about his greatest difficulty since Independence, Nehru is said to have replied, “Creating a just state by just means”. He then added: “Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country.”
The supposed religiosity of voters is one reason why governments are almost always pusillanimous in the face of any agitations by godmen or even quasi-god-men of the Baba Ramdev kind.
Baba Ramdev’s status on this count is rather iffy. Five star yoga guru, businessman, wannabe politician however one looks at him he has assiduously used the power of television to build up a mass following in small-town India. It is the fear of this throng that led to the bizarre spectacle of four government ministers rushing to Delhi’s airport to dissuade him from starting his fast.
In that sense, the Manmohan Singh government has finally shown some spine with the midnight break-up of Ramdev’s camp at Delhi’s Ramlila Ground. The BJP is predictably crying hoarse about “an Emergency-like” situation, accusing the Congress of not being ready for any kind of democratic discussion.
It is important to point out though that there was nothing vaguely democratic about Ramdev’s tactics which amounted to blackmail, plain and simple.
No government worth its salt can allow the subterfuge and the chicanery on evidence in hiring a public ground for one purpose and then slyly using it for another. This was technically meant to be a yoga camp for 5,000 people, it swelled into ten times that number and anyone who saw Ramdev’s wild-eyed and rather disturbing anti-establishment rant on television should be under no illusions about his deliberate provocativeness.
Ramdev’s brand of politics seems to jump straight out of an obscure Hindutva-leaning manual and a moth-eaten list of dos and don’ts from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
Even if one ignores the sheer obscurantism of Ramdev’s worldview, it embodies a certain kind of shrill confrontationalism that brooks virtually no dissent. It talks of democratic rights but only in relation to its own narrow right to speak and simultaneously seeks to short-circuit the very processes and systems that democracy engenders.
To allow anyone, whether in saffron or not, to hold governance and the law hostage in this manner is to open the path to breakdown and anarchy.
On that note, history has some valuable lessons to offer in the interface between religiosity and politics.
Exhibit 1 is Indira Gandhi and the aftermath of the infamous assault by sadhus on Parliament in 1966 over the demand to ban cow slaughter.
Backed by the Jan Sangh and some elements within the Congress, including its Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda, the sadhus were incited after a protest march on 7 November 1966 to attack the Parliament building itself. The attack failed but the violence that followed killed eight people and the Jan Sangh raised the political temperature asking its followers nationwide to go on fast.
The Shankaracharya of Puri joined the fast and a religious Hindu backlash seemed imminent. When the Shankaracharya was arrested, one of the Sangh’s tallest leaders, Deendayal Upadhyaya, told a public audience: “Even Aurangzeb dare not touch the Shankaracharyas. Evidently the government has lost all sense of proportion.”
The tactic of religious leaders and their followers going on fast was very similar to the blackmail deployed by Ramdev now but as the political scientist Christoph Jaffrelot has shown, Indira Gandhi remained firm. She dismissed her recalcitrant Home Minister and set up an emergency committee to deal with the demands. Significantly, she insisted that giving up the fasts must be a pre-condition for any talks since no government could decide anything under such pressure.
Eventually, there was no compromise. The Shankaracharya ended his fast in January 1967, gaining nothing except the older proposal for a committee of experts. The RSS eventually lost interest in the agitation and the committee, which was to include its chief Golwalkar and the Shankaracharya, went into oblivion.
Exhibit 2 is the weak-kneed Congress response to the religious fervour of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Faced with the likes of the virulent Sadhvi Rithambara, who accompanied Baba Ramdev on stage as his ‘Didi Maa’, Rajiv Gandhi tried the impossible trick of playing footsy with the saffron right, while keeping his secular credentials. The sordid tale of Congress compromises in the surge of religiosity that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 is too well known to be recounted here.
The difference is that in the 1960s and the 1980s, the sadhus were plumping for essentially a religious cause that became political. In Ramdev’s case now they are agitating for what is a non-religious governance-related aim.
Yet, the initial governmental panic draws from the same source: the fear of their following. It is compounded by the fact that it is a government that is still jittery from being caught flat-footed by the Anna Hazare movement.
Either way, the lesson of history is clear: no one should be allowed to hold governance to ransom.