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INSIDE STORY: Why Baba Ramdev's position isn't enviable

Last updated on: June 1, 2011 22:35 IST

INSIDE STORY: Why Baba Ramdev's position isn't enviable

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
Sheela Bhatt provides a ringside view to the hectic political developments after yoga guru Baba Ramdev landed in New Delhi to start his fast against corruption.

In an unprecedented political move, the United Progressive Alliance government's representatives, led by none other than Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, went all out to woo Baba Ramdev.

The yoga guru-turned-anti-corruption crusader is all set to start his indefinite fast on June 4 with many demands that includes the issue of getting back black money stashed abroad, the Land Acquisition Bill, genetically modified food, farmers's issues and withdrawing currency notes of higher denomination from the economy.

Surely, it was a scene to watch when India's most experienced and powerful men reached New Delhi airport before Baba Ramdev's chartered flight from Madhya Pradesh landed. Pranabbabu's wait for Baba Ramdev was worth it, thinks a senior Congressman, because he claims, the yoga guru is quite mellower now.

If Baba Ramdev is cajoled to tone down his campaign, then the grassroots movement for a stronger Lokpal Bill gets weaker. The distance between the social activist Anna Hazare-led team and Baba Ramdev's resources and followers helps the government.

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Image: Baba Ramdev at a news conference in New Delhi, June 1
Photographs: Reuters
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The Lokpal drafting committee is set to break down

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The UPA government is against private participation in drafting the Lokpal Bill and it seems that sooner than later the drafting committee jointly chaired by Pranab Mukherjee and former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan will break down.

Many leaders in government say that even when the Hindu Marriage Act was amended or the reorganisation of states took place, such a 'joint' committee was not formed.

In view of the government's deep displeasure with the Anna Hazare-led team's demand for a stringent Lokpal Bill, it is important that Baba Ramdev does not add to the UPA's woes.

It is becoming clear that the Lokpal Bill, if and when comes before Parliament, will be of the government's choice only.

Baba Ramdev's meeting with Mukherjee, who is de facto running the government, shows the UPA is worried and does not want a repeat of the outpouring of public emotion on the issue of corruption that followed Anna Hazare's fast at Jantar Mantar in April.


Image: Anna Hazare's supporters Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Swami Agnivesh

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'Baba will go on fast, but won't provoke!'

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Although it seems to some political observers that the government is bending over backwards to placate Baba Ramdev, there is no doubt that Union Ministers Mukherjee, Kapil Sibal, Pawan Kumar Bansal and Subodh Kant Sahay, Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrasekhar and the next Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth who met the yoga guru at the airport did not return empty handed.

The meeting was cordial, but an officer took detailed notes. Some ministers noted down points Baba Ramdev made.

After the talks, Baba Ramdev and his confidante Acharya Balkrishna held a private meeting with the four ministers and the Cabinet Secretary. Ramdev told the others to leave the room. That meeting went on for more than 30 minutes.

A source in the government, who was privy to the backroom dealing with Baba Ramdev, said, "You can't say the talks failed. Baba will go on fast, but he will not provoke!"

Government respresentatives, after meeting Baba Ramdev, thinks the fast will not snowball into a movement against the UPA.

The government source said that at no point did Mukherjee or any other minister tell Baba Ramdev to abandon his plan to go on a fast.

One person present at the meeting said, "Baba welcomed Pranabda very warmly. He made him (Mukherjee) feel comfortable, saying that his stature is bigger than his (Baba Ramdev) and he is known all over India. The ministers found Baba quite simple and easy to talk to."

Amongst the ministers only Sahay knows Baba Ramdev well. Both men became close because of two food processing factories launched in Padarkha near Hardwar and in Ranchi by mutual friends.


Image: Preparations for Baba Ramdev's fast underway at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi
Photographs: Sahim Salim/Rediff.com
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Pranab speaks Hindi effortlessly to accommodate Baba

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Pranab Mukherjee's command over Hindi is not very good, so Pawan Kumar Bansal interpreted Baba Ramdev's words a couple of times. Baba Ramdev does not speak English, so the two hour-long talks were conducted in Hindi.

Mukherjee has often said he cannot be a contender for the prime minister's post because he does not know Hindi. On Wednesday he needed assistance only twice. His colleagues were pleasantly surprised to see him speak Hindi effortlessly.

Once, while discussing an agriculture-related issue, Baba Ramdev told the ministers that the minimum support price should take into the account the actual cost (lagat in Hindi) of farming. Mukherjee had to be informed about the meaning of lagat.

Baba Ramdev's colleague, who was present at the meeting, told Rediff.com, "It was a very cordial meeting. Baba spoke and Pranabbabu listened. The government side gave him (Baba Ramdev) papers that spoke of strategic initiatives to curb the generation of black money and for its detection. Pranabbabu spoke in detail what the government has done to get back black money from banks abroad."


Image: Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee

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The govt isn't ready to take any chances

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It seems some of Baba Ramdev's advisers like journalist Vedik Pratap and former judge Pritam Pal Singh persuaded him to understand the government's arguments. Both men were present at Wednesday's meeting along with food security expert Devinder Sharma.

Since invitations have been issued and his followers are slated to reach New Delhi, Baba Ramdev is unable to cancel his programme of yoga sessions at the Ramlila Maidan and his fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

The next couple of days are crucial when Baba Ramdev faces more pressure from the government and also from Anna Hazare's team.

At one point during the meeting, Baba Ramdev spelled out his predicament that he did not want to be seen to be singing the government's tune.

The UPA government decided to go for the kill because their assessment is that Baba Ramdev has a huge following and the present situation does not favour the government. So it is not ready to take any chances.

When Baba Ramdev wrote a long letter to Dr Manmohan Singh, the prime minister replied.

The government then became pro-active and sent Central Board of Direct Taxes Chairman Sudhir Chandra to brief Baba Ramdev on the issue of black money, both inside and outside the country.

After this, Baba Ramdev took a U-turn on the Jan Lokpal Bill that surprised the Hazare camp.

At the end of the day, Baba Ramdev can take satisfaction that the might of the government came to his door with humble requests, but on the other side, he has a difficult task to save his reputation.

When the meeting ended, the government team had a feeling that Baba Ramdev's fast would not vitiate the atmosphere or embarrass the government.

"Pranab ka asar to hua hain (Pranab's presence has made the difference)," a senior Congressman said.

If this is true, then Baba Ramdev's position is not enviable.


Image: The barricaded entrance to the site of Baba Ramdev's fast against corruption in New Delhi
Photographs: Sahim Salim/Rediff.com
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