Shiv Visvanathan is one of India's leading sociologists. He currently teaches at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology.
Swami Ramdev may have jumped off the podium but is still news. Many of my friends see him as a threat to democracy arguing he is harassing an elected government. They see him as de-politizing the country with quack medicines for real problems. Others with a more conspiratorial view read him as a Rasputin, less sinister because he has shades of a clown, a village idiot. They are worried about his rustic populism which makes a hash of our more urbane secular categories. Others more liberal see him as comic book stuff. Crudely put, it is like watching a Bhojpuri movie with English subtitles. It will appear boisterous and crude.
By focusing too much on the man, we lose the sociology behind him. To say he is a Yadav, a Kisan's son, A Yogi from Haryana is not saying enough. This is a sociology of convenience. We think we can dispense with a man once we created a grid of social science terms. To the western eye, he is another OBC figure demanding to be heard. Ignore his egotism, his colossal sense that the world moves around his Copernican self. Ask not what did he say but how did people around him construct the movement? To fight him, you have to understand him.
It is an irony that in discussing corruption, we don't notice the corruption of categories. The languages spoken are different and the same words have different resonances. The Congress in arguing with him appears like a bunch of lawyers engaging with a prophet. Journalists approach him with equal consternation. They see his drama as blackmail, a threat to a constitutionally elected government. Echoing the tacit codes of democracy, electoralism, representation, Ramdev appears like a wave of bad behaviour contemptuous of democratic politics. For the journalist, a representative is elected by the people, therefore he represents them. Ramdev claims he belongs to the people, the reporters see him as illegitimate; he appeals to a primordiality, an organicity beyond representation.
To say that Ramdev is fighting corruption is incomplete. More important he is fighting corruption in idioms and metaphors the urban intellectual does not understand. To hyphenate him to VHP or RSS is not enough. Both use energies from similar cultural stream but the BJP language has become trite as it moved from samaj to rashtra, from community to nation.
Ramdev invokes the lived idea of the village or the lived in experience of the village. He invites a people who believe in the message and the discipline of the guru. His language evokes a world English is too provincial to understand. He talks of sewa which cannot be reduced to social service or social work, or of swasthya which goes beyond allopathic definitions of health. For Ramdev excess food and multinationals can both be corrupting. He is fighting a battle against corruption where the moral, the economic, the spiritual and the material flow into each other. It is a summons from a different discourse, the language of satsangs and not NGOs. The heroes it invokes are Bhagat Singh, Subhash Bose, Rana Pratap, Veer Savarkar those who belong to folklore and legend more than history, people who have been often called the also-rans of NCERT history text books.
There is a lot that is impressive. The arrangements at Ramlila Maidan reminds us of Gandhi's statement about what can the British teach us about managing crowds when we organize the Kumbh Mela. Its sheer demography would boggle the British mind. Cultural groups and religious cults arrange melas and protests using community skills which modern management does not understand. To list it logistically in terms of fans arranged, water coolers available misses the point. The discipline and power of this voluntarism stems from sewa not some NGO pamphlet. The presence of swamis shows that saffron does not belong to the right, that saffron has a dignity, a spirituality, a vocation that goes beyond the communalist appropriation of saffron. Our secular liberals reach for the gun when religion is mentioned without realizing the violence they do to a people who think comfortably in religious categories. Calling all this Bharat, only blackboxes the world cooked up by these categories.
Think of two other facts. We talk of participation as an empowering word but we are contemptuous of crowds who participate in protests. Many people at the rally were hinting at a simple and poignant truth. They said we want to participate but we want to participate in categories we are comfortable with. For that if we have to invoke Vivekanand and Rana Pratap, so be it. We want to talk our language. These people are saying it does not need global agencies like Transparency International to tell them what corruption is about. The old woman from a little town feels important, feels relevant sitting quietly but not insignificantly in the crowd. Our ideas of democracy have become too arrogant to notice the people.
Let us notice another thing. They are creating history by invoking myth. They are defying history to create a different notion of independence, not as an event but as a process. They juxtapose 1857, 1947 and 2011 into a sequence. It invokes a different idea of independence where what we seek is an independence from western categories, where civilization and community are expressing a tiredness with the electoral hegemony of parliaments. As Swami Agnivesh put it, sometimes people have to have priority over parliaments, if people are to be ultimate source of power in democracies.
A famous Indian scientist once sat listening to a recitation of a similar event. At the end of it the man reciting it asked the scientist, 'What do you think?' The scientist answered 'It depends on who is telling the story and whose story it is.' We cannot capture the Ramdev phenomenon in media idioms. Words like traditional, fundamental, saffron, communal blur the immediacy of what is happening. There is a pain, a quiet agony which he has sensed. We have to listen to before we begin to participate or quarrel with them. This much we owe to ourselves as Indians.
Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.