Box Populi

Is Ramdev a ‘dhongi’ baba?

If nothing else, the Delhi police raid on Baba Ramdev's camp on Sunday has helped clear some confusion. The midnight swoop was unexpected, but we now know that the central government, which treated the yoga guru like an honoured state guest when he first arrived in Delhi, is his enemy.

Congress leader Digvijay Singh has described Ramdev as a "thug" and a "fraud". In turn, Ramdev has accused the centre of trying to murder him, and called senior minister Kapil Sibal "a liar and a cunning man". His supporters, or at least men claiming to be his supporters, have attacked Digvijay Singh's house in Bhopal.  The Congress has promptly dubbed Ramdev a secret agent of the BJP. As you can see, a full-fledged war is on.

We also know that the BJP is going all out to support Ramdev. It has organised demonstrations all over India to protest against his eviction, and is complaining that the centre is unleashing Emergency-like terror against its political opponents. Senior leaders like L K Advani are seeking to meet President Pratibha Patil. At least 30 of Ramdev's followers were injured when the police started caning them in the middle of the night, and the government is nervous the outrage could snowball into something too huge for it to control.

It's now Team Baba (with full support from the BJP) vs the UPA. Anna Hazare and his team have expressed solidarity with Ramdev, and called off their meeting with the government on Monday over the drafting of the Lokpal Bill. But are they fully with Ramdev? Yes and no. They support his campaign against corruption but are queasy about the Sangh parivar jumping on to his bandwagon.

Already a cult figure thanks to his TV shows promoting yoga, Ramdev has been able to inspire many thousands to travel to Delhi to participate in his rally. He enjoys all-India appeal, and as a commentator put it, the government has reason to worry because his supporters are from the small towns, and they vote. The government knows how to handle criticism from urban intellectuals, who advance sophisticated arguments but do little by way of political action. With someone like Ramdev, the UPA government knows it has to tread carefully. It may already have lost some credibility by talking one moment to the guru and tear-gassing his supporters the next.

Many look at Ramdev with suspicion because (a) he is wealthy, even owning a Scottish island, but claims to represent the poor masses; (b) he runs a profitable business selling Ayurvedic medicines, and could have a sales agenda; (c) he enjoys support from communal and corrupt groups, which could quietly hijack his cause for votes; (d) his campaign makes unreasonable demands that cannot be met overnight; and (d) his rabble-rousing could create law and order problems.

So is Ramdev a dhongi (fake) baba, as Mahatma Gandhi's great grandson Tushar suggested in a tweet on Sunday? Or does he represent a popular cause that was just waiting for a leader?

In all the drama, we have forgotten what he's asking for: that black money stashed away in foreign banks be brought back to India,  that professional education be imparted in Indian languages, and that high-denomination currency notes be withdrawn so that illegal transactions are curbed. His demands will find resonance among the less affluent and those sidelined by India's globalised economy, even if he is ridiculed elsewhere.

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* Consequences for government will be adverse, Ramdev warns

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