How Baba Ramdev is debasing the debate on corruption

The discourse in the anti-corruption campaign, first waged by Team Anna and now by Baba Ramdev, is on a downward spiral to frivolity. For much of last year, the debate was characterised by a keen engagement of the mind, as Team Anna framed it in the context of the need for a strong anti-corruption agency, backed up by an independent investigative agency. Even though the Congress sought all along to dismiss Anna Hazare and his motley crew as inconsequential busybodies, the UPA government was compelled by the sheer force of the movement's case and the popular support it appeared to command, to be seen to be engaging in a reasoned debate about the contours of the proposed Lokpal agency.

In  August 2011, when Anna fasted at the Ramlila Maidan, Parliament was witness to one of the most scintillating and high-minded debates we've seen in recent years on the issue of corruption, and the mechanics of taming it. Even those who opposed the establishment of an all-powerful Lokpal - on the grounds that it would have created a 'supercop' bureaucratic behemoth - made forceful contributions that did influence even the most diehard supporters of Team Anna into acknowledging the merits of an alternative point of view.

All heart, no smarts, makes for an enfeebled anti-corruption campaign. PTI

Of course, the duplicitous nature of the game that politicians  - across the political spectrum - played in effectively watering down the provisions of the Lokpal Bill ensured that all that reasoned debate came to nothing. And, over time, as the popular support for Team Anna's fasts waned, the entire project has been put in cold storage. It now appears likely that the Congress will pass the enfeebled Lokpal Bill in the months ahead of the next general election - and claim on the campaign stump that the government has done its damnedest to combat corruption. Those who lack the intellectual facility to distinguish between a truly independent anti-corruption agency, and the mere shadow of one that the proposed legislation will establish, will no doubt celebrate the duplicity.

But this time around, with Baba Ramdev's latest campaign, the discourse has gotten a lot more simple-minded to the point of reducing it to absurd levels. It's one thing to say that everyone in India has a legitimate right to campaign against corruption - and that Ramdev is "on the right side of the moral divide" by demanding that black money stashed in overseas bank accounts be brought back. No one can disagree with that sentiment. In the same way that all of us (except, perhaps, arms merchants) stand for the nebulous concept of "world peace", everyone of us wants to be seen to be taking a public stance against corruption. Even the monumentally corrupt among our politicians is, for the record and in front of cameras,  in favour of doing something to fight corruption.

But unlike Team Anna's thoughtful approach to establishing institutions to fight corruption, Baba Ramdev’s campaign is more an appeal to the hearts. There's a certain simplicity to his demand to bring back black money hoards from foreign banks: just declare all of it as “national assets” — and confiscate them — and all of India’s problems will be solved, he reasons.

In recent months, Baba Ramdev has been going around the countryside meeting political leaders to support his campaign, and quite extraordinarily, they were not at all inhibited about being seen in public with him, and endorsing his campaign.  That's only because they perhaps sense that Baba Ramdev’s campaign pitch is so disingenuous and naïve as to not have any meaningful impact.

Of course, since then, Baba Ramdev has expanded his canvas of his anti-corruption campaign, even incorporating the demand for the Lokpal. Yet, even today, his campaign is centred around his demand on bringing back black money from foreign banks.

There is, of course, a case to be made that the UPA government has not been agile in securing details of account-holders in tax havens that hold unaccounted wealth; nor has it exerted the full force of its diplomacy to getting foreign banks to cough up these details in the way that the US has done with Swiss banks, for instance.

But Baba Ramdev’s approach — of declaring all of it as national assets and ferrying boatloads of black money home — represents an overly simplistic misunderstanding of the complexities involved in dealing with tax havens.  The process of retrieving black money is much more complicated, involving secrecy-cloaked tax havens abroad that are structured in precisely such a way as to defeat the efforts of national governments to retrieve the loot.

Try explaining that to Baba Ramdev's well-intentioned, but unthinking, army of supporters - as journalist Madhu Trehan did overnight - and you get roundly abused. (Check out her timeline on Twitter for the gory details.)

Baba Ramdev also severely compromised his anti-corruption platform by putting up posters of his aide Balakrishna (who is in jail for forging passport documents) and Jayendra Saraswati (former head of the Kanchi mutt, who is undergoing trial on the charge of murder) alongside those of Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad at the fast venue on Thursday.

It is actions such as these that allow motormouth leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar to dismiss Ramdev and his followers, with colossal arrogance, as a "bunch of jokers" - as he did on CNN-IBN on Thursday night.

The battle against corruption is in many ways a moral war, but it needs more than good intentions to wage it.  It isn't enough to have a heart that beats with moral fervour. It needs a head that can think things through.

However well-intentioned Baba Ramdev's campaign may be, and however much the Congress may stand exposed today as insincere in combating corruption,  thoughtless campaigns such as his only end up debasing the debate on corruption and compromising the anti-corruption movement.

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2012 10:27 AM

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