Teleyogi Rock Star Blues

01 July, 2011

ROCK STARS HAVE OFTEN MADE a significant impact on society. Whether it was the explosion of drug use in the 1960s and the 1970s, influenced by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jim Morrison, or new fashion trends such as mop-top hairstyles and collarless jackets popularised by The Beatles, or a greater awareness of social and economic issues, such as through the pioneering efforts of U2’s lead vocalist Bono in championing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals—many rock stars have, for better or for worse, been agents of social and cultural change.

So when, on 31 May, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Nitin Gadkari proclaimed Baba Ramdev to be the “rock star of yoga”, it seemed an apt honorific for one who not only amassed a huge fan following in India and abroad, but even changed the very face of yoga with his telecasts and live sessions. But rock stars are also known to be brash and arrogant. Some of them fly high, intoxicated with their culthood, detached from pragmatism—only to crash and burn, taking their friends and associates down with them. Few could have predicted that the “rock star of yoga” would follow this pattern so faithfully.

When Baba Ramdev plunged into the anti-corruption movement, there were three major players in the arena—the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the Jan Lokpal Bill movement led by Anna Hazare, and the opposition parties, primarily the BJP. In the two weeks after Gadkari’s remark, Ramdev shrewdly engineered a political maelstrom with himself at the centre, playing on the fears, temptations and sheer opportunism of those on—and off—his bandwagon.

The government was already weakened by the movement, the 2G scam inquiry, the impending Joint Parliamentary Committee and the UPA’s shrinking power in many states. It could not afford another antagonist, not even if it meant reaching out in conciliation to someone with as controversial a history as Ramdev.

The Jan Lokpal Bill movement, working towards building support from civil and political society to push for its recommendations in the draft ombudsman bill, desperately needed partners to help rally others to their cause.

And the BJP and the Sangh Parivar were trying to maintain their own relevance in the political arena, a task made difficult by the absence of a strong public face from within their organisations.

So when Ramdev landed at New Delhi airport on the evening of 1 June, the stage was set for the ‘rock star Baba’ to play his music—but differently, and simultaneously, for each contingent that wanted a piece of him.

On the heels of Gadkari’s fulsome endorsement, the government rolled out the red carpet, dispatching four of its top ministers to receive Ramdev at the airport and cajole him to soften his stand. Hazare, not about to miss out on an opportunity to co-opt a possible ally, announced that he would share the stage with Ramdev.

But Ramdev’s stage was, by his design of course, a ‘real’ stage, set up at the huge Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, where the ‘rock star of yoga’ was planning to organise a month-long Woodstock of yoga starting 4 June. There were four platforms, 250,000 square feet of waterproof tenting, more than 100 portable toilets, 1,000 ceiling fans, 500,000 litres of water per day, and billboards of Ramdev smiling in yogic bliss. It was an exorbitant display by someone who was threatening a death fast to urge the government to get back the vast fortune of black money stashed in banks abroad.

Over the next few days, Ramdev maintained a delicate balance between the three competing forces. He kept the government engaged in a game of ever-shifting negotiations, he echoed the sentiments of Hazare and his team, and he mixed with the most radical elements of right wing Hindu organisations. It was more than enough evidence that he was being driven less by a concrete ideology and more by a desire to make his show a success, and possibly to launch a political career somewhere down the line.

But like with rock stars, so with Ramdev. His rhetoric of high morals and a clear conscience ended abruptly when he made his comical—and craven—bid to flee from his arena disguised as a woman when the police came to arrest him. Rather than stand up for his purported ideals, Ramdev revealed his true opportunistic and shallow self. This had been preceded by his shameless exhortation over the loudspeakers that should the police come to arrest him, his women supporters should form the first line of defence, the elderly the second, and the rest the outermost.

In the end, as Ramdev bit the dust, so did the legitimacy of all those who had tried to make him an ally of convenience. The government was embarrassed by the undue importance they had given to a man with little political and moral legitimacy—he had clearly suckered them with promises of rapprochement. No less embarrassed were Hazare and his team, who were seen as allied with Ramdev even after his farcical escapade, only cutting themselves off after he called for an army of 11,000 volunteers to fight the government. And as for the BJP, that they continue to support their rock star guru clearly shows where their heart lies, and how desperate they are for a figurehead.