Celebrity Yoga Guru Has Indian Politics Knotted Up in Twists

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Hunger strikes in India — a country, incidentally, where millions go hungry every day — are time-tested political tactics to get attention. They’re nothing new in the world’s largest democracy and remain frequently effective. But no fast in recent memory has been quite as sensational and rancorous as the one that has now monopolized a week’s worth of headlines and plunged the country into a somewhat embarrassing political brouhaha.

Swami Ramdev, often known as Baba Ramdev, certainly looks the part of yogic mystic. Shaggy-haired and clad in saffron homespun, he commands a reputed following of 80 million adherents around the world, many of whom come to the yoga guru for his insights into dealing with afflictions such as constipation (shown above). He also, controversially, has offered recommendations in the past to cure oneself of the “disease” of homosexuality. But after police in New Delhi this weekend violently dispersed a crowd of 50,000 supporters sitting-in while he fasted in protest of corruption, Ramdev has found himself (perhaps not unintentionally) at the center of a media circus.

The opposition led by the rightwing Hindu nationalist BJP has latched onto the guru’s cause, seeing in him a valuable instrument with which to bludgeon the ruling Congress party. For his part, Ramdev, who has retreated from New Delhi to the mountain town of Haridwar, has restarted his hunger strike and rekindled his angry rhetoric, claiming that future repressive actions of the state will be met with violence in kind. “[Ramdev’s followers] will be given arms training. We will build an army of 11,000 men and women,” he said.

If such an open call for rebellion sounds a bit extreme, it’s because it is. At the best of times, India’s political climate floats in an atmosphere of hot air and hyperbole, and these times are far from the best. The government led by the Congress Party  of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been dogged for months by damaging corruption scandals. It has promised inquiries and impartial commissions to lance this perennial boil on the face of India’s polity, but its critics have little patience or faith in the ruling coalition’s intentions—not least because India’s parliamentary system encourages rancor and opportunist point-scoring over more sober-headed efforts to cross the aisle and pursue policies in the national interest.

Hours after the police waded into the gathered throngs of Ramdev’s supporters in New Delhi, on grounds that they were massed illegally without the right permits, the BJP was already crying murder over the events. Top BJP leader Sushma Swaraj took to Twitter, excoriating the Congress Party for every bruise administered to one of Ramdev’s devotees. Some of her allies even likened the crackdown — where no one died — to massacres orchestrated by the British in colonial times. It’s a claim that is not only incendiary but also rather foolish, given that the BJP itself is still struggling to overcome the stigma of its alleged tacit involvement in the 2002 riots that led to the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the state of Gujarat.

Yet, in Ramdev’s somewhat cartoonish figure, the BJP appears to have found a champion, with national media flocking to the site of his renewed fast. Nevermind that many have branded Ramdev a “quack.” Nevermind that a wealthy yoga guru who manages to purchase his own island in Scotland ought not to be allowed to style himself as a man of the oppressed in one of the world’s most unequal nations. What matters here is political theater and gamesmanship and Ramdev, so far, seems adept at both. Lost in all this, of course, are real concerns over graft and the unethical practices that have taken root across much of India’s politics and state bureaucracy. In a moment of earnestness and despair, NDTV, one of the country’s main English news networks, asked whether India was devolving into a “banana republic” — misunderstanding, of course, the actual definition of what a banana republic is. But it’s fitting: in India, where the questions are rarely right, what answers could ever make a difference?