The Congress’s popularity rating has rarely dipped as sharply as it did last week in the aftermath of the violent crackdown on sleeping supporters of Baba Ramdev at Delhi’s Ramlila Ground. The saffron-clad yoga guru elicits mixed reactions from people, but the masses and classes were united in condemning the unwarranted police action that broke up the yoga shivir. The Government’s churlish attempt to divert attention to the Baba’s alleged RSS-BJP links didn’t cut ice, which was evident from the manner in which Anna Hazare and his cohorts rallied round to stand by Ramdev. Irrespective of whether the Government’s dirty tricks departments, currently on an overdrive to defame the Baba’s entrepreneurial ventures, succeed in injecting doubts in people’s minds about his integrity, the authorities are unlikely to be forgiven for unnecessarily using brute force on a peaceful assembly.
Two explanations are possible for the rather baffling decision to forcibly evict the Ramlila gathering just hours after negotiations apparently reached an amicable conclusion. The first is that the secular-fundamentalist brigade in the Congress, led by Mr Digvijay Singh, sensed an opportunity to consolidate the minority vote-bank by dubbing the Baba an RSS agent and physically evicting him from Delhi in a display of secular machismo. The second explanation is that facing flak over its overdose of courtesy towards Ramdev, especially sending four Ministers, including Mr Pranab Mukherjee, to the airport to negotiate with him, the Government attempted to undo the perceived damage to its image, already weakened by suggestions of abdicating policy making to ‘civil society’ agitators. But probably, there is a third explanation too. And that is simply that the Government lost the plot and began wandering aimlessly in search of a magic potion to rejuvenate its sagging prowess — suddenly assuming a Tarzan-like posture to scare away tormentors. The Ramlila fiasco was perhaps just a panic reaction by a jumpy Government that now seems running scared even of its own shadow.
From all accounts, both parties were quite satisfied with the outcome of the talks in Delhi airport’s VIP Lounge. The Government got Ramdev to concede that some of his demands like demonetisation of high denomination currency notes were absurd and hence unacceptable. But it agreed to take some visible action, including early legislation to declare Indian money illicitly parked in foreign banks as a ‘national resource’ and expedite efforts to bring it back. That took care of the Baba’s primary thrust and he agreed to call off the assembly on Monday, June 6, apart from postponing his fast-unto-death. The interlocutors were triumphant having got the Baba’s aide, Bal Krishna, to scribble the agreement on a sheet torn out of a notepad, although the canny assistant took care not to initial the paper.
Back in the red sandstone monoliths of Lutyens’ Delhi, Congress big-wigs faced unexpectedly shrill criticism of the deal. Clearly, an agreement with Ramdev did not suit Mr Digvijay Singh’s plans. He wanted a confrontation as that alone would have conveyed the intended message to the vote-bank he is assiduously cultivating. The Baba appears to have played into his hands by not announcing his intention to undertake only a celebratory fast and dismantle the camp on June 6, although there were joyous scenes applauding his ‘victory’ on the rostrum. Congress soft-liners were on the backfoot by now, charged with being misled by a wily group of troublemakers. The party’s self-appointed bouncers claimed that since the ‘untrustworthy’ Baba had reneged on his assurance, the Government had to go public with the handwritten ‘agreement’. Mr Kapil Sibal’s belligerent Press conference, in which he waved the impugned piece of paper, was the first step in the hardliners’ confrontationist strategy. From that point they took charge and the inevitable denouement followed.
From all accounts, the matter had been peacefully resolved and all Ramdev was playing for was time. He wanted to show the country his unmatched capacity for mass mobilisation, which would have actualised on Sunday morning when over two lakh people were set to converge. He had no intention of going back on his assurance and the assembly would have quietly dispersed after celebrating victory on Monday. Congress hardliners did not want that, perhaps not anticipating the kind of revulsion that would be caused by TV visuals of police going berserk past midnight. They added to the country’s disgust by calling Ramdev a “thug” and stating that action befitting a “fraud” had rightly been taken. No wonder Mr Digvijay Singh probably tops the list of hate mail recipients in the country today.
Viewed dispassionately, beating up thousands of people while they were asleep inside an enclosed arena makes no political sense whatsoever. The Congress leadership might want to believe that tough action against ‘RSS men in mufti’ would be welcomed across the board, particularly by the minorities. They forget that despite the overtly Hindu symbolisms associated with the Baba’s variant of yoga, there is nothing communal about his appeal. Muslims may not have flocked to him in droves, but they don’t appear to have anything against him either. In fact, Ramdev’s anti-corruption crusade has found resonance among all castes and communities, because everybody today feels frustrated and angry at the mounting levels of graft. With the Prime Minister’s ‘honest to goodness’ image in tatters after 2G, CWG and Adarsh scams and black money reportedly sloshing around in foreign shores, the Congress has made a grave mistake in equating civil society agitators with RSS/BJP activists. No doubt, saffron groups are openly supporting Ramdev and sympathising with Anna Hazare, but adherents of the two civil society crusaders are an entirely new breed of citizens most of whom were hitherto apolitical.
The Congress may like to wish away the long-term impact of its insensitive response to the anti-corruption stir that is progressively spreading. It may think that elections are almost three years away and by then the current surge will have dissipated. However, contrary to the adage that public memory is short, recent trends suggest the opposite: People have long memories and can patiently bide their time. For example, the CPI(M)’s rout was written on the wall since the Left was trounced in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll in West Bengal. But the two intervening years passed without large-scale popular unrest because people were ready to wait till 2011 to overthrow the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee regime. Voters of Tamil Nadu too responded similarly.
A fierce crisis of credibility has gripped the Union Government. In a situation reminiscent of the post-Bofors erosion in Rajiv Gandhi’s authority, the Congress regime at the Centre is getting corroded steadily. The party might still win an election or two in States going to the polls in the next two years, but the current mood across India indicates that the Congress must condition itself to adorn the Opposition benches in the 16th Lok Sabha. And who knows if the electorate will have to wait to 2014 to give its verdict? When the credibility of a Government begins to implode its fall could be precipitous and happen even before schedule.