New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government braced for another political crisis as last-minute talks between its representatives and yoga guru Ramdev, who is threatening to go on an indefinite fast to protest against corruption, failed on Friday.
The decision by Ramdev, whose yoga camps have attracted millions across the world, could trigger fresh trouble for the UPA government, which has already been battered by a series of corruption charges and controversies. A similar move by activist Anna Hazare demanding anti-graft legislation, besides putting the political focus on the issue of corruption, had forced the government to form a joint committee involving civil society representatives to draft the Bill.
After nearly five-hour-long negotiations with two Union ministers and senior Congress leaders Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay, Ramdev told crowds in a makeshift tent at the Ramlila grounds in the Capital that he would begin his indefinite fast on Saturday and continue it until the government completely agrees to his demands.
The saffron-clad Ramdev, popularly know as Baba Ramdev, has been demanding that the government should bring in legislation to repatriate the alleged black money stashed in foreign bank accounts and declare it as national wealth. “I will go on my fast... We do not have any secret, underground, communal or political agenda. The only agenda is national interest,” he said amid cheers.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had earlier written to Ramdev, requesting him to abandon his plans for the fast. With Ramdev declaring that he would go ahead with his decision, the ruling Congress warned against the “politics of blackmail”.
However, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi was cautious in his response to questions over the party stance on the matter. “I am not talking about Jantar Mantar (referring to the anti-corruption fast by Hazare in April) nor about Ramdev, but by definition itself, politics of blackmail is not proper,” he told reporters.
At least two ministers in the cabinet, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that the government has “mishandled” the issue. “This gives an impression that this government is really weak,” said one of them.
Meanwhile, Ramdev continued to insist that his agitation was for a cause. “I have been saying it since Day 1 that we have not come here to criticize people, accuse or defeat anyone,” he said. “We will not let this agitation turn violent, but if the government tries to suppress or trample us, it won’t be good.”
After the talks, which were held at a hotel in Delhi, Sibal said: “We had constructive dialogue on several issues and the government has addressed all the issues Baba has raised in writing. Most of these issues are of national concern and the government is already seized of many of them.”
But “we cannot expect that these issues can be resolved today because they have long-term implications”, Sibal said.
Subrata Mukherjee, a retired professor in the department of political science at Delhi University, said the serious nature of Ramdev’s campaign has been weakened after he held negotiations with the government “at a five-star hotel” on Friday. “UPA’s position is quite clear—negotiation, and beyond a point they will not give in. This kind of politics has its own natural limits... If you are serious enough, float a political party and fight it out,” he added, speculating that the whole affair might end in a “whimper”.
PTI reported that the cabinet secretariat, in a late-night press release, disclosed its issue-wise response to Ramdev’s demands, including its willingness to substantially increase the maximum punishment for corruption without defining what that would be. Singh, who met President Pratibha Patil on Friday, briefed her about the dialogue with Ramdev, a government release said.
According to Ramdev, the government has also “verbally” agreed on declaring black money as national wealth, but has not agreed on a legislative basis. He added that the government has agreed to the demand of constituting fast-track courts for corruption cases. However, it did not declare a time frame and the punishment for the same is disputed between the two.
His other proposals to combat graft include introducing the death penalty for corrupt officials and withdrawing large-denomination Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 bank notes, which he says are used for illicit transactions.
Meanwhile, the venue of the fast, Ramlila grounds, saw long queues at the registration desk and longer ones at the food counter. Participants were required to sign a form declaring that they would be “responsible for any damage during the fasting”.
Liz Mathew and Nidhi Misra of Mint, AFP and PTI contributed to this story.