NEW DELHI, India — The tragedy of Indian politics is that it usually plays as farce.
So it was this past weekend, when a police raid on a popular guru's hunger strike turned violent, and then abruptly comical. The guru dressed like a woman to escape but was nonetheless captured and whisked away to his Himalayan retreat.
Swami Baba Ramdev, a television yogi with a mass following in India, had organized the fast in New Delhi against corruption in India. He has called on the government to introduce tough anti-corruption legislation and to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad.
On Sunday, police dispersed the crowd of 40,000 people using batons and tear gas, leaving at least one protester in critical condition. Ramdev was exiled to the Hindu pilgrimage city of Haridwar, where he continues his fast to compel the government to bring back so-called "black money" stashed in secret foreign bank accounts.
A rustic and conservative figure, Ramdev has over the past five years built a health and philosophy empire comprising some 34 companies, which brought in an estimated $250 million last year, according to Indian press reports. Preaching simple yoga techniques, he has rapidly amassed an audience of millions for his televised yoga program, now supported by two broadcasting firms.
But by classing homosexuality as a psychological failing and making the unsubstantiated claim that his breathing exercises can cure cancer and HIV — not to mention grow hair — he has ensured that most of his followers are conservative, rural and small-town Hindus who are being steadily left behind in India's climb toward modernity.
As such, his presence may actually hurt the anti-corruption movement more than it helps — as he has insisted on measures that are impractical or irrelevant, such as eliminating notes higher than 50 rupees (about $1) in denomination, or introducing the death penalty for corrupt officials.
But as ridiculous as Ramdev makes the debate, like Rush Limbaugh, he raises the volume so much that he cannot be ignored. Gurus and babas — whose claims of asceticism inspire absolute trust from their followers — have often intervened in Indian politics, mobilizing mass movements to block the reform of religious laws and even bring down governments.
So it came as no surprise that within a matter of hours, nearly every politician felt compelled to take a position on Ramdev in order to gain or defend political capital. Nearly every opposition politician had something to say against the brutal crackdown, while the Congress slammed Ramdev and his attempt to enact laws without the inconvenience of votes.
Old-timers from the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) resurfaced to join the fun. A journalist tried to whack a Congress Party spokesman with his shoe (he was thrashed soundly for his trouble).
A delegation of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leaders — so pleased with the way the wind was blowing that one of them broke into a jubilant jig outside Mahatma Gandhi's mausoleum — met the president to call for an emergency session of parliament to browbeat the government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered a defensive public apology for the crackdown. “It is unfortunate that the operation had to be conducted, but quite honestly, there was no alternative,” he told journalists.
And Ramdev himself, once again clad in his characteristic orange garb, again returned to center stage — via television news — to grin, roll his eyes and hint that a mysterious "secret mission" had caused his normally omnipresent right-hand man to disappear.
As mad as it sounds, however, the situation is serious.
Singh's Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has been pounded by corruption accusations even before Ramdev began his fast, and neither its jailing of the former telecom minister nor its capitulation on including prominent members of civil society in the drafting of a powerful new ombudsman law has succeeded in muting the anger.
So, when Ramdev entered the fray, what had up to this point appeared to be a naive and altruistic effort turned overtly political.
Although Ramdev and the Hindu-nationalist RSS party have denied any affiliation, the guru's Hindu identity, his right-wing politics and his strong sense of nationalism make them natural allies. And with Ramdev's move to take over the anti-corruption movement — which was earlier championed by social activist Anna Hazare, who also launched an anti-corruption hunger strike — the symbolism of the struggle changed abruptly.
However critical he was of the government, Hazare, with his white suit and Gandhi cap, symbolized change from within the tradition of the Congress Party, though he is not a member. Ramdev's orange robes, on the other hand, stand for the BJP — known colloquially as "the saffron party" — even though Ramdev is not a BJP party member either.
The government's crackdown on Ramdev's fast has completed the movement's shift, and many observers are calling it a foolish miscalculation.
Until now, the anti-corruption agitation has existed outside mainstream politics, since the average Indian was convinced that the entire political class was equally corrupt.
Meanwhile, the BJP has been riven by factionalism and struggled to find an issue that would excite voters and make it stand out. Now, the BJP is not only united behind a popular issue, but in Ramdev it may also have discovered a new way to mobilize faithful Hindus.
The leading ideologues of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), who spearheaded the faith's first rise to power in the 1980s, have now taken prominent positions in the post-crackdown protests.
Former BJP president L.K. Advani, for instance — once accused of inciting the mob that destroyed the Babri mosque, believed to have been built at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram — rose from the almost dead to lead the delegation that called for an emergency session of parliament.
Uma Bharti is another whose fiery speeches whipped up passions in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the Hindu-Muslim riots erupted across the country. She was invited to rejoin the BJP on Tuesday after more than five years in the wilderness, following her ousting for defying the party's central leadership in 2005. Other stalwarts are waiting in the wings.
That's where the farce turns tragedy again.
Hazare's protesters might have been naive to think another law could solve India's all-pervasive corruption problem. But at least they were sincere.
The entrance of saffron-clad Ramdev into the fray, and the scent of blood from the government's crackdown on his supporters has left behind, put an end to that sincerity, replacing it with cold, political calculation. It's no longer about fixing the problem, in other words, but using it to gain political mileage.
Thus, on Monday, representatives of Hazare's so-called "civil society" movement against corruption boycotted meetings to discuss the very law that Hazare had fasted to secure. Leaders of not only the BJP but also the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and Communist Party of India (CPI) declined to provide their views on six outstanding issues hampering the bill, sandbagging until an actual draft appears for them to oppose.
And the government itself, worried that the public is beginning to believe that it is stonewalling, now aims to push the bill ahead before July with or without Hazare's men.
Whatever form that law takes, and whatever chicanery it takes to pass it, the moment that it might have made a difference is over. Now it's just politics as usual.