Suddenly, the outlines of a new phenomenon are becoming familiar. And there can be only one word for this revealing convergence of individuals, ideas and institutions: crony babaism. For a start, let us recall last Tuesday. It was the second and concluding day of something called "Happening Haryana Global Investors Summit" in Gurgaon. It was meant to showcase that the state was limping back to normalcy after last month's horrifying collapse of order and authority. On the first day, six-odd Central ministers lent their presence and the weight of their office to project the image of the state government being a modern arrangement, attending to routine governance issues. Also in attendance was the Travelling Circus of “MoU investors”, making more meaningless promises than does an average district-level demagogue. On Tuesday, the same venue, same government, same ministers were now blessed by two gurus: Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. On the first day, the Chief Minister and his ministerial colleagues looked tense and unsure. On the second, in the company of the holy men, they looked engaged and ebullient.
Not long ago, we had learnt that the Indian state’s authorised custodians — who otherwise are expected to make wise and prudent decisions about national security — had concluded that Baba Ramdev needed to be provided with what is called “Z-plus security.” The New Age baba needs the paraphernalia of power and prominence. Then a few days ago, it was reported that even his business units would henceforth be guarded by the Central Industrial Security Force. But the crony synergy between the state and the baba is most evident in the whole caboodle called the World Culture Festival. On Wednesday, the National Green Tribunal, the institutional body charged with the responsibility of saving us from ecological violations, surrendered to the logic of crony babaism. But the defiant guru refuses to accept the gentlest of raps on the holy knuckle.
It is hard to believe that the Tribunal’s thinking was not influenced by the fact Prime Minister Narendra Modi was billed to attend the inaugural function. And because a prime minister is to participate in an event, it can no longer be called a private affair of this or that guru. QED. How convenient.
Both gurus have emerged in recent months as the new sarkari babas, celebrated symbols of the creeping phenomenon of crony babaism. Their salience is to be understood and appreciated in the context of the presumed renaissance at work. Both Ramdev and Sri Sri have sought to market themselves as global brand ambassadors of India’s soft power. Since we do not have much of hard power — what with those ten guys from across the border still obviously roaming around unapprehended — successive governments have come to put great store by the soft power. The earlier soft emphasis has now become a loud shout. Since the advent of the jumla government, we are being periodically fobbed off with dreams of India becoming the Vishwa Guru, a position we are supposed to have occupied in that distant golden age of national glory.
Nor should anyone be surprised that the Aam Aadmi Party government had sought the conscription of Army jawans for building a few approach bridges for the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar gathering. It may be worth recalling that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as well as Baba Ramdev were at the mobilising core of the long-forgotten Anna Hazare movement. It was that presumably anti-corruption crusade that ended up spawning both Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi. The linkages do have a way of popping up, however inconvenient.
And, what have we accomplished? The most secular institution of the Indian state — the Indian Army — has unthinkingly been inserted in a somewhat shabby and showy venture. This is the second instance of the Indian Army's institutional prestige being trifled with. Equally thoughtlessly, it be recalled, the Army was introduced in the Haryana battleground but not used — with consequences injurious to the Army’s institutional health and reputation.
However, the Baba and the Guru are not the only ‘political’ swamis. As a nation, we are overly blessed with a surfeit of deras, maths, ashrams and their cultic “masters” — and, each one seeks to bend the authority to his or her holy advantage. Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Shankar have become more visible — some would say have become an eyesore — only because of a in-your-face flaunting of their political connections. To be fair to them, they have never made a secret of their sympathies and proximities. And again, it would be unfair to single them out for wanting to garner a political clout. The clever politician is only too happy to be a benami partner with them. For example, during the troubled and tortured first decade of the 21st century, the Swaminarayan leadership was used to put the sect’s imprimatur on the Narendra Modi regime and its aberrations.
Curiously enough — and, this is more than curious — the crony baba does not claim to be stepping into the shoes of the traditional raj guru. In the ancient days, the raj guru was a figure of moral authority, empowered to impose on the raja the righteous discipline of rajdharma. Today’s crony baba conveniently keeps away from exercising the option of moral leadership. A “His Holiness” for example would not speak up on the issue of women’s entry into temples.
The crony baba, instead, claims to be in the business of tending to the spiritual well-being of the citizens. Admittedly, societies seek to build up bulwark against cultural disruptions being wrecked by the relentless march of globalisation. The spiritual sales-pitch allows the ‘master’ to pretend that he is resuscitating the solidarity of religious rituals and habits. This ruse allows the holy master to position himself above the mundane issues that would agitate, say, a Kanhaiya Kumar. The godman becomes an accomplice in the million injustices that scar this land every day.
Now the spiritual master has also become a businessman, each godman with a different ‘revenue model’ that needs the state's patronage and protection. In the process, the self-claimed spiritual faqir acquires worldly interests and baggage, which need, occasionally, protection from the law. This vulnerability nudges the holy faqir into the unholy tentacles of crony babaism. And that suits the politician. Suits rather well.
The average politician knows he has squandered away his most precious asset — moral authority, and with that that exclusive claim to assert his right as the custodian of public interest. The politician seeks to bolster his depleted authority through an association with this guru or that swami.
The law, too, finds ways to oblige the crony baba, just as it invariably bails out the crony capitalist at the last minute. Just as the crony capitalist can gain easy access to the most powerful offices, so does the crony baba.
All this crony babaism adds up to an assault on republican virtues and secular values in a way that is clearly unhelpful. The visible patronage of the state and its authorised agents on a gaggle of convenient godmen has somehow weakened the spirit of our constitutional covenants.
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