By Revati Laul
“How many of you sitting on fast tonight are from Delhi?”
A few hands go up.
“Aha, more than I expected… So Delhi people are learning to give haan… Interesting… Are you going to sleep now?”
A loud response: “No”
AS CONDUCTOR of public orchestra, it could be rated a star performance. This is Ambedkar Stadium, Day 5 of Baba Ramdev’s fast in Delhi, there’s no more than 2,000-odd people left on the turf, the rest have gone home, but he has the crowd grooving to his every signal, erupting to every sentence.
For five days, Ramdev has been camping at the Ramlila Maidan, tuning his talk cannily, filling the vacuum left by Team Anna’s sudden capitulation. He has demanded black money from abroad be brought back to India, black money within India be brought into the system, and a Lokpal law be formulated. He started out by vowing that none of his statements was against any political party; that he himself would never start a party (though he had announced some months earlier that he would); and that his movement was not politically motivated. Then as the UPA government stoically ignored him, he switched scales without embarrassment, swore to bring the Congress down and lined up an impressive array of political affiliates to back his claim. The heads of the BJP and JD(U) turned up on stage; the Telugu Desam, Biju Janata Dal, even the NCP, SP, BSP and CPI sent their certificates. Only the CPM and Trinamool Congress stood aloof it appeared — and, of course, the Congress.
For political watchers, all of this should evoke a distinct sense of déjà vu. For a few heady months last year, Team Anna had built bridges across party lines as well. It seemed every political party, save the Congress, wanted the Jan Lokpal enacted immediately. There were reality checks in store.
For the moment though, Ramdev has the street on his side. Every time he speaks, his claims and statistics about black money grow larger and more hysterical. But, the crowds aren’t keeping a balance sheet. They like what they hear. They are angry, and he’s their channel. So, on the fifth day of his fast, having marched to Parliament, been interrupted with a token arrest, and installed in Ambedkar Stadium, with nothing conceded and nothing won — master of the empty gesture — Ramdev declared that he had won a “huge victory” and broke his fast.
So how has Ramdev resurrected himself from last year’s debacle? In August 2011, in a controversial, midnight police raid, the government had cracked down on Ramdev’s rally. Many were injured; one female protester eventually died in hospital. Ramdev himself fled from stage dressed as a woman before he was arrested and flown out of Delhi.
One would have imagined, after such a flight, his stocks would have fallen in the largely male constituency he commands. In the broadstroke, it appears they haven’t. For those reading the fine print, however, there are some interesting signs.
THE EMERGENCE of Baba Ramdev as keeper of public conscience tells a complex story about the state of Indian politics. It also tells us something about ourselves as a society. Depending on which way one looks at it, this is the face of “total revolution” or it is the parable of the Baba, the blackness and the sheep.
To understand the potential long-distance impact of Ramdev on Indian public life, it is important first to map the source of his popularity. With his fuzzy claims on the quantum of black money, his hostility to homosexuality (“It is a mental disorder”), his friendly gestures towards Narendra Modi, his ochre robes, his persona of the yoga guru attempting to become a spiritual leader and political preceptor, Ramdev was never designed to be a leftliberal intellectual’s favourite. For him, they don’t matter. The left-liberal intelligentsia is not his constituency.
Ramdev’s people are the middle class from middle India. To them, his simple idiom is not his weakness, it is his strength. His appeal is among the autorickshaw drivers and traders, the ordinary schoolteachers and the pensioner homemakers, spread across small cities and semi-rural townships of northern India. What unites them is television. They watch soaps like Balika Vadhu. They also watch Ramdev, do pranayama, believe the world of the man who teaches them yoga each morning —and get excited and charged when he tells a truth universally accepted: our society is corrupt.
Whatever be his politics, Ramdev knows how to work a crowd. He understands that people want something to cleave to. They want a story. As most political parties vacate the streets, rarely speaking to people except at election time, rarely voicing their concerns and fears, he has flowed into the vacuum.
In June 2011, he was nearing the end of his year-long march across the country, protesting against corruption. He said he’d clock about a 1,00,000 km before he hit Delhi. In Maharashtra, at meeting after meeting, a familiar scene repeated itself. In Jalgaon, for example, as early as 4 am, Ramdev commanded a crowd of 3,000- 5,000, exhaling and inhaling, doing yoga, listening mesmerised to their guru. The dream he painted was a seductive one. “There is Rs 1 lakh crore of black money abroad,” Ramdev would say, his face multiplied on two giant screens, massive flood-lights shining on his flock.
“Imagine if that money came back. It would rain money in India. There would be more money than any of you know what to do with. You can build all the schools and colleges you want. There will be more. You want houses? Build, and there will be still more. India will be the richest country in the world.”
1 THE GOVERNMENT can enact a law passed in both Houses of Parliament, saying Indian money has been illegally stashed abroad, and declare it is the sole beneficiary.
2 GOVERNMENTS AND banks committed to secrecy should be then asked to recognise the Indian government as the beneficiary of the undeclared wealth until proven otherwise.
3 AS A SUBSTANTIAL portion of the black money owes its origin to criminal activities, an omnibus criminal case should be registered, and investigated under the Supreme Court’s supervision.
4 MANY SECRET account holders die without informing anyone of such accounts. Money from these should be vested in India with a provision to return it if it can be proved that the source of the money was legal.
5 INDIA SHOULD use its international clout to track illegally stashed black money in countries like Switzerland who have billions at stake in an economy like ours.
6 EVERY POLITICIAN should affirm that he does not hold illegal money abroad. The same should apply to the RBI Governor, SEBI Chairman, CBI Director, IB Director, RAW Chief, CVC, etc.
7 ALIGN WITH global forces formed against tax havens and secret banking. A Task Force comprising various governments, NGOs and foundations has already started working to this end.
How can reason combat such rhetoric? Ramdev’s yoga practice imbues his followers’ bodies with well-being and health; his talk fills their head with spells. His followers, therefore, are not being trained to become foot-soldiers of democracy, who will demand and mould newer forms of transparency, accountability or participation; nor are they being groomed to put any meaningful pressure on elected representatives. He just puts out irresistible IOUs; then when he gives a call, his cadres come to collect.
The need to eradicate corruption is not a complex thought; but how to eradicate it, is. Unlike other protest movements that have won crucial legislative and moral victories — painstakingly gained through democratic institutions — Ramdev seems to have no thought out agenda. His rise as an anti-corruption crusader, therefore, points to a larger loss of coherence in Indian public affairs. As social scientist Ashis Nandy puts it: “This is a deeply disturbing sign of a democracy in crisis.”
Several travesties surround Ramdev. There is firstly his own fairly widely reported corruption. Black money in India is generally believed to be generated by bribes, under-invoicing and tax avoidance. Black money is also generally believed to be invested in real estate. Ironically, under-invoicing, tax avoidance and real estate fraud are the exact charges that Ramdev faces.
In March 2012, TEHELKA published a story that details much of this (The Epic Swindle, by Manoj Rawat, 19 March).
Most of Ramdev’s early fortune, for example, was made through the sale of ayurvedic medicine. In 2004, when he was just stepping into the limelight, one of his outlets, Divya Pharmacy, was accused by the Uttarakhand government of evading sales tax amounting to Rs 5 crore. Ramdev’s outfit had sold more than 2,500 kg of medicine but shown a sale of only Rs 6.5 lakh and paid only Rs 53,000 in taxes.
That evasion was just loose change. In the years that followed, the allegations of fraud, real estate profiteering and tax evasion have only got bigger. Since 2004, trusts controlled by Ramdev and his close associates are believed to have bought huge tracts of land in Haridwar, Roorke and adjoining districts, much of it in benami transactions. Massive facilities have been set up; agricultural land is being used for non-agricultural purposes.
MUCH OF the land Ramdev owns between Roorkee and Hardiwar were purchased in the name of Acharya Balakrishna (Ramdev’s aide who has been arrested by the CBI in a passport forgery case), Divya Yoga Mandir Trust and Patanjali Trust. According to revenue records of Shantarshah village (Khata Nos. 87, 103, 120 and 150), this land is owned by trusts and Patanjali-1, Patanjali-2 and Patanjali University have been constructed on this.
However, Shakil Ahmed, former Pradhan of Badehi Rajputan, told TEHELKA that Ramdev owned more than 1,000 beegha of land in this area, and not merely the 360 beegha that were shown in the records. TEHELKA scrutinised the revenue records and found that Ramdev, his relatives and Acharya Balkrishna have invested massively in benami land. For example, the revenue record shows that Khata No. 229 of Shantarshah village is registered in the name of Gagan Kumar. The same Gagan Kumar also happens to be the PA of Acharya Balakrishna, draws a meagre salary of Rs 8,000 and does not file Income Tax returns. However, this same Gagan has bought land that real estate agents in the area claim is worth upwards of Rs 15 crore.
The examples go on and on. Some estimates put Ramdev’s alleged land and tax swindle at Rs 300 crore. As Baba Hathyogi, another spiritual leader, asks, “Can Ramdev who is spearheading a movement against black money answer how people like Gagan, earning a measly Rs 8,000 per month, can buy land worth crores?”
It is part of the country’s increasingly incoherent public life that neither his followers nor the political parties who throng to him seem to be perturbed by these contradictions. Ramdev’s appeal is a strange mix of religiosity, television fame, rustic braggadocio and OBC aspiration. He is not a conventional religious figure in that he is not the inheritor of a Brahminical seat. He works with the Sangh Parivar — a senior BJP MPs admits to “coordination between the Ramlila Grounds and the Floor of Parliament” — but is outside the RSS-VHP assembly line of monks.
A Yadav from Haryana, Ramdev’s ascension to tele-evangelism and gain of popularity across caste lines is as much the religious triumph of Mandalism as Mulayam or Nitish Kumar (or Lalu Yadav for that matter) representing the political arm of the Mandalisation process. In this construct, Ramdev becomes a symbol of Yadav pride, and so it is impossible for, say, a Mulayam to rebuke him.
THAT ASIDE, he has kept his politics deliberately vague, realising that the Team Anna leadership blundered by being drawn into particularities and specific laws and policies, which took away their flexibility and made their programme gradually unintelligible to a mass audience. Yogendra Yadav, political scientist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, says it’s difficult to pin down Ramdev to any one idea except that he’s anti corruption, which isn’t really an idea but a point at which many different people with very different ideas can briefly converge.
“It is very hard to ascertain Baba Ramdev’s position at any given point of time,” says Yadav, “because he floats. It is a very fluid position he has taken over the year. I am not sure what to make of the idea of bringing black money back, because I cannot find one person in India who wouldn’t say that. I am not sure what to make of the fact that all political parties should be trusted to bring black money back. Because then the question would be: Why didn’t they do this for the past so many years?”
Ramdev’s difficult-to-decipher, alternative economics is a mix of swadeshi and populism learnt from Rajiv Dixit, an IIT graduate who eventually got a doctorate in telecom from France. At some stage, Dixit lost faith in globalisation and liberalisation and helped set up the Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan, a sort of latter-day Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which included among others, KN Govindacharya, a former BJP-RSS man who has since drifted to left-wing economics. Dixit died in 2010 but lived long enough to leave an impression on Ramdev.
Agricultural scientist Devinder Sharma, who is also part of the Ramdev intellectual core, says the yoga guru is developing an organic farm in Haridwar, which will be a model for Indian farmers in about a year from now. Sharma is very impressed by Ramdev’s capacity to grasp ideas. “When we discuss issues,” Sharma says, “I’m amazed. He quotes Fritjof Capra, the man who wrote The Tao of Physics. He quotes Joseph Stiglitz. His thinking and ideas are so clear.” Sharma insists that Ramdev’s thoughts on black money are not as naïve as they sound on stage but are well researched and thought-out.
Are they? Arun Kumar is an economist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and has written a book on the black market economy in India. He estimates India has lost anywhere between $2-3 trillion to the black economy in the past 60 years. Ninety percent of this money, according to Kumar, is generated and stays within India. The remaining 10 percent is manoeuvred carefully into one of 77 offshore tax havens around the world, transferred out in different names and guises. Getting that money back will be horrifically complex but the crowd does not want to hear the details. Unlike the forest and land and tribal and fisher rights’ movements, Ramdev’s followers have not signed up to be immersed in the finer points of their legal rights and entitlements. Like Team Anna, Ramdev has plugged into a powerful socket: the frustration with corruption. The blackness of short term measures might follow, but for the moment, lighting the socket is enough.
1 MOST OF the black money stashed abroad is regulated by offshore financial centres (OFC) established by western economies to avoid domestic taxation. A chunk of FDI flowing to any country is routed through or hoarded under these centres.
2 POST RECESSION, the public finances of western nations are under huge pressure and hence the attempt to dismantle those 64-year-old financial centres.
3 THERE ARE three offshore financial zones. One is centred on London. Another one around the European financial system. The third comprises various unconnected offshore financial entities.
4 EACH COUNTRY has laws that make it a criminal offence for bankers to divest information. According to the Swiss banking law of 1934, it is a crime in Switzerland for bankers to pass on any information even to their own government.
5 AFTER THE Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) efforts, the GOI has reengineered its dual tax avoidance agreement and tax information exchange agreement with these entities.
6 IT’S ABSURD for anyone to claim a figure. Information reveals about Rs 34,000 crore was the amount on which tax demands were raised.
7 SECRECY CLAUSES with different countries make it impossible to reveal names of account holders. However, the information has been given to the SC in a “sealed envelope”.
As Ashis Kumar, a shopkeeper from Sitamari, Bihar, in the Ram Lila Maidan says, “I’m here to support Baba because he has fought relentlessly against corruption. We will follow him anywhere. Hang us if we did anything wrong. Even Lord Krishna was born in a jail, so there is nothing wrong with that.”
Virendra Kumar Nag, a farmer from Kota, Rajasthan, says, “I’m ready to stay in Delhi as long Baba wants. Anyway, there isn’t much work to do at home, especially after the harvesting season is over.”
Randhir, a tailor from Panipat, says, “We came in 4-5 buses from Panipat because we don’t know when another opportunity of saving the nation will occur again.”
Saving the nation: that’s the story Ramdev has been able to read to his followers. This is a story that asks no questions about how and when. There is a shepherd, there is sheep and soon, there will be a green meadow.
PARTLY, THE story of Ramdev’s rise in India’s public life – or at least that which is refracted through television – is the mirror story of political parties in decline.
Despite Ashis Nandy’s concern, for many, it isn’t democracy and the parliamentary system that Ramdev is cornering but the Congress-led government. Ramdev says he will not float a political party but will work towards his goals with “whoever supports my ideas”. Since the ideas essentially paint the Congress as public enemy No. 1, “support” can only come from the principal Opposition. This is where the BJP/NDA walks in. It’s neat; no wonder, as Ved Pratap Vaidik, Ramdev’s right-hand man, boasts, “We are the mother of all politics.” Marry that with the threat from Vaidik’s master — “I will see to it that not a single Congress party man will go to Parliament” — and the implication is clear.
Last year, the Congress’ record on Ramdev — with its unforgivable flip flops — looked abysmal. In February 2011, Ramdev had sent a letter to the prime minister with, he says, 100 million signatures demanding black money be brought back and India sign the United Nations Convention against Corruption. “I got no reply,” Ramdev told TEHELKA. Later in the summer, as Ramdev landed in Delhi, a panicked government sent four ministers — including then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee — and the Cabinet secretary to the airport to placate Ramdev.
1 Rs 400 lakh crore of black money is illegally stashed in overseas banks and tax havens. These should be declared as national wealth and brought back.
2 IF ALL the money is brought back, it will add up to Rs 60,000 crore for each district in the country or Rs 100 crore for every village.
3 PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh should take responsibility and demonstrate “political honesty and political will” in bringing back black money from foreign shores, or remit his office.
4 IN 2010, Ramdev said that the government has the list of people who have stashed away black money in foreign shores. If not the names of those people, it should at least disclose the amount.
5 IF BLACK money is brought back, then India will have world-class hospitals, educational institutions and other facilities.
6 THE CEC, CVC and the CBI should be independent of political control and jointly chosen by the government and the Opposition. Also, a strong Lokpal has to be arrived at by consensus across parties.
7 SHIFTING HIS stance from the issue of black money, the Baba swung his rhetoric against the UPA-2. On the last day of his fast, he began by exhorting the crowd to stand up and protest against a corrupt government. He warned of a big movement against the Congress ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections.
The disproportionate reception gave the yoga guru an exaggerated sense of self. He began negotiations with the impression the Congress was about to bend. When negotiations broke down, the government swung from one extreme to another and used the truncheon. Neither approach served the UPA well. The former was derided; the latter earned a Supreme Court rebuke. It also isolated several key Cabinet ministers. Despite its political isolation again now, in 2012, at least marginally, the UPA strategy has been better. It has allowed both Team Anna and Ramdev to sit on their fasts and refrained from engaging in a pitched battle with them. Opportunistic as only politicians can be, however, the rest of the political spectrum, especially the BJP and NDA have jumped on to Ramdev’s stage, and are perhaps hoping his support base will translate into some extra votes in the 2014 general election. Just how many votes Ramdev can deliver remains a question mark though. As usual, the claims are dramatic. “There are 10 lakh volunteers with us,” says Ramdev. A core team of 10,000 managed his andolan, his assistants say. “If you go around the Ambedkar Stadium,” says Atal Bihari Sharma, a Ramdev aide, “you will even see people from the Andaman Islands.” Then he holds up a banner from the Andamans to make his point.
How real are these fantastical numbers? It is impossible to know or verify. However, two things are quickly evident. One, Ramdev has consistently drawn larger throngs than Team Anna. Two, his politics is far shrewder. He has not rebuffed all political parties, he has not resorted to abuse of specific individuals, he has offered to work with all parties. In effect, he has invited the Opposition into his protest. As Vaidik says: “We approached all political parties to ask them to participate in the fast against corruption and black money. The BJP and its partners in the NDA responded and turned up. The Congress did not. It threw our request in the dustbin, and so they will pay the price.”
Despite such claims, politics is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is unclear whether Ramdev will swing enough votes to determine an election in a few constituencies, let alone an entire nation. However, he seems to have ended the Congress’ brief honeymoon period after the election of the president and vice-president. Parties such as the JD(U), the SP and the BSP, which had backed Congress nominees, have moved away from the ruling party, using the Ramdev call as an excuse. His platform has become a convenient meeting ground for anti-Congressism, bringing the BJD and the BJP together, even if this doesn’t necessarily translate into an electoral alliance. Far more than a cause of its possible defeat, Ramdev has become a symptom of the Congress-led government’s almost ridiculous weakness.
Since the high-octane PR disasters of last year, the Congress led UPA has done almost nothing to reinvent itself. It has not reached out to people with its own version of public engagement; it has not declared who its 2014 prime ministerial candidate will be and has infused no new life blood into its government. There was a diktat within the Congress party not to speak publicly about Ramdev and Anna Hazare this time round. This may have staved off the serial faux pas of 2011, but clearly the fissures within the party are not mended. A senior Congressman says on condition of anonymity, “We are going to lose 2014. There is no one left within our ranks fit to govern. We should have just denied Ramdev permission to fast and jailed him.”
Whether they lose the 2014 elections or not, Ramdev and Team Anna have exposed the absence of the UPA government now: that silence is the vacuum they are filling with noise.
BUT THE political lessons are not for the Congress alone. Many parties thronging to his stage may find themselves trapped in contradictions later. There is the irony of many of them — from Mayawati and Sharad Pawar to the BJP — being accused of corruption themselves. Also, in the short-term it may be of useful to close ranks and corner the Congress, but if any of these formations were to come into power, they would find themselves caught in the same imponderables: the sticky place between promise and process. That’s when the BJP, principal opposition now, too will have to answer, what has it done to bring black money into the system? Public disenchantment, as the Congress now knows, is just a thumbnail away.
There are fine print lessons for Ramdev too. Last June he was commanding crowds 40,000 strong. This August, it’s about 10,000. Television channels, especially some who were his allied megaphones last year, are more sober in their coverage now. Is the sheen of his short-term wearing off too?
With inputs from Manoj Rawat and Mahipal Kunwar
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.