R Jagannathan Jun 6, 2011
When Baba Ramdev was bundled out of Delhi unceremoniously, it was a
forceful message from the Congress-led UPA government that it was not
going to vacate space for civil society to muscle in on its turf — unless
the civil society members happen to be Sonia Gandhi groupies.
It is also an indication that orders for the crackdown on the Baba came
from the political power centre – Sonia Gandhi herself. It marks a new
assertion of party over government in order to seize the political
initiative from a bumbling Manmohan Singh.
But it is worth understanding what really transpired these last few weeks,
when the government first started humouring the Baba, held detailed
discussions with him, and then hit him on the head – metaphorically – with
a club when he was least expecting it.
Who betrayed whom? Was it the government, which came out waving a paper
saying the Baba went back on his promise to call off the fast? Or was it
the Baba, who found the government closing in on him, and decided to back
away from a deal he knew was not good for his future?
I believe it was the government which decided to pull the plug on the Baba
deal. It flows from the answer to the question: why was the Congress
schmoozing with the Baba in the first place when it knew he had deep Sangh
The Congress has a problem in the north, where the BJP is a potent threat
everywhere, except Uttar Pradesh. This is where the Baba comes in handy.
The answer: the Congress wined and dined him precisely because he was
close to the Sangh Parivar. It was not something they discovered later,
when Sadhvi Ritambara turned up at the Baba’s fast-fest.
In the Congress book of dirty tricks, this is old hat. Whenever the
Congress sees a looming political threat, it backs a rival in the same
camp to break away and undercut the original threat.
To deal with the Akalis in Punjab, Indira Gandhi backed Bhindranwale. To
destroy the Shiv Sena, it backed Raj Thackeray, and won the last elections
purely from this vote division. To undercut the National Conference, it
broke bread with Mufti Sayeed’s PDP in the last decade before it dumped
the PDP again for the National Conference.
Of course, the Congress also reaps the whirlwind when it sows the wind
(Indira was killed by Sikh extremists, and Rajiv fell to the LTTE’s
suicide bomber), but that’s another story.
It is also worth recalling that the Congress won the last elections in
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu precisely because a third player (Praja
Rajyam in Andhra, and Vijayakanth’s DMDK in Tamil Nadu) ate into
opposition votes and brought the Congress (or the Congress alliance)
victory. But for these spoilers, Chandrababu Naidu and AIADMK would have
won in 2009.
So who do you need to fix before 2014 in the same way? While there are
obviously a whole range of regional and sectarian parties who are local
threats to the Congress in various states, the only national threat is the
BJP, which, despite being rudderless over the last seven years, is the
only party capable of upsetting the Congress’ apple-cart.
Within the BJP, the biggest threat is Narendra Modi, who has shown that he
can get the measure of the Congress, and has the potential to galvanise
the party and the majority community to action — given the right political
circumstances, which, admittedly, don’t exist for now. But who knows what
will be the scenario in 2014?
It explains why the Congress is using activists like Teesta Setalvad and
the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other one-dimensional secularists
to fix him – whether in court or through a blatantly communal Bill to
tackle communal violence. The Bill is specifically targetted at Hindu
organisations, and no one else. It will never see the light of day, but
that does not stop undemocratic NAC members from trying to force it down
But, at another level, the Congress has a problem in the north, where the
BJP is a potent threat everywhere, except Uttar Pradesh. This is where the
Baba comes in handy.
How? In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and also in the rest of the Hindi belt,
the Baba could cut into BJP votes if he floats a political party. He
doesn’t have to win any seats. If he merely takes away 4-5% of the BJP
vote, it is enough for the Congress to win.
This is the primary reason why the Congress has been humouring the Baba
and talking of doing a deal with him on corruption. Unfortunately, the
deal fell through, either because the Congress was trying to be too clever
with him, or was trying to fix him in other ways – and he balked at the
prospect. This is what forced the midnight swoop – something the Congress
had not planned for when it began talking with him.
The second reason why the Baba was useful to the Congress was his
unwillingness to let the Anna Hazare group run off with the
anti-corruption agenda. The Baba’s ego would not let him be a supporter of
the Hazare camp, which had eminent lawyers well-versed in the art of
drafting laws. It also had the support of the middle-class. The Congress
egged on Baba with his rural and small-town clout to stymie the Hazare
The Congress had no reason to let Anna & Co dictate the new Lokpal bill,
and the Baba’s political ambitions proved useful to drive a wedge between
the two camps. While the midnight action has temporarily allowed the two
camps to kiss and make up, the two cannot ultimately work together.
Since the Anna group has lost vital momentum, it is now possible for the
Congress to impose its own Lokpal Bill with some minor concessions to
civil society and reclaim the agenda.
A perceptive comment by K Raman on Firstpost shows how the Baba has been
neutered, and Anna sidelined: “A man who owns a private island in
Scotland, has an annual turnover of Rs 1,000 crore and flies around in a
private jet would obviously have a few skeletons in his cupboard… In the
next 10 days, one after the other the skeletons will tumble down… The Baba
could be fixed in that way..”.
As for Anna & Co, Raman says: “..the government has clearly sent out the
message that if they mess around, then they too will meet the same fate as
the Baba. Shanti Bhushan’s statement that the Prime Minister and the
government has to resign is not helpful, to say the least…Now with what
face will this team go back and discuss with the same government on Lokpal
Clearly, the Congress used the Baba and discarded him when he did not toe
the line. The BJP need not be too unhappy, too. The Baba was meant to cut
it down to size. So while it may fulminate against the government for its
midnight “Jallianwala Bagh”, it should be secretly happy that one
potential rival for the Hindu vote is out of the way.
The Congress has won – for now. While the Baba did not serve its
short-term purpose, the party may still hold the high cards when it comes
to getting him to float a party to cut into the BJP vote.
But just as a week is a long time in politics, such political manoeuvres
are not enduring. The only question is whether, when it is politics as
usual, the ordinary citizen has lost out. The upsurge of grassroot support
when Anna Hazare began his fast has died down. Cynicism rules. Congress