Losing focus

Losing focus

FIGHT against corruption

The government has been roundly criticised for first having cosseted Baba Ramdev and then arrested him. The police action to arrest him has been compared to the Emergency. It is only a matter of time before someone labels the midnight descent upon the Ramlila ground as India’s Tiananmen. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Two months ago Anna Hazare won the greatest battle for democracy that the country has seen. But Ramdev was throwing away all the concessions he had wrested from the Indian state. He was doing this by steadily raising the demands for ‘reform’ till they became impossible for even the most sincerely reformist government to accept. He was, admittedly, taking his cue from the more radical of the activists who surrounded Hazare. But unlike them he had not come into the field of battle to win but to lose.

Ramdev’s predecessors had already jeopardised the success of the joint panel on the Lokpal bill by insisting that it should have the power to investigate and, if necessary, indict not only MPs, ministers and bureaucrats, but the prime minister and the judges of the Supreme court as well. Only those who know nothing about the way democracy functions could have made such a demand, for if conceded it will make the legislature, the executive and the judiciary subordinate to a completely unelected body, ironically appointed by the prime minister himself.

Neither the radicals nor Ramdev remembered Lord Acton’s immortal observation: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Nor did they stop to ask Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who will police the policeman? Their casual disregard for these crucial issues shows that their purpose is not reform but confrontation, not the purging of our democracy, but its destruction.

Ramdev went several steps beyond the activists: He not only demanded that the government bring back all the black money lying in banks abroad, but also amend the penal code to make it possible to sentence those convicted of corruption to death. Once again, he seemed not to know, or not to care, that unearthing the black money held abroad would require the cooperation of a dozen governments and hundreds of foreign banks to give up the names of their depositors. Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay did their best to make him understand that the most the government could do was change its internal laws and seek the cooperation of foreign governments. But he was in no mood to compromise.

Authoritarianism

As for his demand for the death sentence for corrupt persons, directions for the prime minister and the demonetisation of thousand rupee notes,  these reflect a combination of ignorance and authoritarianism that makes the blood run cold.

The truth is that Baba Ramdev’s agitation is as different from Anna Hazare’s as chalk from cheese. His motivation is political, not civil. It is designed to heighten conflict not end it. And it is designed to kill political reform instead of promoting it. Ramdev is no Anna Hazare.

Hazare went back to his village after leaving the army, instilled self-confidence and self-reliance in his people, unleashed their creative energies, and ended poverty in a manner that has become the envy of the developing world. Ramdev is a Yoga teacher with a worldwide following, who has made billions and invested them in more than 200 industrial and yoga training enterprises.

He is a modern entrepreneur in an unusual field.
Hazare has made no money from the economic success of his village and its neighbours, and lives a life of Gandhian simplicity. Ramdev’s personal life too seems to be simple, but there is little transparency in the way that his organisations spend his money and what part of it, if any, comes to him.

Finally, it is increasingly apparent that Ramdev is driven not by concern for society but  political ambition, for he is clearly working in collusion with the BJP. In April he climbed somewhat belatedly upon Anna Hazare’s bandwagon when it became apparent that Hazare had touched the deepest chord of dissatisfaction in the Indian people. He did so even then at the behest of the BJP which was miffed at having been sidelined after having actively assisted  Hazare’s struggle.

His recent effort was designed to seize the standard of reform from the hands of civil society leaders at a moment when rifts between moderates who want to cooperate with the government and radicals who want to bring it down had made the anti-corruption lose its focus. And it is now even more apparent that he was doing so not only for himself but also for the BJP.

The reform of India’s criminalised democracy is too serious a matter to be turned into a political football. The government therefore deserves praise, not criticism, for the way it has handled his agitation. It has shown him every courtesy, listened to his every demand patiently and gone the extra mile in trying to meet them. Only after failing has it decided that Ramdev has to be stopped. But this has made it all the more necessary to push ahead with political reform, preferably with Hazare and his colleagues, but without them if necessary.

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