First published on CRI on 4th June 2011 (morning), before the shameful attack by the Delhi Police on the protestors at the Ramleela Ground.
I had earlier written a piece on Anna Hazare (Why “Anna Hazare” is out of sync with “Lakhpat Karore”?). I was amazed to see the uncontrollably positive response of the media and chatterrati to Anna Hazare but I am equally aghast at the vitriol that is being heaped upon Baba Ramdev. I had criticized Anna’s tactic of “fast-unto-death” as blackmail, as I do for Baba Ramdev (I would have preferred dharnas). There are huge similarities between what Anna had tried to do and what Baba is trying to do. Both want to “blackmail” the government with the threat of a “fast-unto-death” to accept their demands. Both have a coherent set of demands, although Baba has a much larger set and is not dictating that he himself or his people should sit on some committee. Both have their own sets of followers and again Baba seems to have a much larger set. Both have organized their “fast” as some sort of jamboree and again Baba’s is much better organized as he has more resources. Both have made the government very nervous but although it took a few days into the fast for Anna to make the government panic, Baba seems to have done it before even starting his fast. Both are using “Bharat Mata” and other nationalistic imagery (it’s not a crime the last time I checked.) Both had got support from across the political spectrum, although the RSS and the BJP are much more closely involved with the Baba.
So why indeed have the English-speaking elite and the media gone “orgasmic” over Anna and ballistic over Baba? There is much more than meets the eye here.
For starters, there is a clear class-bias against the Baba. My son asked me the other day, “Dad, if the Baba can’t even speak English, can his demands be sensible?” He is just 15 and it’s most probably my fault in not engendering in him Indian values deep enough. But he is 15. It can be rectified. How do you handle these biased “barking” 50-year olds?
There is then the very genuine fear in many right-thinking people that the process of parliamentary democracy is being undermined and that the power of the legislature of drafting and passing laws is being taken away. I don’t agree with this premise but I am taking a slightly more nuanced stand than I had taken with respect to Anna Hazare. I still maintain that “drafting” or contributing to the draft of a law should be as broadly spread out as possible amongst the citizens of this country. The legislature of this country has failed in creating processes for collecting views of the people while drafting laws. The job of the MP is not to blindly follow the “whip” of his party but to interact with the constituents who voted for him, collect their views, and then go and vote on their behalf (he is just a proxy voter frankly). Our system has failed us and the people, seething with anger, are pushing it towards anarchy now!
For people who crib about the “extra-constitutional” nature of the methods employed by Baba or Anna, the constitutional processes were undermined first by the Congress itself by creating the National Advisory Council (NAC), the writ of which the PM cannot oppose even in his dreams. Creating a “powerless” PM is the first such act done by the Congress. Besides the jokers Gowda, Gujral, Chandrashekhar and Gulzari Lal Nanda, we never had a PM as “illegitimate” and weak as Dr. Manmohan Singh and we have the Congress to thank for that. Only a weak and illegitimate government can take part in shameful spectacles like rushing four senior Union Ministers to the airport to receive the Baba (but they are in a panic mode).
The narrative which has been built up by the elite and the media around the Baba is that he does not have legitimacy to ask for certain changes in law, etc. I strongly, strongly disagree with this premise. It is the duty of each and every citizen of this country to raise issues and demand that they be addressed, and use all resources at his or her command to do so (why are we jealous that the Baba has access to much greater resources than we do?).
The other point is about the Biblical fantasy that “let that person raise the first stone who has never sinned”, meaning only those people can raise their voices against corruption who are not corrupt themselves. Of course, no one is checking whether these media worthies, or the media-promoted worthies (like say Shobha De and Suhel Seth) are clean themselves (I am not suggesting that they aren’t, but how do we know); but this is a disingenuous argument in any case. If I pay a small bribe to get my work done with the municipal corporation (not that it is justified), it is because I don’t have an option. The system doesn’t deliver things to me easily. To posit that I should not raise my voice against Raja as he looted the country of billions just because I paid 100 rupees to the traffic cop is a ridiculous proposition. The other point on which I defend Baba Ramdev on corruption is this – like Narendra Modi, he has harmed the Congress no end. If they had the slightest evidence of corruption against either of these two people, they would have loved to haul them over the coals! Since we have not seen any such evidence, in my view, absence of evidence of corruption in their cases, is evidence of being non-corrupt (slightly warped logic I know but it’s true, think about it.)
The weirdest thing about all this is that no one seems to be focussing on what the demands of the Baba are. I asked some of my friends who are extremely critical of the Baba, that do you know what his demands are, and they said no! Anyway, what could a Baba ask for! Must be bull-shit! Right? Well, not necessarily.
I looked online and went through the list of 10 demands of the Baba. I was amazed that barring a few, I largely agreed with many of them. My point is that even Dawood Ibrahim has the right to raise the issue of say electoral reforms (he is still an absconding, but Indian citizen) and am willing to support him on it (of course after putting him in jail for the Mumbai blasts)! Point is, we are shooting the messenger for his beard and saffron robes, without even listening to the message.
The Baba’s 10 demands are as follows:
1: Declare accounts of Indians in tax havens as “national property”
Now I am not a legal expert and hence don’t know the legal ramifications of this step. What I do know is that Indian laws do not allow any resident Indian to have a bank account anywhere overseas that is not declared to the income tax authorities. Treating ill-gotten wealth just as a tax evasion issue (like it was being done for Hassan Ali until the Supreme Court stepped in) is sick. Treating it as national wealth will have a totally different impact on the legal treatment of the issue, and also spur the government to take action (as technically it will represent stolen wealth of the country), as well as give a message to governments of tax havens that this money is not “untaxed” wealth but misappropriated and stolen national wealth (should make it easier to get it back)!
2: Declare stashing away black money in tax havens as a national crime
This is a corollary to the step above, that stealing national wealth is a “national crime” and needs to be treated as a serious crime and not just like “hey, I didn’t pay the correct income tax”! It’s a bit theatrical I know but not nonsense!
3: Death penalty and lifetime imprisonment for the corrupt
I have a slight issue here but I don’t know what is the appropriate punishment for someone who has stolen say Rs. 60,000 crores (which is Subramanian Swamy’s estimate for the bribe amount in the 2G scam – of course, all of which did not go to Raja alone). My point is that legal experts need to decide this but it cannot be a simple five-years in jail right? I am not convinced of the demand for death penalty for this (even Madoff was put behind bars only for 250 years). This one is a bit overboard but it is indicative of the degree of frustration in the people and the government should sense this!
4: Enactment of a strong Lokpal
Enough has been said about this so I will leave it here. Suffice it to say that I personally support a strong Lokpal with powers to take suo moto cognizance of cases of corruption, investigate and prosecute, in special anti-corruption courts. Everyone should be included in the ambit of the Lokpal, including the PM. The Lokpal should be accountable to a parliamentary committee and should also release public reports on its activities every year.
5: Setting up of fast track courts in all states to deal specially with corruption issues
Once again, a logical corollary of the point above. If cases are not to drag on till eternity, then special fast track dedicated anti-corruption courts are a must. Experience with the special CBI courts set up shows that this system works!
6: Removal of high denomination currency notes from the economy
Estimates vary, but the parallel black economy of India is rumoured to be one to two times our official economy (which is around USD 1.3 trillion today.) This entire black economy is facilitated by large denomination notes (500 and 1000 rupee notes.) Eliminating these notes will have a marginal impact on the white economy but frankly a killer impact on the black economy of the country (Raja would have needed several goods trains to carry his loot to Chennai if he had to do it in 100 rupee notes, as opposed to the few plane-loads that it took him). This has a side benefit too, on Pakistan’s plan of printing illegal fake Indian currency; they would also need truck loads to transfer that amount to India in 100 rupee notes, so making it unviable!
7: Educational curriculum in Bharatiya Languages
Again, our elitist system of education has made it virtually impossible for non-English speakers, who are nearly three times the numbers of English speakers, in India to get high quality education. Is the solution to force all the 1 billion people of India to learn English? Why? A lot of the ancient wisdom of India (which was also scientific and technical) did not need English for it to be created. Why can’t we have a farmer do his Ph. D in Agricultural Science (or other technical subjects) from Punjab Agricultural University in Hindi (or frankly Punjabi)? It doesn’t mean that English education must be banned (like Mulayam Singh disingenuously suggests, while sending his son to study in an English medium school) but to offer the same quality of education in other Indian languages. Fair point, if you ask me!
8: Ban the Land Acquisition Act
While on one side we are worried about food inflation, on the other side we are rampantly and unthinkingly diverting rich irrigated agricultural land towards non-agricultural purposes. Many decades ago, there were people who had criticized the creation of the Bhillai steel plant on 4000 acres of prime double-irrigated rice fields. Why couldn’t this development have been done on non- or semi-irrigated lands? We are heading towards a food catastrophe in this country. We of course need development but we also need to think carefully about the kind of development use we put our land to (it is a finite resource). I want vast swathes of prime agricultural land to be declared “non-transferable” for our food security. Someone had said in Bengal (during the Nandigram agitation): take the farmer away from the land, rather than taking the land away from the farmer! A well thought through and well discussed Land Acquisition Act is required.
9: Direct election of the Prime Minister
How many of us are disillusioned because our Prime Minister (PBUH), nice and “honest” man that he is, lacks legitimacy because he has not been elected by the people but nominated by Sonia Gandhi instead. Therefore, he is one of the weakest PMs of the country ever. There are many options that have been proposed to try and ensure that a PM (and by extension even CMs) are directly elected by the people of the country. While I don’t favour a US-style Presidential form of governance (too much power in one person), I do support what has been proposed by Offstumped in his blog. Irrespective of the option, it is about time that India looked at some system that provides for direct election of PM and CMs as well as empowered Mayors in cities.
10: Enactment of a strong Public Service Delivery Guarantee Act
The darling of the media and the elite, Nitish Kumar, has already implemented such an act in Bihar, although it was first done by Shivraj Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh. Why should this not be made mandatory for all states as well as the Centre. It will ensure that Dayanidhi Maran could not have sat on Aircel’s application until he was forced to sell his stake on Maxis. Get it!
Now, what I can’t understand for the life of me is what is so objectionable about his demands. Should we jettison his demands just because the media worthies don’t like Baba’s face! Should we ignore it just because he teaches yoga and, therefore, has forfeited his fundamental rights as a citizen of India? Or just because Digvijay Singh hates his guts! We are all being extremely elitist and biased against the Baba. Give the man his due. Let’s see if his blackmail works.
Let the government also realize that there is so much anger and frustration in the people that they are resorting to blackmail (isn’t it much better than armed rebellion like the Maoists are doing)!
Till then, enjoy the tamasha and the mela! Bharat Mata ki jai!