New monks for old

Ashok Malik
·Corner Plot

In the aftermath of the Baba Ramdev fiasco, spokespersons of the UPA government and the Congress have alleged the yoga guru and religious preacher is a proxy for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – India’s biggest Hindu nationalist socio-political conglomeration – and of its daughter organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

Politicians and commentators have confidently predicted Ramdev will now join the RSS and consanguineous political parties such as the BJP in a political assault on the Congress. They have pointed out that some of the issues he harps upon – cow protection, cleaning the Ganga, and of course corruption in the UPA regime – are also issues that exercise the RSS and its family. As such, there is the conclusion that Ramdev is a tool in RSS-VHP hands.

This assessment may be a little flawed. I would argue Ramdev is too independent and autonomous to be satisfied being a prop for the Sangh Parivar – as the RSS network is called – or indeed any party. Till a week ago he seemed happy to do a deal with the Congress on his terms. Today, he is happy to enter into a mutually-beneficial and expedient relationship with non-Congress parties, the BJP the biggest among them.

True he has concerns such as cow protection and Ganga conservation that the RSS shares. Frankly these are issues that engross most of the Hindu religious right and a wide body of conservative Hindu opinion. They are not necessarily RSS-only issues.

The reason Ramdev is much more than a RSS-VHP weapon is not limited to his individual persona. It is a reflection of changing religio-political dynamics in India. As the country has evolved in the past 20 years – in the form of an economic and media surge, and in parallel an assertion of caste identity – so has Hindu religious mobilisation.

The army of saffron-clad sanyasis and preachers who sat next to Ramdev on the dais at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan seemed to resemble the VHP-inspired gatherings two decades ago in favour of the Ramjanmabhoomi in Ayodhya. Yet fundamentally a lot has changed. Why and how?

One of Hinduism’s great attributes is its diversity and lack of central authority. When it comes to collective bargaining – while trying to build a cross-cutting Hindu electoral constituency, for instance – this diversity can become a handicap. How could this circle be squared? That question was at the root of the Hindu consolidation project of the 1980s and 1990s.

Hinduism had no Pope, but could it have a collective papacy? It was a provocative question that Ashok Singhal asked himself when he took charge of the VHP in the 1980s. Singhal is not a favourite with liberal, English-speaking audiences in India. He was one of the faces of the Ayodhya agitation. He has a short fuse and some of his views can only politely be described as extremely prejudiced.

Even so, this man was an organisational genius. In 1984, he helped put together the first dharma sansad (religious parliament) in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. That original meeting was blessed by the Congress; later the dharma sansad seemed to move closer to the BJP. Nevertheless those details are not important here.

What was the dharma sansad? It was a platform that brought together – roughly once every two years – thousands (over 4,000 at its peak) of monks, religious gurus and preachers from across India. Singhal diligently travelled around the country, to small towns and big cities, to way-out places, getting religious gurus to sign on to the dharma sansad.

There were various levels of recruits. First, the VHP held there were five main philosophical traditions in contemporary Hindu practice: Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya, Nimbkhacharya, Vallabhacharya. It sought to represent all of them in the dharma sansad.

Of the four Shankaracharya peeths, Kanchi was a charter member of the dharma sansad. The Shankaracharya of Sringeri was friendly but kept an arm’s length. Swaroopananda, the Shankaracharya of Dwaraka, was hostile to the VHP and still remains a Congress sympathiser.

Of the five Ramanujacharyas (the Ramanandacharyas are subsumed under this rubric), the two from Ayodhya and the one from Chitrakoot were dharma sansad regulars. The ones in Ahmedabad and Ramtek were also contacted. Then there were the two Vallabhacharyas (Mumbai and Vadodara), the Rajasthan-based Nimbkhacharya and the Madhavacharya from Udupi.

Who were and are these people? Of course there was a historical Vallabhacharya as there was a historical Madhavacharya and a historical Shankaracharya. Those who hold these titles today are incumbents at religious seats that were apparently founded by the historical figures.

Second, the dharma sansad attracted the Acharya Mahamandeleshwaras who head the nine Shaivite akhadas and the Srimahants who head the four Vaishnavite akhadas. The cream of the rest of the sansad comprised leading lights of 1,100-1,200 sects.

Many of these sects and seats had local, sectional appeal. They commanded loyalty due to historical attachment devotees had with a particular temple or monastery. They tended to mirror a traditional hierarchy and inevitably had a preponderance of Brahminical numbers. Most participants were not all-India figures. The VHP and the dharma sansad gave them a national platform.

Where did this leave the start-up gurus? Those who were first generation preachers and had set up institutions and monasteries in their lifetime, without inheriting a historical brand name and legacy? This writer saw Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at the dharma sansad of 2001 (coinciding with the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad). He was seated on the stage but in the second or third row.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was already a well-known name but at the cusp of the superstardom he was to attain later in the decade. It was clear he was not going to remain content sitting in row two or three, behind a series of inheritors of traditional seats who represented outmoded rather than modern Hindu evangelism, and owed their authority to an obsolete social stratification.

His ambitions and aspirations were greater than merely being a part of a VHP/dharma sansad platform. To use a business analogy, he wanted to be more than one of a line of vice-presidents in a long-standing, robust MNC. He dreamt of being promoter-CEO of his own company.

Ramdev is a similar phenomenon. If anything, he appears downright keen to take individualistic positions in public life and on political matters. There is also the caste angle. Some of these start-up gurus have broken free of the glass ceiling that once allowed only Brahmins and in the odd case Kshatriyas to reach the top.

Ramdev is a Yadav from Haryana, an OBC. He can attribute his fame not to some ancient monastery but to television. He is one of a generation of astonishingly successful televangelists.

These televangelists don’t restrict themselves to caste or sectional mobilisation; they don’t carve out geographical territories. Instead, they seek to construct pan-Indian constituencies, particularly among television-watching audiences in urban India, largely in small towns but in big cities as well.

Today, a Ramdev has greater name, brand and face recall than the RSS, the VHP and almost all of the worthies who signed up for the dharma sansad 20-25 years ago. Unlike them, he is not going to be reined in by group discipline. That’s what makes him – and others like him – so fascinating and so unpredictable.

The question is: can they influence voting decisions as well?

Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com.