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Gurus of the marketplace

A new religiosity has given voice to the fight against cronyism, led by a preacher with his own Scot

In September 2009, an Indian guru popularly known as Baba Ramdev acquired a small Scottish island. His followers had bought it for £2m from the previous owner, whose investments had reportedly suffered in the global financial turmoil. Soon afterwards, Ramdev spoke to the Indian press. "The island base is not about property as much as it is about spreading Indian values," he said, although it seems safe to assume that this spread of Indian values would not have been possible without the boom-and-bust syncopation of global finance: in the west, the credit crunch in Iceland, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States; in the east, the apparently inexorable rise of China and India.

Ramdev's rise in India from everyday Hindu preacher to celebrity took place within the past decade, against a backdrop of expanding markets and frenzied consumerism among India's upper and middle classes. I'd seen him often on television in those years - a lithe, bearded figure, demonstrating yoga poses - but his presence didn't seem particularly remarkable. There was a new religiosity in India, evident in the multiplicity of programmes offering the word of God in accents ranging from Hindu to evangelical Christian, as well as in the ostentatious displays of New Age religiousness among the crowds thronging the shopping malls. Ramdev deftly combined spirituality with the marketplace. His show was likely at any moment to veer away from deep breathing to a tour of his premises at Haridwar, northern India, where herbal medicines are produced.

Yet there was more to Ramdev than this juxtaposition of money and spirituality. This year, he began to make ever more strident pronouncements about corruption, including the way money was allegedly being siphoned out of the country into Swiss bank accounts. By June, his statements had grown into plans to hold a public gathering in New Delhi that would be part yoga camp and part protest rally.

The Indian National Congress (INC) government made a conciliatory gesture by despatching some of its senior ministers to meet Ramdev as he arrived in the city, but the guru went on with his plans, beginning a hunger strike on 4 June at the Ramlila Maidan grounds. Tens of thousands of Ramdev's followers gathered at the venue. Shortly after midnight, the government sent in a team of riot police. Tear-gas shells were fired, sticks were swung and, after a futile effort by members of the crowd to shield Ramdev, the guru was arrested. The authorities sent him back to Haridwar, from where he threatened to continue his campaign even as the government began an investigation into his business affairs, including his acquisition of the island of Little Cumbrae.

Ramdev's failed agitation was only one feature in a larger landscape of social unrest in India. In April this year, he supported efforts to introduce a parliamentary bill that would allow the creation of a body called the Jan Lokpal. Led by a social activist called Anna Hazare, whose white-clad figure projected a Gandhi-like image just as self-consciously as Ramdev's saffron signalled the guru, the movement called for the Jan Lokpal to be granted powers to investigate corruption charges against the highest officials in the country, including any member of the judiciary, executive or legislature.

Although it isn't clear who would be called on to serve in the Jan Lokpal, drafts of the bill suggest that at least four members would have a "legal background". Other members might include those who have received international honours such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award or the Nobel Prize. While it is worth noting that some of those supporting the bill are former Magsaysay winners, what is most obvious is the bill's rather bourgeois understanding of public integrity (Nobel laureates and former judges) and of public malaise, evident in its insistence on excluding politicians from membership of the Jan Lokpal.

There are reasons for this discontentment. India has suffered much heartbreak in recent times as it has embraced a particularly crude form of crony capitalism. In the past five years, while travelling across the country to gather material for a book, I have frequently seen the vulgar exuberance of the upper classes give way to destitution and despair among the majority. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, I spent some time in a little agricultural town called Armoor. It had been torn apart by rioting farmers, who had set fire to government jeeps and the imposing mansions of the two wealthiest businessmen in the area. The businessmen were seed dealers who purchased produce from the farmers, and when I met the main dealer whose ambitions had sparked off some of the events leading to the riots, he turned out to be caught up in a speculative frenzy that had become characteristic of the marketplace.

Yet it was the farmers in the area who were most deeply in trouble, caught between market forces and environmental limits as the level of groundwater in their fields sank ever lower. They were a fairly accurate reflection of the larger picture. About 450 million people in India earn a livelihood from farming, a profession of such diminishing returns that nearly 200,000 farmers have killed themselves in just over a decade.

Rural and urban poor join hands when it comes to other figures, such as the astonishing statistic that 43 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished, or that, while the rhetoric in India and the west has largely been about 8 per cent growth and the nation's 50-plus billionaires, more than 800 million of its citizens live on 30 pence a day.

All of this has been going on at the same time as the close nexus between corporate interests and a heavily militarised state with an arms
imports budget of $30bn has led to conditions of virtual civil war in the mineral-rich area of Chhattisgarh, central India. Here, the army, paramilitary forces and vigilante squads are engaged in an operation referred to by the Indian media as "Green Hunt" and whose target is an alliance of ultra-left guerrillas and indigenous people resisting displacement. Further north, in the disputed region of Kashmir, a brutal military occupation continues even as local resistance turns away from violence towards large-scale civil disobedience. In the north-eastern state of Manipur, which a US diplomat described as "less a state and more a colony of India" in one of the WikiLeaks cables, the poverty of the local population combines with an overwhelming military presence - the consequence of a martial law called the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which has been in effect in the state for over half a century.

In all these cases, great sections of the upper and middle classes have positioned themselves against the marginalised majorities, using a finely calibrated sense of aggrieved virtue to justify the presence of vast inequalities in the new India. The recent turn in elite sentiments, with the sense of unease and anger that fuelled support for the Jan Lokpal movement as well as for Ramdev, followed a series of public scandals. First, there was the controversy around the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last September. The event was meant to be India's answer to China's 2008 Olympics but, just as the Games opened, it became clear that the buildings and venues had been shoddily constructed. Police have since arrested officials who were allegedly involved in large-scale fraud and raided the offices of contractors.

This was followed by allegations that the public might have lost as much as $40bn when 2G bandwidth licences were allocated to companies in 2008. Prosecutors claimed that the auction of the licences had been manipulated to ensure winning bids for a number of companies close to the telecommunications minister, with prices set far lower than the market rate. Then, at the end of last year, a series of leaked conversations originating from wire taps carried out by the Indian income tax department on a British corporate lobbyist, Niira Radia, raised serious questions about how commonplace back-room deals between corporations, politicians and journalists had become.

Such scandals would not, by themselves, have led to widespread discontent among the upper and middle classes. But they appeared within the context of doubts about the Indian economy and the suspicion that it might not be insulated, after all, from the crisis of global capitalism. There has been a tapering-off of India's vaunted 8 per cent growth rate, with a slowdown in real estate and car sales, as well as high inflation and rising food prices.

Most of all, after longer than a decade of "growth", there seems little to show at the public level except for more shopping malls, business parks and condos, with no solutions in terms of what might be done with the majority, who can be found everywhere outside the spheres of affluence built by the corporate-state alliance. For Indian elites, this uncertainty about the present state of affairs manifests itself most easily in complaints about corruption and in a deep yearning for authoritarianism, both of which find form in grievances about the power of elected politicians.

This turn towards authoritarianism by the middle and upper classes is not new in post-independence India. It was manifest when the INC prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a nationwide state of emergency between 1975 and 1977. There were protests against Gandhi's display of unilateral power but, among the elite, memories of the emergency tend to be less about its suspension of civil liberties than that it made the trains run on time.

Another phase of discontent was inaugurated in the late 1980s, when unhappiness with an INC government plagued with accusations of corruption - some of it centred around an arms deal with the Swedish company Bofors - led to populist posturing from a man called T N Seshan. Seshan was made chief election commissioner in 1990; although he became something of a national hero among the elite, his suggestions for getting rid of corruption involved little more than threats to arrest politicians committing electoral fraud and demands for a national identity card.

For all of Seshan's pronouncements, made while surrounded by "Black Cat" security guards (whose presence was the surest indicator of high status in India), the main beneficiaries of elite resentment turned out to be the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which went from holding two seats in parliament in 1984 to 119 seats in 1991. In an alliance with several other parties, the BJP was in power from 1998 to 2004, energetically overseeing the new capitalism that enriched the upper classes while eviscerating the rest. Along with its stirring rhetoric about the marketplace and capitalism - what it termed "India Shining" - the BJP offered more nationalistic forms of selfhood to the Hindu elite, such as the nuclear tests that it carried out in 1998.

The INC, which came back to power in 2004, has continued many of the same policies, but it also gives off the smug sense of being the party of the established elite, used to the complications of governing a country such as India. The Jan Lokpal agitation led by Hazare was a challenge to this establishment, which is why the bill's supporters included sections of the electronic media and Bollywood stars, as well as swaths of the upper and middle classes.

Given that many of those supporting the bill are part of corporate India, whether part of the information technology industry or as managers of their own brands, their anti-corruption demands naturally have little to say about corporations or big business.

Ramdev, too, represents a middle class but his followers tend to come from the lower reaches of the middle stratum. They are more provincial, less polished, perhaps less economically secure, and yet also somewhat socially privileged in being middle- and upper-caste Hindus. They are people whose desire for authority finds a more natural channel in the figure of a religious guru than in the quasi-secular image of Hazare.

What Hazare, Ramdev and their constituencies have in common, however, is the idea that the main problem facing India is corruption. The opposite of that corruption is "purity", typically the kind of purity that can only be delivered by authoritarianism - which explains the seeming obsession of both Hazare and Ramdev for capital punishment and the way the draft bill insists that the Jan Lokpal should have policing powers, as if neither capital punishment nor policing had been much in evidence in India over the past few decades.

Voices in the INC have suggested that Ram­dev's saffron robes are on loan from the BJP. Hazare, too, for all his pretensions to being a Gandhi-like leader, has expressed admiration for Narendra Modi, a future prime ministerial candidate and BJP chief minister of Gujarat whom many have criticised for his failure to stop the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. The INC may well be right in its suspicions, just as the movements ranged against it might be in theirs. It is hard to deny that much of Indian politics is distorted by corruption and power. One can argue, however, that the self-interest and petty materialism of politicians are different from similar traits displayed by the Indian elite.

It's easy to have sympathy for those who want a change for the better - those who hope that things might be set right by a tribune, a Jan Lokpal, a Ram or a Ramdev. I recently watched a clip of Ramdev speaking, just before his stalled protest in New Delhi, about how he planned to take on corruption. Most of his ideas were confused - they ranged from withdrawing large-denomination banknotes from circulation to insisting that homosexuality was a western import - but what made me feel a flicker of sympathy for him was the way his eyes were mismatched, the left one smaller than the right.

It made him human. It told me that he had not come from the carefully bred, perfectly telegenic, elite classes who talk about the glorious path towards free-market modernity taken by their India. Then I remembered that this guru, too, had been made, at least in part, by the market and television, and that not too long ago he had posed in his robes in front of his Scottish castle. He embodied perfectly the conflicted identities of the new Indian elite, who are mostly heedless of the majority, quite enamoured of their own purity, and angry every now and then at the corruption that could be eliminated, if only they could find a policeman with a big stick.

Siddhartha Deb's latest book, "The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India", is newly published by Viking (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India