There is a new ogre striding across the Indian political landscape. The ogre is called civil society. The instrument that this giant uses to send shivers down the spine of the political establishment is fasting against corruption in high places. It is not an edifying spectacle to see the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, appealing to one Baba Ramdev, a godman of doubtful provenance, to withdraw his fast. What is even worse — bordering, in fact, on the disgraceful — is the sight of four ministers rushing to the airport to persuade Ramdev not to undertake his fast. It would appear from the panic in the ranks of the government that Ramdev and his fast are being perceived as a major threat to the stability, if not the survival, of the government. The only sensible response to this craven attitude of the government is the following: if a fast undertaken by a fabulously wealthy yoga teacher threatens the government, then perhaps the government deserves to fall. There is something surreal in the way the prime minister and his colleagues have reacted to Ramdev.
It is important to remember that those like Ramdev and Anna Hazare, who are claiming to be leaders and voices of civil society, represent a very small section of Indian society. They are also not the elected representatives of the people. They are not accountable to anybody; sometimes not even to their own conscience. By giving such people undue importance, the government is only inflating their egos and images. It is becoming clear that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the principal mobilizer of support for Ramdev. This should suggest that Ramdev is not without political linkages since no one believes anymore that the RSS is only a cultural organization. There is another ominous angle that cannot be ignored. The present government, somewhat unexpectedly, is bestowing importance on religious figures. Witness the presence of the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi at the funeral of Sai Baba and the fuss being made now over Ramdev’s fast. In independent India, attempts to pander to religious sentiments by a government committed to secularism have always had dangerous consequences. The prime minister should watch his step.