With more than 20 million (the estimates vary depending on who you ask) blind followers, Asaram Bapu has had an array of senior leaders from different parties at his feet at some point or the other. With the taint of sexual assault on a minor he has suddenly turned into a major embarrassment for the political powers that basked in his reflected glory. The staunch defence we heard from BJP leaders such as Uma Bharati, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Prabhat Jha seems to lend credence to the view that the magic of his theatrical discourse was seen to work for the saffron party more as he subtly stoked communal passions.
His arrest after 11 days of a cat and mouse game with the Rajasthan police might still give his supporters some relief as a fugitive Asaram could have been a bigger shame. Asaram spent much of time in Bhopal and Indore (both in BJP-run Madhya Pradesh) trying to evade arrest. Jodhpur (in Congress-run Rajasthan) police had already hinted at the possibility of Asaram fleeing Bhopal. The Madhya Pradesh police, allegedly acting at the instance of state Industries Minister Kailash Vijayavargiya, is said to have shielded him and almost defeated the party’s neutral public line on Asaram. Indore’s ties with Asaram go beyond spirituality and hard core Hindutva. It is also a business relationship as a large volume of his land and finance deals is handled with the advice from businessmen in Indore. Though unrelated to this case, Vijayvargiya and his close confidant Ramesh Maindola are facing charges of land- grab over several years now. The Asaram saga has also tested chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan who has not been able to rein in Vijayvargiya.
For all the scorn heaped on him for his Hindu-centric approach, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi displayed remarkable alacrity in gauging the potential of Asaram episode to reach out to the moderate, rational section of the electorate that is neither pro strident- Hindutva nor rabidly anti-Modi, particularly those who have been agitated over the long rope given to the dubious godman. But even Modi had to convey his displeasure through party president Rajnath Singh to send the message out loud and clear.
While the BJP leaders have been on diverse pages on the question of action against Asaram, political wisdom seems to have finally dawned and all of them now are taking the public stance that the law should take its course. Myopic characters like Uma Bharati, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Prabhat Jha, who tried to defend the Guru with anti-Congress rhetoric, seem to have fallen in line. Uma Bharti was the first to call a press conference to defend Asaram. She, however, qualified her statement saying she would herself punish Bapu if his crime was proved. Now she avoids the topic. Vijayvargiya, on the other hand, was defiant and had a noisy encounter with a TV presenter in defending the self-styled godman. But even he is avoiding the subject now.
Modi has to prove his pan-Indian credentials during the assembly elections before the final Lok Sabha battle. He has therefore decided to step out of the saffron strip to reach out to the other parts of the tri-colour. He is assured of the party’s saffron base that won’t erode much regardless of whether Asaram is in jail or out of it. He is also conscious of a large part of the hostile green strip that could still remain beyond reach even if he were to start wearing the skull cap. But he has a chance to win over the neutral white strip with a display of fair play.
At one time, the Gujarat CM and his close aide Amit Shah were seen to be close to Asaram, but relations soured in 2009, when Gujarat police took action, booking 256 Asaram supporters, including 72 women, on charges of attempt to murder, after his supporters attacked policemen in Gandhinagar alleging that their guru had been framed. 2009 was also the year that the Gujarat government undertook a drive to take action against land-grab by demolishing some 300 illegally built temples in Gandhinagar. Asaram remains close to VHP leaders Praveen Togadia and Ashok Singhal who were against the demolitions. Having acted against Asaram earlier in Gujarat, Modi doesn’t need to prove his convictions on the issue.
With the passage of time, the returns from the Asaram card would start diminishing for both his supporters and adversaries. But a conviction through fast-track court may re-ignite the issue just around the time of assembly elections in some key heartland states where the Congress and the BJP are main rivals. Madhya Pradesh, which has been the theatre of quite some action in the Asaram circus, also faces elections in November.
On the current rating the BJP is expected to retain power in Madhya Pradesh despite a steep drop in the number of seats. The Congress’ anticipated recovery to wrest 10 per cent additional seats might not be enough to dislodge the BJP. But, if the Asaram case can swing another one per cent, it could give the ruling party a run for its money.
The BJP has not also been able to erase the stigma of having to sack an 80-year-old finance minister, Raghavji, who had presented ten consecutive state budgets in the state assembly, for being caught on tape sodomising his aide.
The Congress-run Rajasthan government was accused of going slow on Asaram allowing him time to tamper with the evidence and influencing the victim’s family. But the police did have a delicate job to apprehend Asaram in the face of stiff resistance. By completing the interrogation in just one day, the police have measured up to the public expectations over the high-profile case. Views vary on whether the success of the police would have a bearing on the fortunes of Gehlot government. The bipolar state -- where both the current and former chief ministers, Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje are counted as Asaram admirers-- has not offered two successive stints to any party during the past three decades.
Asaram by himself may not be a major factor in the electoral permutations. But his conviction could have a cascading effect on the events that follow. Now there is a clamour to launch investigations against Asaram for all other offences -- many of the charges pertain to land-grab -- that have been swept under the carpet due to his clout with the governments in different states.
In Delhi the cult of Asaram may not cause a major swing. But if the prosecution shows enough skill to build a water-tight case and earn a conviction against Asaram the Congress would stand to gain. Chhattisgarh also has elections due this year. But local factors would by far outweigh the Asaram issue.
Chandrakant Naidu is a senior senior journalist who has worked with the Free Press Journal, Indian Express and Hindustan Times