Columns, Tehelka

Politics in Absentia

Baba Ramdev’s agitation is a result of the political vacuum in the country and the connect he enjoys with followers of his yoga


It is easy to be uncharitable about Baba Ramdev and his anti-corruption crusade. Coming on the heels of another movement led by another rustic sage, one could be forgiven for describing it as the new circus in town, seeking to speak similar needs but with a somewhat different cast of characters. Having tried and failed in his attempt to crash an earlier party, he has thrown his own, and it seems to be working, at least in as much as it allows him to hog headlines and become the subject of ‘breaking news’ captions.

Perhaps, the key to understanding the Ramdev phenomenon lies in the nature of today’s constructed reality. It seems easy for anyone with the ability to mobilise a few thousand people and do so in Delhi, for whatever cause they represent, to become an apparently national phenomenon. Of course, it is critical for this cause to have resonance with the middle class; a few lakh farmers agitating for more transparent land acquisition are only a giant traffic nuisance and more marginal constituencies are curiosity pieces, if even that. In a country where mobilising people has never been a great problem, it is strange that such importance has begun to be given to the kind of numbers that a Ramdev attracts.

What it points to is that the idea of a national issue, or anything that goes under the name of national mainstream, might well be under threat or at least under active reconstruction. What we call the national agenda now stops on the edges of a television set; a frameful of reality is all it takes to create a sense of the present. The anti-corruption movement gains in scale by multiplying the actual size of the protest with the anger stored up in the constituency that buys into the movement, which in turn gets exponentially magnified by the kind of media coverage it receives. In a real sense, politics has gravitated state-wards, leaving the national arena to stage props like party spokespersons and permanently apoplectic media anchors. It is unfair to label the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev-led movements as media creations, not because it is untrue, but because almost anything that flies under the flag of the ‘national’ shares the same characteristic.

There is another aspect at work, too. The presence of so many spiritual leaders in the Anna Hazare movement, which otherwise aspired to a secular status, was noteworthy. In a larger sense, a nexus seems to exist between godmen of various hues and politicians, one that was much in evidence even when it came to serious negotiations with the government. The spiritual leader derives his legitimacy from commanding a constituency that flocks to him of its own volition and over which he has considerable influence. The influence that is exercised is not contingent on him making any promises that are specific or verifiable, and hence enjoys immunity from being found out, an immunity that politicians do not enjoy. The unspecific nature of the clout is very useful in creating a pressure group that is scalar in nature, unlike that formed by Team Anna, which had some very specific goals. Ramdev does not ask for anything terribly tangible, and this allows him to keep asking for it. It also makes him attractive to political parties that can be seen to be supporting the anti-corruption cause without having to do anything about it. Ramdev’s movement creates an anti-Congress platform that has a reasonable media-inflated scale, but no political cost to anyone involved.

Even so, for most observers, it is difficult to take Ramdev seriously. For a man who became famous as a yoga guru and whose key skill as seen on television, was to inhale and exhale with alarming enthusiasm, which he leveraged into a business empire, and whose first foray into leading a mass movement ended in salwar kameez-clad absurdity, the mantle of political significance sits with more than a little unease. That he has considerable following is clear, as is his need to assume a significant role, whatever that might be, on the national political stage. But beyond his obvious ambition, it is difficult to discern any concrete political ideas that he might have. Nor does he have a grassroots organisation with any staying power.

As many have argued, even in the case of the nowdefunct Team Anna’s decision to turn to politics, creating a protest movement and running a viable political parties are two completely different things.

And while that might be true, it may be so for completely different reasons than is argued conventionally. Increasingly, the notion that politics in general, and political parties in particular, require an ideological core, an internal structure with coherence and transparency, and a system to create new layers of leadership, is being dismantled in reality. In a larger sense, the traditional vocabulary employed to describe politics is being rendered meaningless. Across the board, political parties in India violate conventional ideas of what they should look like and how they should behave.

The Congress is a monarchy in thin disguise, with a leadership that shows an occasional flicker of interest in the issues of the day, retreating into icy inaccessibility otherwise. It is a party that cannot imagine itself without a surname, and the idea that in this day and age, the country’s leading political formation should hold its breath waiting for the next plausible progeny to emerge and do something to communicate sentience would be ridiculous, were it not accepted with such matter-of-fact equanimity. Its ideology is described as centrist, which is a good name for nothing in particular.

Ironically, the BJP is a party that suffers precisely because it has no such mechanism that puts the leadership question out of the arena of overblown egos and fractious debate. It is run, behind the scenes, by a shadow group in half-pants, that comes out of hiding to occasionally say something inscrutable and goes back to exercising around a flagpole. It is described as a rightwing party but behaves often like the Left, which, of course, is a political formation that continues to live in the early part of the last century. Then we have the regional parties, each outdoing the other, each patenting its own brand of improbable strangeness. And finally, we have Mamata Banerjee.

The emergence of Baba Ramdev is an extension of the nature of political discourse in the country rather than an exception, as his apparent incongruity might seem to indicate. Politics in India has, for a long time now, abandoned the familiar shores of accepted vocabulary that is used to describe it.

Imposed on the many by the few that were fired by the ideals originating in the West, democracy has, in the past few years, finally broken free of its imported moorings and discovered a highly local version of itself. The new politics of India is a progeny of Indian society rather than a mechanism to order it and channelise it towards secular goals of governance. It is more fragmented than centred, enabling traditional faultlines rather than dismantling them, doing so by recruiting newer structures in its quest rather than surrendering to them. Without a new language to describe it and a new lens to frame it through, the new politics of India will be difficult to comprehend, much like the spectacle of Baba Ramdev in a woman’s garb.


Tehelka,  25 August 2012