It’s a Third Front with a difference. While the earlier versions were non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combinations, the group conjured up by Baba Ramdev at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, included the BJP. However, its similarities with the basic concept of the Third Front were, first, a pronounced anti-Congress thrust and, second, the presence under the yoga guru’s umbrella of parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena, et al.
Notwithstanding the apparently formidable nature of the combination on the surface, the Congress may not be too worried because of the inchoate characteristic of the new formation. For a start, Ramdev does not want to launch a political party — yet. At the moment, his focus is on cornering the government on the black money issue. It is the same with the BJP and other parties, which have clarified that their support for Ramdev is confined to the question of black money stashed abroad.
It is, however, unclear whether this fine-tuning can be a politically effective tactic. Instead, the general suspicion will be that these parties have jumped on to Ramdev’s bandwagon because of their inability to present — either singly or together — a credible challenge to the Congress and the government.
As it is, the differences between these parties became obvious during the presidential election when the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Shiv Sena broke away from the BJP to back the Congress’ Pranab Mukherjee. Even now, there is little doubt that the Samajwadi Party and the BSP will continue to support the Congress in parliament despite their brief dalliance with Ramdev.
Given the oddity of the CPI’s support for a Hindu religious mascot, it is unlikely that the party will continue to back him even if the issue is only black money. True, both the CPI and its Big Brother, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), had joined Anna on his Jantar Mantar stage along with the BJP. But Ramdev’s proximity to the saffron brotherhood is even closer than that of Anna considering that the fiery Muslim-baiter, Sadhvi Rithambara, had once appeared with the yoga teacher at the Ramlila grounds.
There is, therefore, every likelihood of many of those who turned up at Ramdev’s ‘circus’, to quote Press Council chief Justice Markandeya Katju, will gradually drift away lest their hobnobbing with the yoga guru should scare away their Muslim supporters.
Among the parties which will be extremely wary of this possibility is the JD-U, for it will realise that its flaunting of secular credentials by criticising Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may be neutralised if it moves too close to Ramdev.
As for Ramdev himself, his objective is still unclear. Since he is unlikely to float a political party like Team Anna, or go on fasts-unto-death like the crusader from Ralegan Siddhi, the fighter against black money will have to firm up his game plan soon if he wants to remain in the public eye. All that he has done so far is to step into the vacuum that was created when Anna Hazare retired hurt from the scene.
As the crowds at Ramdev’s ‘circus’ showed, his popularity among his followers is considerable. Even then, the size of the gathering — though much larger than what Hazare was able to attract towards the closing stages of his movement — was still not large enough to trouble the government too much.
What is more, despite his ability to draw larger crowds than what Hazare could in recent months, Ramdev lacks the Ralegan Siddhi crusader’s moral stature. Because of his large and thriving business ventures and the fact that one of his associates is currently in jail, the Ramdev is seen to be no different from the many similarly successful godmen who dot the scene and occasionally consort with politicians.
The large crowds at his shows evidently made him think of a political future. But, now, he is not so sure. Hazare’s travails must have warned him of the pitfall of a political adventure. So, he is giving a helping hand to the BJP and other non-Congress parties. But it is an uneasy relationship where each is trying to ascertain what he can get out of the other without damaging his own position.
The government, on its part, seems to have finally found an effective way to deal with these agitations by ignoring them. It has evidently learnt from the mistakes it made by rushing senior ministers to receive Ramdev at the Delhi airport last year or inviting Team Anna to a joint meeting on the Lokpal bill. Its latest tactic is to adopt a hands-off attitude where official contacts are concerned and leave it to a few ministers to make sarcastic comments.
Who will have the last word in this cat-and-mouse game is difficult to predict.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org