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Monday, December 5, 2011

Power of the Middle Indian

Power of the Middle Indian
By Chandan Mitra

The Pioneer

Sunday, June 5, 2011
Baba Ramdev has energised India's small towns into vocally demanding
equality of opportunity with the metropolitan elite: It's a genie

that won't go back into the bottle
Television has changed the way we live, even think: Now religion and
spirituality too are conditioned by what preachers declaim on the

audio-visual media. In the US, TV evangelists spawned the emergence

of the Religious Right, which supplanted the erstwhile Moral

Majority. Both were conservative, suspicious of left/liberal support

for gay rights or abortion, committed to upholding family values and

broadly Republican in their political preference. As an industry, TV

evangelism boomed during the late 1980s and 1990s, although the

reported misdemeanours of some celebrity preachers have eroded the

popularity of this genre.
Social or political reform, however, was not prominent on their
agenda. They focussed on moral issues with faith healing as the main

crowd puller. Christian preachers, mostly foreigners, have sought to

replicate this model in India, particularly in the southern States.

They have in turn influenced many Hindu cult leaders as well, who

hold huge camps across the country to sermonise and promote

Munnabhai-type cures for ailments. The rise of TV gurus, who appear

regularly on various 24/7 religious channels that have mushroomed,

has significantly altered not just thought processes but also

impacted people's lifestyles.
It is on the crest of India's massive pravachan industry that Baba
Ramdev holds sway over a significant section. Unlike many of his

compatriots, the muscular Haryanvi swami is not essentially a

philosopher. He is a doer more than a thinker, delivering crisp

messages on the applicability of religious texts to everyday life.

Baba Ramdev's appeal derives from his mastery over Yog, which he

popularises as a panacea for almost every illness. He claims he can

cure cancer and AIDS too with his unique formula that entails

practice of Yog alongside a special diet whose ingredients too his

Patanjali group has to provide. In less than a decade, the Patanjali

Yogashram has built a huge network of outlets for its organic food

products and beverages that are prescribed by ayurvedic practitioners

stationed at these outlets.
Meanwhile the Baba's popularity has surged phenomenally, thanks to
his early morning yog expositions on TV. A talkative man whom BJP

president Nitin Gadkari somewhat cheekily called the "rock star of

yog", the Baba expounds on various domestic and international issues.

He promotes restructuring of India's educational and agricultural

system with simplistic but appealing notions like technical courses

being taught in the mother tongue or organic farming with drip

irrigation. The semi-urban (small town) Indian middle class, left out

of the zooming growth curve of the English-speaking, West-oriented

metropolitan elite, eagerly laps up these "solutions".
Here lies the fundamental difference between Baba Ramdev and the rest
of his tribe. The others, many of them early movers in the TV race

like Morari Bapu, Asaram Bapu, Sudhanshu Maharaj, Ma Anandamoyee,

Mata Amritanandamayi, focus on the individual. They sermonise on

morality, healthy lifestyle, relevance of religion in today's

material world, meditation and so on, aimed at providing salvation to

the individual, Sri Sri Ravishankar branched out to build his own

model, part-individual, part-collective by organising yog-cum-

meditation camps of diverse sizes to promote what he named the Art of

Living. An engaging speaker, Sri Sri's appeal too grew rapidly and

his command over the English language enabled him to spread his

message globally.
It is difficult to say why and exactly when Baba Ramdev forayed out
of conventional models of the yog-pravachan industry to build his

unique brand of socially relevant sermonising. His declared agenda

has very little to do with yog or spirituality except in the remote

sense of using these instruments to build a healthier nation and

purify human beings both internally and externally. Probably, Ramdev

himself has not yet figured out a clear-cut road map. But the way

people have responded to his anti-corruption message must be giving

him ideas on how to expand his influence beyond that of a yog

He launched a nationwide movement one year ago, calling it Bharat
Swabhiman Yatra to trudge across 100,000 km in a bid to rouse people

out of their inertia on nation-building. The move invited scepticism;

his detractors said that the ambitious Baba was planning to encash

his mass appeal to launch himself in politics. Indeed he has

contradicted himself on occasion, first saying he would launch a

political party and contest elections but later retracting to insist

he has no political ambitions. Possibly the current anti-politician

mood among the middle class has made him wary.
Runaway corruption in the UPA Government, particularly the staggering
estimates of loss to the exchequer in the 2G Spectrum scam, which

came to light in a big way earlier this year, created the ideal

ground for non-political freelancers, some with personal agendas.

Baba Ramdev had not seriously politicised his appeal till Anna

Hazare's agitation for enactment of a Lok Pal Bill caught the

nation's imagination. Although it was the Baba's financial clout and

manpower reserves that helped Anna's cohorts galvanise young people

across the country, he was shrewdly sidelined by the urbane core

group, which had no time for saffron-robed swamijis.
Anna Hazare may have inspired large sections of the metropolitan
chatterati and glitterati into expressing sudden concern over the

culture of corruption (from which they have significantly benefited),

but the Jantar-Mantar protest left the burgeoning Indian small towns

untouched. That is the vast reservoir which Ramdev is hoping to

mobilise. This is not to suggest that the Yog guru lacks support in

the metros, but his followers are drawn mainly from the non-English

speaking lower middle class who are in reality the biggest sufferers

from the cancer of corruption. They emotionally supported Anna

Hazare's drive to install a tough anti-corruption regime through the

institution of Lok Pal, but neither did they understand the legal

intricacies that involves, nor did they seriously believe that a Lok

Pal alone would lead to the collapse of the edifice of venality.
Hence the full-throated demand for "systemic change". Ramdev is
selling the big picture as opposed to the Anna Hazare party's narrow-

focussed campaign. The Baba's slogans are simple and seem to be quite

the panacea: Get back Rs 400 lakh crore of black money stashed

abroad, hang those found guilty of corruption, drastically amend the

political system to bring about a Presidential form of Government,

teach engineering and medicine in the mother tongue to unleash the

latent talent of Middle India.
To the seasoned (or cynical) observer this is a mere wish list,
easier propagated than done. Getting back money from tax havens is an

arduous, complex job that even the powerful US Administration has not

succeeded in doing. Besides, much of the illicit money stashed abroad

must have been taken out of foreign banks and brought to India

through hawala transactions. But it is not concrete accomplishment

that will determine the Baba's growth trajectory; it is faith and

hope. It is the dream that Middle India would like to hang on to. It

is the belief that a missionary crusader will ensure equal

opportunities to Middle India's children and help brighten their

futures, deliver them from the domination of the metropolitan elite

that is propelling Baba's campaign. May be the dream will get

betrayed. On the other hand, may be some good will come out of it.
But whatever happens, Middle India has served notice on the ruling
elite: They can no longer be ignored or deprived of the opportunities

their urban counterparts have grabbed for themselves over the last 64


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