How RSS, Ramdev Found Common Cause
- August-September 2010: RSS functionaries meet Baba Ramdev and discuss taking up corruption as an issue. They decide to float a forum to campaign against graft.
- October 2010: RSS informs BJP leader L.K. Advani and party president Nitin Gadkari of its plan to back the baba’s bhrashtachar mitao satyagraha
- March 2011: RSS adopts a resolution against corruption at its annual Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha held in Puttur, Karnataka
- April 2011: Ramdev meets RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Nagpur. June 4 is fixed as the date for the fast unto death at Ramlila grounds.
- April 2011: Bhagwat visits Ramdev at his Haridwar ashram, hand-delivers a letter spelling out RSS support. Directive sent to all RSS cadres to support baba.
And What RSS Plans To Do Now
- Provide logistical support at Haridwar (pictured above). Find a dignified exit and distance itself from the baba without upsetting his supporters.
- Stick to the official line of supporting the baba. At the same time, ensure that the BJP continues to take on the UPA over police action at Ramlila grounds on June 4.
- Bring forward a group of sants to take up the issue of corruption. Make them the face of the movement. This is conveyed to the baba by Ashok Singhal of the VHP (panel left)
- Maintain just enough distance from Baba Ramdev so that the movement stays within the Sangh's fold and does not become a tool in the government's hand
When Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat took a written commitment to Baba Ramdev on April 7 of his organisation’s support for the latter’s bhrashtachar mitao satyagraha, he would not have foreseen that in two months, the maverick guru would be talking of armed rebellion. After his humiliating eviction by police last week from the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, his escape and arrest in women’s clothing, and cornered by the government over corruption charges, the baba has turned belligerent. Four days after his eviction, fasting at his ashram in Haridwar among visiting netas and disciples, he thundered: “The next time they do a Ravanlila at Ramlila, let’s see who gets beaten up.” For the Sangh, the image of a pliable mascot was quickly dissipating. The baba’s call to arms, to train an army of youth in shaastra-shastra (scriptures and weaponry), which might have been uttered in a spell of heat, rekindles the picture of right-wing terror, which the Sangh is keen to dispel. Realising this, the baba shrewdly corrected himself, saying that all he meant was to train volunteers in traditional methods of self-defence to handle difficult situations. But he remains strident as ever, and, to be sure, the Sangh is in a tizzy.
Even K.N. Govindacharya, a former ideologue of the Sangh and presently political advisor to Ramdev, was constrained to say, “I strongly disapprove of Baba Ramdevji’s shaastra-shastra statement. The need of the hour is to have a consolidated approach to the issue of corruption, which can be reached only through dialogue and trust between the various groups involved.” As if to underline his standpoint, he adds, “The only answer in a country like India is democratic means. Any violence will only give legitimacy to state violence and benefit the state.” Given the baba’s unpredictability, the Sangh, sources say, is not just “worried, but even fearful of the baba and what he might do next”.
In fact, insiders say the fear is so overpowering that the Sangh is planning an “honourable exit from the entire Baba Ramdev episode”. “The Sangh has little choice but to slowly dissociate itself from Baba Ramdev,” says a functionary. “The situation is complex and serious. It can’t be seen in black and white. The Sangh is in a dilemma and is trying to find a way out.”
“The RSS wasn’t behind Baba Ramdev’s stir, but supported it. We can’t stay mute spectators to the campaign against graft.”
Mohan Bhagwat, RSS sarsanghchalak
That said, the Sangh has thought it wise to also maintain its official line. Bhagwat’s position is clear: “The RSS was not behind the stir launched by Baba Ramdev, but has extended all support to it. The RSS cannot remain a mute spectator to the social revolution taking place against corruption and black money. Therefore, it has asked its cadres to join the agitation.” But the mood to “delink and dissociate” from the baba has nevertheless been building up. “The Sangh never expected the baba to behave in the manner that he has,” says a senior pracharak. “It all started with how he behaved in negotiations with the government. He has since been incoherent, inconsistent, fickle-minded. We don’t support the police action at Ramlila grounds, but the baba’s statements and actions have discredited the leadership of this movement. That’s simply not acceptable.” Others are more scathing in their criticism. Says one pracharak, “Baba Ramdev compares himself to Gandhi and Chandrashekar Azad. But Azad and Gandhi never ran away. They never disguised themselves as women to escape action. The baba refuses to introspect and listen now. He doesn’t even want suggestions.”
But the dissociation is bound to be gradual. Ramdev is learnt to have told the Sangh he does not have the wherewithal to keep the agitation going from Haridwar, so the Sangh has promised him logistical support—for it can ill-afford to see a potential Hindutva icon’s call for a fight against corruption look like a no-show. So, according to sources, the Sangh will mobilise crowds for the baba’s hunger strike and also provide for those gathering around him at his ashram. Food, stay, travel—these the Sangh has promised. “It’s a compulsion,” says a pracharak. “After openly supporting the baba’s stir, we can’t allow his hunger strike to go unattended. It will send a terrible message across. The government will otherwise assume the baba has no support and it will seem as if the Sangh failed in carrying a movement through.”
What’s worse for the RSS is that if it does not participate with enthusiasm in the baba’s campaign against corruption, it will stand discredited in the baba’s considerable following of disciples, yoga enthusiasts and the devoutly religious. After all, it is this constituency—which it partly shares, partly covets—that prompted it to support Ramdev’s satyagraha in the first place. Beyond middle-class Hindus, a turf that overlaps with that of the RSS, Ramdev, a Yadav from Haryana, has a huge following among OBCs in north India. If the RSS drops out suddenly, this constituency could turn against it.
Insiders say it’s because of this damage potential that the Sangh cannot ignore Ramdev or take him lightly. Especially with the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections due early next year, it’s a threat that the Sangh sees as real. Even if Ramdev does not float his own political party but decides to only support candidates of his choice in the elections, it will still directly cut into the votebank of the BJP, the RSS’s political wing. The Sangh is not willing to take that risk, given that the party is struggling breathlessly in the state.
Fugleman’s Move Baba Ramdev with a group of sants
The options left with the Sangh are now few. It’s the “honourable way out” that Bhagwat, Mohan Vaidya, Bhaiyyaji Joshi and other senior functionaries of the Sangh, huddled together at its Jhandewalan office in Delhi over the weekend, are trying to work out without offending the baba. “The Sangh’s concerns are focused. It knows that support to the Baba has to be given for now,” says a senior functionary. “What needs to be figured out is how far and how long should this support be given.”
“I strongly disapprove of baba’s statement on shaastra-shastra. Democratic means are the only way we must adopt in India.”
K.N. Govindacharya, Former RSS ideologue
Why? Insiders explain that the reasons to be factored in are many. For one, the Sangh has to seriously think how far it should exert pressure on the central government on the corruption issue. The pressure mounted has to be just right: enough to stop the government from going after the Sangh with charges of Hindu terror, particularly when Ramdev is talking about armed rebellion and the government quickly linking him to the Sangh. It also has to be just enough to stop the government from launching an all-out offensive against the BJP and harming its political future. The Sangh is also entrusted with the job of not letting the issue of corruption, which finds considerable resonance with the aam admi, slip out of its hands completely. It also has to take enough care to chart out a method by which it can get Ramdev to call off his fast without turning him against the saffron outfit. Most importantly, the Sangh has to ensure that the Hindutva movement—its prime engine—does not get tarnished.
Therefore, a few processes have been set rolling already. On June 8, the Sangh sent VHP chief Ashok Singhal to speak to Ramdev with a clear three-point directive: one, instruct the guru to refrain from making any outrageous statements; two, change the format of his movement from personality-centric to issue-centric, thereby forming a joint platform of spiritual leaders from the Hindu sant samaj who would spearhead and take the movement forward; third, ask Ramdev to withdraw from his station as the face of the movement so that he and the sant samaj members can work as a team. Reprimanded, Ramdev followed the first instruction and announced a maunvrat from Thursday night—but, true to form, not before holding a press conference to declare his assets! For this yoga guru, such twists and turns are normal.
What’s come as godsend for the Sangh is Uma Bharti’s timely reinduction into the BJP. As an RSS leader explained, “At least with Umaji’s entry into the BJP, the Sangh has a replacement for Baba Ramdev’s Hindutva icon slot. If the Sangh eases itself out of this arrangement with Ramdev, then Umaji can take his place.” After spending six years in political wildernesss on being thrown out in 2005, in 2011 Uma Bharati brings back to the RSS and the BJP the same kind of constituency that Ramdev commands. Of Lodh origin, she has a considerable hold in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, particularly in the Bundelkhand region, and even in Karnataka. Like Ramdev, she too commands respect among OBC voters, and being a saffron-clad sadhvi, extends that appeal among devout middle-class Hindus. Entrusted with overseeing political affairs in Uttar Pradesh, she will be expected to raise a voice against corruption in the Mayawati regime, and could therefore prove to be the right antidote for Ramdev. The Sangh is banking on that.
Till such time as that happens, insiders in the Sangh are rueing that in Baba Ramdev they “chose a pygmie to lead a great movement”. What the Sangh wants now is an exit plan.