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The end of a circus in Delhi

The end of a circus in Delhi

Baba Ramdev’s show is over, for the time being. Early on Sunday morning police swooped on his tent city in the heart of Delhi and detained him. His followers dispersed quietly after an initial round of skirmishes with the police.

In any case it is hard to take Ramdev seriously. Leaving aside his concerns about black money—ones that a majority of citizens would share—nearly all his demands can be dismissed out of hand. His lack of understanding of how the Indian political system works and the seriousness with which he is believed by a massive number of followers shows how dangerous such stunts are for democracy.

The danger in the situation comes from two directions. On the one hand, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government suffers from an acute lack of legitimacy. The assorted scams, the very visible drift coupled with a self-serving bias in policymaking have gone a long way in ensuring this. On the other hand, at the ground level, the near-total absence of proper governance—corruption being its most visible symptom—has led to an epidemic of cynicism and anger. Depending on one’s preferences, this disaffection is being tapped by two groups. More urbane audiences backing the “civil society" option—with Anna Hazare as its figurehead; others choose bhajan-singing bands led by Ramdev.

In both cases, the “solutions" that are being touted are plebiscitary and fraught with personal ambitions. Ramdev wants to bend the government to his will. His demand for a directly elected prime minister is hint enough. Others—more sophisticated and equally disingenuous—want near-inquisitorial powers, for their nominee as Lokpal. In their politics, they are in the same class as the Maoists—the difference being that the latter want to break the system with a gun; for others the chosen weapon is satyagraha. It is not surprising that many members of the “civil society" group are Maoist sympathizers. In any case, both groups are thoroughly self-seeking.

The root of the problem is the present government. Its complete disregard for serious problems of governance has opened the door for the rash politics of the Ramdev kind. Had it paid more attention to these issues, these groups could have been easily ignored. The UPA’s managers know that this can’t be done because of the depleted political stock of their government. The spectacle of ministers first grovelling before a godman at the airport and then ordering a pre-dawn police crackdown is only a symptom of the larger crisis of governability.

The godman or the government: Who is wrong? Tell us at

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