Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Babas, mantris and their eager audience

Political theater is the best kind of spectator sport…until it turns bloody. We were all here when Anna Hazare launched his fast in support of the Lokpal Bill, and like many others, I too visited the Jantar Mantar grounds to participate. When people on FB/Twitter spoke out in favour of his ideas, I applauded the fact that many young people were taking an interest in politics, and I still do. The taste for politics and current events has to start somewhere, and for many 26/11 started a fire that is continually fanned by the media when something ‘big’ happens.

The image of Anna Hazare – old man with a nehru cap – worked very well visually. He seemed genuine. Joined by Kiran Bedi and other not-so-well-known (in basic public perception) activists added to his credibility, and when politicians tried to join in, they were booed out. However, behind closed doors, his demand that the PM and judiciary be included under the purview of Lokpal rattled the politicos. What I found very interesting was India’s new experiment of a joint drafting committee – today uncertain because of rising tensions – but an innovative way of attempting to include experts and social activists who often work tirelessly for causes without any political muscle. According to reports (including Outlook) the government looked to prop up Baba Ramdev as a counter to Anna Hazare’s group as he did not support adding the PM/judiciary under Lokpal.

Since I was out of town and away from the media, I didn’t get to see the unfolding of events through either a 24/7 news channel prism or a New Delhi prism. I was sitting in Varanasi at a Dalit gathering, and there scepticism ran very high. Who is this Ramdev who has become so rich in such a short time? Isn’t he the same guy who claimed to have cured cancer and AIDS? Questions, questions.

Later, as I read about the events, they seemed rather extraordinary. Ramdev landed at the airport, only to be greeted – very openly – by cabinet ministers. A deal was struck, but by all accounts, both sides were lying. The baba claimed his demands had been met and the government would “allow” his fast. It became clear to the government (as if this was a secret) that Ramdev’s fast was giving space to RSS elements, and instead of being an anti-corruption rally, this was potentially anti-Congress. The police was sent in in the middle of the night and after 30mins of negotiations on the dias, he jumped into the crowd to escape them. A human wave around him prevented the police from catching it, and it seems that is when it went horribly wrong, with teargas, lathi charge and bullets in the air. There have been some very serious casualties as a result. Ramdev, in the meantime, was found hiding in womens clothing. He was taken in, and sent back to Haridwar by private plane where he continues to protest, this time I believe at the injustice done to him.

As an observer, one can’t help but have a million questions. I’ll start with Ramdev because I can’t understand the intention behind the fast. Is this genuine – a need to protest against a corrupt ridden system, or a platform for launching his political party? Frankly, if it’s the latter, I would be more satisfied because it would make sense. The baba has claimed that in their closed door negotiations at the airport and later at the Claridges hotel (where he was staying) the government intimidated him, threatened him, and told him that they would kill him. He had also made a secret deal to end the fast in 2(?) days but publicly pretended that he had not. So supporters came from far and wide, unknowing that they were pawns in this political game. When he police came, he did not allow them to arrest him – becoming a martyr of sorts – but instead chose to hide in the crowds and then don a woman’s salwar kameez. Right now, conspiracy theorists (and India Today) are questioning the perfect fit of that salwar kameez and wondering if it wasn’t already tailor made to suit his slender frame. But wardrobe issues aside, is the move to have a fast opportunistic or genuine? Everything about the media circus screams opportunistic, but then he is not alone in making this a “success”.

When I saw images of Pranab, Sibal etc go to the airport, I actually thought – no, they couldn’t be that stupid…. Knowing fully well that the media was going to follow them. If Outlook is right, they wanted to accord Ramdev with the kind of status they did not do to Anna – or they wanted people to know that they had reached out to Ramdev. What happened at Ramlila is beyond unfortunate, and for Congress spokespersons to blame to Delhi police is very tacky. For the BJP to jump on this chance is expected and except for Rudy saying on Times Now that the government was planning as “mass genocide” in the dead of the night, I think the reaction is as expected. Frankly, I am dreading the fact that Parliament will again resemble a drunken pub brawl instead of what it should look like. But this situation highlighted the lack of leadership in the Congress. The PM was nowhere to be seen, and 2 days is 2 days too long in this 24/7 media world. By the time he emerged #findingmanmohan was already a popular buzzword on Twitter and the jokes didn’t stop there. I commented that perhaps Sibal, Pranab, Chidambaram should be given the reigns of the Congress party because they seem to be able to stick their necks out. The PM’s statement that this incident was “unfortunate” but “unavoidable” which many took to mean that he had to say over the police action in the dead of the night. And any huge incident also reminds people that the lack of an opinion from our crown prince just means that it is clear case of power without responsibility.

So in the end, the Baba has not come off as a simple sanyasi fighting corruption. The government has come across as wanting to seem decisive but ending up brutal and insensitive. The opposition has come alive in a way that no one could have predicted. And the pressures of all of it has lead to a crack in the Lokpal drafting committee with the government saying that they can certainly draft it without civil society members. And the spectators? I wish elections were round the corner and not 3 years away. Cause in this spectator sport, that is the tie breaker that counts.