The New Political Babas – Sidharth Bhatia

Sidharth Bhatia“Sathya Sai remained essentially a doer of good deeds and refrained from interfering in the political process. On the other hand, Baba Ramdev, till just the other day a minor yoga teacher on a minor channel, has no hesitation in holding forth on everything from black money to the Lokpal Bill. How long before he tells the ministry of external affairs how to run foreign policy? – Sidharth Bhatia

Maharishi Mahesh YogiIndia has always had a love affair with sadhus, sants and sundry babas, but till not too long ago, these worthies tended to stay out of public life. They had large numbers of followers and it was hardly a secret that many politicians were among them, but the holy men (and a few women) did not dabble in politics, at least not openly. Ministers and Governors (and Supreme Court judges too) routinely fell at the feet of such babas, but if at all any politics was discussed, it was behind closed doors.

The “guru universe” of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was a well-defined one. There were hundreds of small gurus with dedicated bands of devotees and then there were the handful of superstars who had a pan-Indian and even global presence. The institutions they built spread out far and wide.

Osho RajneeshMaharishi Mahesh Yogi was the first who became internationally known once the Beatles and Mia Farrow visited him. Mahesh Yogi patented Transcendental Medication and it was his boast that his disciples could levitate. John Lennon remained unconvinced and his illusions were further shattered when the Maharishi allegedly made a pass at a female devotee; Lennon wrote the satirical song Sexy Sadie with the words, “Sexy Sadie what have you done. You made a fool of everyone”.

Satya Sai BabaSathya Sai Baba and Acharya (later Bhagwan and then Osho) Rajneesh had their own pitches too — the former performed miracles, the latter spouted philosophy and assured his rich followers that it was okay to wallow in luxury and indulge in sensual pleasures. Each stayed out of other’s hair but more importantly, despite their larger than life persona, resolutely remained aloof from politics. The sole exception was Dhirendra Brahmachari, who allegedly meddled in political affairs, but even he did so discreetly.

Sri Sri Ravi ShankarThe modern baba or guru is much more in your face. He is in the papers and on television holding forth on every problem under the sun. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar happily holds forth on social issues and though he refrains from expressing his preference towards any political party, many critics say his views are aligned with the Sangh Parivar’s.

Now Baba Ramdev has gone several steps ahead. Not only has he launched a political party, which presumably will contest in the forthcoming elections, he has also decided to take on the government. He wants to launch a movement to bring Indian money stashed abroad back to the country, an unexceptional agenda by itself.

Baba RamdevBut his means are not spiritual but political. Moreover, he is now telling the government what exactly to do. And his chosen means of protest is the hunger strike, a political weapon with proven efficacy in the Indian context. A timorous government, having been singed by the drama around Mr Anna Hazare’s fast to demand the Lokpal Bill doesn’t want to take chances; it has been pleading with the guru to give up his plans. No one should be surprised if the Baba is roped into some high-powered government committee to come up with ideas to bring Indian wealth back from abroad.

After all, with his vast property holdings in foreign countries, he should have some thoughts on the subject.

What has changed over the last few years that these babas have become confident enough to throw their hat into the political ring? After all, with all his following, the Sathya Sai remained essentially a doer of good deeds and refrained from interfering in the political process. On the other hand, Baba Ramdev, till just the other day a minor yoga teacher on a minor channel, has no hesitation in holding forth on everything from black money to the Lokpal Bill. How long before he tells the ministry of external affairs how to run foreign policy?

Indian PoliticiansTwo factors may be at work here. Firstly, with the low credibility of politicians, people are ready to listen to alternative voices. The establishment appears venal and mendacious, interested only in money making and narrow self-interest. The bureaucracy and even the Army are looking seriously compromised. The judiciary enjoys respect but the justice system is seen as slow and ponderous. Anyone stepping into the vacuum with no obvious personal interest is seen as a saviour, almost a messiah. These new-age gurus have figured that out and know that they will be heard.

The UPA AsanaThe second, and connected element, is the mass media. The media, especially 24-hour new television, has a symbiotic relationship with these gurus (and with film stars and cricketers too, but that is another matter). Both need each other. Baba Ramdev’s yoga lessons on the religious channel Aastha helped him reach out to millions in one go. Many swore by his techniques and when he began talking about issues that bother people, such as corruption and black money, he had a ready-made audience.

Meanwhile, television channels, instead of showing some good old-fashioned scepticism and ignoring him, built him on prime time as the man with all the answers. For the moment he is all over the news and the narrative is, “Baba shakes up the government”. And the government is behaving as if it is duly shaken. It would be surreal and funny if it wasn’t so frightening.

Nothing much may come out of it eventually. The media will forget the baba once another sexy, made-for-television story surfaces. That is the superficial nature of our news cycle. As far as the political party is concerned, it is too early to say how effective it will be. That the baba wants to join politics is his business; but what does it say about us that we are ready to follow him? – Deccan Chronicle, Chennai, June 2, 2011

» Sidharth Bhatia is a senior journalist and commentator on current affairs based in Mumbai.