Monday, June 6, 2011

`Piri' & `Miri'

I have always strongly believed that `piri’ (from the Persian word Pir meaning religious or spiritual guides) and `miri’ (again from a Persian word – Amir or lord, but meaning here state craft or power) should be kept apart.

In multi-religious, multi-lingual India, the most successful rulers have always been those who have managed to keep religion and statecraft apart. They may have been deeply religious persons in their own life but in matters of state they remained secular and thence lay the secret of their success.

In our history we have termed only two emperors as Great - Ashoka and Akbar. Not because, they pushed India’s frontiers the furthest, not because they won great battles but rather because their age was one of reason, tolerance, peace and prosperity wrought about by a strong secular polity, which advocated respect for all religions and was backed by equally strong statecraft.

Whenever anyone has tried to merge the two concepts – `piri’ and `miri’ – into one being in Indian politics, he has created a conflagration which has had devastating effect on national polity. Muhammad Ai Jinnah, Bhindranwale and Narendra Modi come to mind as leaders who failed to realize their potential and created a catastrophe for their followers by trying to bring religion into play in statecraft. (The only exception to this rule is perhaps that of Sikh Gurus who merged the two concepts in leading a religious state in Punjab. But then this state too did not differentiate between Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims in matters of state and thus in reality did differentiate between `piri’ and `miri’.)

When Baba Ramdev showed sings of trying to get onto the National political stage, I had similar forebodings. A successful yoga Guru, head of a multi-billion dollar empire of yoga schools and Ayurvedic medi-care, Ramdev has followers cutting across religion, but mostly among middle and lower middle class Hindus, who see in him some kind of a modern Vedic healer.

The hairy, cock-eyed Yogi, who has mesmerized TV audiences with his lectures on lifestyle, health and his yogic prescriptions for various ailments, consequently, has a huge following. His detractors of course, have many questions to ask about his jet-setting, island buying lifestyle. But then that is a different story.

When Ramdev announced that he would go on an indefinite fast against corruption, a battle already being fought quite ably by social activist Anna Hazare, advocates Shanti and Prashant Bhushan and former policewoman Kiran Bedi, many saw in his move an attempt to gain space by piggybacking on a popular cause.

While Hazare’s movement against corruption had to face first government apathy and then grudging negotiations where every attempt was made to sideline him, Ramdev was met with royal treatment. Even before his fast started, top government ministers rushed to meet his jet at the airport and try and convince him not to agitate. His protest which could have been just another `me too’ one, suddenly had national spotlights on it.

Social activists from Hazare camp looked upon him enviously and wondered if he was a government plant, set up to steal their hour of glory. Politicians from the rightwing BJP watched him nervously as a long term potential challenger of the rightwing space in politics and hinted darkly that he was a Congress stooge, set up to cut their votes in the next general elections.

In the meantime, an agreement on steps to tackle black money was reached with the government and Ramdev was supposed to have a token fast. But the yoga guru stepped up his demands and made all kinds of new demands including scrapping Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. By midnight, the mood at the venue of his fast – Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds turned from one of celebration at snatching an agreement from a powerful government to one of apprehension as the police cancelled his permission to hold an assembly on the large expanse of green in the heart of Old Delhi.

Ramdev was briefly held and then whisked away by helicopter and car to his Ashram at Hardwar. A midnight snatch along with allegations that he was roughed up, which raised the Guru’s popularity ratings and seemed to lay at rest the theory that he was a Congress creation.

The Guru’s gullible and simple followers were not that lucky. Many of them who had formed a human chain around the man, were badly beaten up by India’s medieval mentality police force. A lady had her spine broken and is reportedly lying paralysed. Another old man had both his legs broken by the cane charge. A Bengali woman who had very foolishly brought her child to the agitation venue, was still searching for the kid, hours after the crackdown which saw police firing tear gas shells to disperse Ramdev’s supporters.

What will happen next? Well Ramdev has already become a hero of sorts, thanks to the Congress government’s actions. Yet at the same time, this crackdown and possible CBI probes against the jet setting baba, will mean that any steps taken by the Government now to arrest corruption will not carry with it the stigma of being forced down its throat by any Hazare or Ramdev.

If Ramdev jumps into politics next, cashing on his new found status as a social crusader hurt by an uncaring government, he could well fight the BJP for its niche political space – rightwing obscurantist. Again that should arithmetically leave the Congress, the better off in consolidating its secular space.

However in real life, scripts and game theory often take a back seat and the unpredictable takes over. If it does in Ramdev’s case, we could well be witnessing the birth of yet another cult player who tries to merge `piri’ and `miri’ for his personal rise.