India: Yoga demagogue adds to Congress Party's woes


Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev gestures after breaking his fast at Ambedkar stadium in New Delhi on August 14, 2012.



Yoga demagogue Baba Ramdev added to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's woes over the weekend, as he officially turned his branch of the anti-corruption movement into an all-out assault on the PM's Congress Party.

Prominent members of the opposition attended the yoga guru's rally, turning it into the very campaign event that Singh's government tried to avert last year, when a crackdown by the Delhi police forced Ramdev to get out of dodge disguised in a sari (never mind the beard).

A TV evangelist with millions of followers and a multi-million dollar empire, Ramdev scares the Congress because -- unlike anti-corruption figurehead Anna Hazare or any of the Congress politicians -- he actually has the charisma to draw the masses.

In short: Anybody who can convince millions of regular folks to rub their fingernails together in the hope of preventing baldness can probably sway their votes, too.

Ramdev cut short his hunger strike on Tuesday and said he would leave for his ashram in Haridwar, following a brief arrest of the guru and some of his followers, Reuters reported. But this time Ramdev got in a few digs before he left, and managed to leave still wearing his own gear.

"Congress hatao, desh bachao (Remove Congress, save the country)," Ramdev said, concluding an hour-long speech that blasted Singh's party as the only obstacle to the efforts to stopping "black money" (or income hidden from the tax man, which makes up a sizable part of the economy here).

"We are not leaving this place defeated but we are going as victorious. We have made all parties come together (on the issue of black money). We have not targeted or tarnished Congress. It was their own doing," the Hindustan Times quoted Ramdev as saying.

"The government said they have brought out a White Paper but what they have brought out is a false paper," Ramdev said.

Apart from Ramdev's own power as a draw, his presence and apparent cooperation with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) indicates that the upcoming 2014 election may pit right against left in a more energized fashion than seen in 2009.

In the previous go, the BJP appeared reluctant to push its pro-Hindu stance (known as Hindutva) and appeared to flounder when trying to differentiate itself from the Congress on other issues. Ramdev's straight-down-the-line conservatism is a possible antidote. As a character who has claimed yoga can cure AIDS and the "disease" of homosexuality to boot, he fits squarely within the corner of the BJP/RSS combine that lobbies for the inclusion of Hindu astrology as a university discipline and the like.

Meanwhile, the Congress should perhaps be concerned about the RSS's own efforts to take a new role in politics. Still tainted by past involvement in anti-minority violence, especially by an associated youth wing called the Bajrang Dal (or "Monkey Gang"), the RSS made a rare effort to engage foreign correspondents this week -- perhaps signaling that it realizes it needs to woo the middle as well as the far right if it wants to help rejuvenate the BJP.

"Last week in New Delhi, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, spoke to more than two dozen foreign journalists," writes Sanjay Kumar in the Diplomat. "Furthermore, he spoke in English when conversing with reporters despite the RSS's disdain for the language which it sees as alien and anathema to Indian tradition."

Bhagwat's press conference implies that the RSS, which is the parent organization of the opposition party, Bharitya Janata Party(BJP), is trying to remake its image by adopting a softer tone and by reaching out to international audiences. For instance, during the recent press conference Bhagwat deviated the RSS's hardcore stand against Pakistan in not being overly critical of the current government's decision to initiate peace talks with Pakistan. He only said that the dialogue should not happen at the cost of self respect and that Pakistan should move against terrorist groups located inside that country. The RSS as a whole has been softening its anti-Muslim and Hindu Nationalist stances as of late.

This 'soft power' campaign directed towards foreign media cannot be disassociated from Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions or the upcoming election in 2014. Modi, a member of the BJP, is known for his hardliner rightist beliefs and alleged involvement in the killing of roughly 1000 deaths of mostly Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

With Hazare, Ramdev and a newly laundered Modi lined up against them, the Congress could well be in trouble in 2014.