Why the Congress wooed and then shooed the Baba away

When Baba Ramdev was bundled out of Delhi unceremoniously, it was a forceful message from the Congress-led UPA government that it was not going to vacate space for civil society to muscle in on its turf — unless the civil society members happen to be Sonia Gandhi groupies.

It is also an indication that orders for the crackdown on the Baba came from the political power centre – Sonia Gandhi herself. It marks a new assertion of party over government in order to seize the political initiative from a bumbling Manmohan Singh.

But it is worth understanding what really transpired these last few weeks, when the government first started humouring the Baba, held detailed discussions with him, and then hit him on the head – metaphorically – with a club when he was least expecting it.

Who betrayed whom? Was it the government, which came out waving a paper saying the Baba went back on his promise to call off the fast? Or was it the Baba, who found the government closing in on him, and decided to back away from a deal he knew was not good for his future?

I believe it was the government which decided to pull the plug on the Baba deal. It flows from the answer to the question: why was the Congress schmoozing with the Baba in the first place when it knew he had deep Sangh Parivar connections?

 Why the Congress wooed and then shooed the Baba away

The Congress has a problem in the north, where the BJP is a potent threat everywhere, except Uttar Pradesh. This is where the Baba comes in handy. Reuters

The answer: the Congress wined and dined him precisely because he was close to the Sangh Parivar. It was not something they discovered later, when Sadhvi Ritambara turned up at the Baba’s fast-fest.

In the Congress book of dirty tricks, this is old hat. Whenever the Congress sees a looming political threat, it backs a rival in the same camp to break away and undercut the original threat.

To deal with the Akalis in Punjab, Indira Gandhi backed Bhindranwale. To destroy the Shiv Sena, it backed Raj Thackeray, and won the last elections purely from this vote division. To undercut the National Conference, it broke bread with Mufti Sayeed’s PDP in the last decade before it dumped the PDP again for the National Conference.

Of course, the Congress also reaps the whirlwind when it sows the wind (Indira was killed by Sikh extremists, and Rajiv fell to the LTTE’s suicide bomber), but that’s another story.

It is also worth recalling that the Congress won the last elections in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu precisely because a third player (Praja Rajyam in Andhra, and Vijayakanth’s DMDK in Tamil Nadu) ate  into opposition votes and brought the Congress (or the Congress alliance) victory. But for these spoilers, Chandrababu Naidu and AIADMK would have won in 2009.

So who do you need to fix before 2014 in the same way? While there are obviously a whole range of regional and sectarian parties who are local threats to the Congress in various states, the only national threat is the BJP, which, despite being rudderless over the last seven years, is the only party capable of upsetting the Congress’ apple-cart.

Within the BJP, the biggest threat is Narendra Modi, who has shown that he can get the measure of the Congress, and has the potential to galvanise the party and the majority community to action — given the right political circumstances, which, admittedly, don’t exist for now. But who knows what will be the scenario in 2014?

It explains why the Congress is using activists like Teesta Setalvad and the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other one-dimensional secularists to fix him – whether in court or through a blatantly communal Bill to tackle communal violence. The Bill is specifically targetted at Hindu organisations, and no one else. It will never see the light of day, but that does not stop undemocratic NAC members from trying to force it down our throats.

But, at another level, the Congress has a problem in the north, where the BJP is a potent threat everywhere, except Uttar Pradesh. This is where the Baba comes in handy.

How? In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and also in the rest of the Hindi belt, the Baba could cut into BJP votes if he floats a political party. He doesn’t have to win any seats. If he merely takes away 4-5% of the BJP vote, it is enough for the Congress to win.

This is the primary reason why the Congress has been humouring the Baba and talking of doing a deal with him on corruption. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, either because the Congress was trying to be too clever with him, or was trying to fix him in other ways – and he balked at the prospect. This is what forced the midnight swoop – something the Congress had not planned for when it began talking with him.

The second reason why the Baba was useful to the Congress was his unwillingness to let the Anna Hazare group run off with the anti-corruption agenda. The Baba’s ego would not let him be a supporter of the Hazare camp, which had eminent lawyers well-versed in the art of drafting laws. It also had the support of the middle-class. The Congress egged on Baba with his rural and small-town clout to stymie the Hazare group.

The Congress had no reason to let Anna & Co dictate the new Lokpal bill, and the Baba’s political ambitions proved useful to drive a wedge between the two camps. While the midnight action has temporarily allowed the two camps to kiss and make up, the two cannot ultimately work together.

Since the Anna group has lost vital momentum, it is now possible for the Congress to impose its own Lokpal Bill with some minor concessions to civil society and reclaim the agenda.

A perceptive comment by K Raman on Firstpost shows how the Baba has been neutered, and Anna sidelined: “A man who owns a private island in Scotland, has an annual turnover of Rs 1,000 crore and flies around in a private jet would obviously have a few skeletons in his cupboard... In the next 10 days, one after the other the skeletons will tumble down... The Baba could be fixed in that way..”.

As for Anna & Co, Raman says: “..the government has clearly sent out the message that if they mess around, then they too will meet the same fate as the Baba. Shanti Bhushan's statement that the Prime Minister and the government has to resign is not helpful, to say the least...Now with what face will this team go back and discuss with the same government on Lokpal Bill?”

Clearly, the Congress used the Baba and discarded him when he did not toe the line. The BJP need not be too unhappy, too. The Baba was meant to cut it down to size. So while it may fulminate against the government for its midnight “Jallianwala Bagh”, it should be secretly happy that one potential rival for the Hindu vote is out of the way.

The Congress has won – for now. While the Baba did not serve its short-term purpose, the party may still hold the high cards when it comes to getting him to float a party to cut into the BJP vote.

But just as a week is a long time in politics, such political manoeuvres are not enduring. The only question is whether, when it is politics as usual, the ordinary citizen has lost out. The upsurge of grassroot support when Anna Hazare began his fast has died down. Cynicism rules. Congress gains.


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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2011 11:57:18 IST