Will Ramdev succeed in politics? History isn't on his side

Barring the odd exception or two, spiritual and yoga gurus have been close to politics but have seldom succeeded on their own.

Vivek Kaul August 15, 2012 15:58:39 IST
Will Ramdev succeed in politics? History isn't on his side

Some two-and-a-half years back, I had told an aunt of mine that Baba Ramdev was getting ready to enter politics.  My aunt, who recently retired after nearly four decades of teaching in the Kendriya Vidyalaya system of schools, wouldn't agree with me. "He just wants us to be healthy," was her reply.

I had been following Baba Ramdev's early morning yoga classes on television regularly for almost six months in a bid to control my ever expanding waistline. The asanas that Baba showed over that period remained more or less the same. But the commentary that accompanied those asanas had gradually become more and more political.

Will Ramdev succeed in politics History isnt on his side

Political inclinations. PTI

In that context, I am not surprised at Baba's decision to take the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government head on and ask his supporters not to vote for the Congress in the coming elections.

Baba Ramdev may not form his own party in the days to come. He may not even contest any elections but by asking people not to vote for the Congress he has more or less signalled his entry into politics.

So the question that arises now is: will he succeed at what he is trying to do or will he just be a flash in the pan and disappear from the limelight in a couple of years?

Babas and religious gurus have always been an essential part of the Indian political system. Dhirendra Bramhachari was known to be close to Indira Gandhi. Chandraswami was known to be close to PV Narasimha Rao.

Long time Gandhi family loyalist Arjun Singh was known to be close to the Mauni Baba of Ujjain. Mauni Baba even took credit for Arjun Singh surviving a massive heart attack in 1989.

As Rashid Kidwai writes in 24 Akbar Road – A Short History Behind the Fall and the Rise of the Congress, "The doctors at Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal had almost given up on him (Arjun Singh) when a call from Rajiv Gandhi ensured a timely airlift to Delhi's Escorts Heart Institute. His spiritual guru, Mauni Baba of Ujjain, took credit for the miracle. The guru, who had taken a vow of silence, reached Delhi and shut himself off to conduct various yagnas for his health. As Union Communications Minister, Singh had given the guru two telephone connections. The act promoted a Hindi daily to run the headline, 'Jab Baba bolte nahin, to do telephone kyun?'

Like Singh, the various politicians took care of their respective gurus. Indira Gandhi ensured that Dhirendra Bramhachari had a weekly show on Doordarshan to promote the benefits of yoga. Several politicians were known to be close to the Satya Sai Baba as well. His trust being a publicly charitable trust did not pay any income tax.

So babas and religious gurus have always been close to Indian politicians and politics. They have been the backroom boys who have rarely come out in the open to take on the government of the day head on.

But there are always exceptions that prove the rule. One such person who did this rather successfully for a brief period was Sadhvi Rithambara. Her fiery speeches in the early 1990s were very popular across the length and breadth of North India and Bihar. I remember listening to one of her banned tapes before the demolition of the Babri Masjid.  It was full of expletives and exhorted the cause of a Ram Mandir being built at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

As Haima Deshpande writes in the latest edition of the Open: “By the early 1990s, the Sadhvi was scandalising secular India with her rabble-rousing along a campaign trail to replace Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid with a Ram Mandir. At first, her anti-Muslim tirades were full of expletives, exhorting Hindus to reclaim what she said was rightfully theirs. After a brush with the law, she toned herself down, but her message was roughly the same. While the entry of Parsis to India was like sugar sweetening milk, she would say, that of Muslims was like lemon curdling the country (delivered with a certain inflexion in Hindi, that verb could sound rather crude)."

The Sadhvi is now known as Didi Maa and runs a home for destitute women and abandoned children which was set up in 2002, Deshpande points out.

What these examples tell us is that Babas and religious gurus have never operated in the open fields of Indian politics. And when they have they have not survived for a very long period of time.

At a broader level people who have been successful in other walks of life have rarely been able to transform themselves into career politicians. When these people have tried to enter politics they have either been unsuccessful or have retreated back very quickly.

Let's take the case of Russi Modi, the man who once played the piano along with Albert Einstein, when the great physicist was playing the violin. Modi was the Chairman and Managing Director of the Jamshedpur-based Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO, now known as Tata Steel). After retiring from Tisco, Modi fought the Lok Sabha elections from Jamshedpur and lost.

Amitabh Bachchan won the Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad in 1984 defeating HN Bahuguna. He resigned three years later. Dev Anand unsuccessfully tried to form a political party in the late 1980s. Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra were also one-term Lok Sabha members. So was Govinda. Hema Malini has achieved some success in politics but she is used more by the BJP to attract crowds than practice serious politics. The same stands true for Smriti Irani of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame.

Deepika Chikalia, the actress who played the role of Sita in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, was a one-time member of the Lok Sabha from Vadodara. So was Nitish Bhardwaj who played Krishna in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, from Jamshedpur.

The only state where film celebrities have successfully made it into politics and remained there is Tamil Nadu. Andhra Pradesh has the isolated example of NT Rama Rao, who was successful at politics as well as being the biggest superstar of Telugu cinema. But more recently, when the reigning superstar of Telugu cinema, Chiranjeevi, tried to follow NTR, he was unsuccessful. He had to finally merge his Praja Rajyam party rather ironically with the Congress.

Imran Khan Niazi, the biggest sports icon that our next door neighbour Pakistan ever produced, formed the Tehreek-e-Insaf party in 1996. When Imran Khan started making speeches before the 1997 elections, his rallies got huge crowds. But the party failed to win a single seat in the election, despite the fact that Imran Khan contested from nine different seats. He lost in each one of them. But to Khan's credit he still hasn't given up.

The broader point is that people from other walks of life haven't been able to successfully enter politics if we leave out the odd filmstar. There are several reasons for this. Their expertise does not lie in politics but somewhere else, something Amitabh Bachchan found out very quickly. Politics also requires a lot of patience and money. This is something that everybody doesn't have.

Also, some of these successful people come with stories attached with them. Ramdev's story was "practicing yoga can cure any disease". Those who have seen his yoga DVDs will recall the line "Karte raho, cancer ka rog bhi theek hoga". This story helped him build a huge yoga empire with an annual turnover of over Rs 1,000 crore. The story was working well, until Ramdev decided to diversify, and enter politics.

As marketing guru Seth Godin writes in All Marketers Are Liars: "Great stories happen fast. They engage the consumer the moment the story clicks into place. First impressions are more powerful than we give them credit for."

So Ramdev's success now clearly depends on the perception that he is able to form in the minds of the people of this country. Will they continue to look at him as a yoga guru who is just dabbling in some politics? Or will they look at him as a serious politician whose views deserve to be heard and acted on? Also, will Baba Ramdev want to continue investing time and energy in the hurly-burly world of politics? That time will tell.

But what about the all the people that Baba Ramdev has been able to attract, you might ask me? Crowds, as Imran Khan found out, are not always a reflection of whether an individual will be successful in politics. And history clearly is not on Ramdev's side.

Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

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