Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev, center, leaves a stadium in New Delhi on Tuesday… (Prakash Singh, AFP/Getty…)
NEW DELHI — Popular anti-corruption activist and Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev was lying low Thursday after an eventful week as all sides tried to assess whether widespread public anger over graft will be channeled into a new political party, resurface in another mass demonstration or dissipate, allowing the flow of dirty money to continue uninterrupted.
Ramdev has picked up the mantle, and perhaps the tactics, from 75-year-old crusader Anna Hazare, who staged three hunger strikes last year hoping to force Parliament to pass a law creating a national anti-corruption ombudsman post with broad investigative power.
As Hazare's star has waned — his last hunger strike, in December, was poorly attended — Ramdev has stepped into the vacuum. On Monday, after fasting for several days, he tried to lead supporters on an anti-corruption march from the grounds where he was staging his hunger strike to Parliament. Police tried to place him in "protective custody," but he slipped out a side exit of the venue, climbed onto the roof of a bus and refused police entreaties to come down, all on live television.
After a couple of hours, he descended, perhaps tired of police officers trying to pull him down, and agreed to be detained along with thousands of his supporters in a nearby stadium. A few hours later, police told everyone they could go home. But he opted to stay until Tuesday when, as the day dawned, he held a yoga session and broke his fast by having two Dalit, or so-called untouchable, children raise juice to his lips before returning to his ashram to regroup.
Ramdev, who sports a thick dark beard and saffron robes, gained widespread popularity in 2003 with a 5 a.m. televised yoga program. That's helped him build an exercise and natural herb empire worth an estimated $50 million. He believes yoga can cure homosexuality and cancer and decries tight jeans and fast food. His website advertises Hindu ayurvedic herbs to treat HIV, AIDS and all sexually transmitted diseases at a price of $149.
Even as Ramdev has taken his struggle to the streets, the Hazare camp has decided that fasting is no longer effective. Instead, it's laid plans to start a political party aimed at fighting corruption from within the political system. But that's led to disagreements among close advisors over whether this approach will bog down the social movement and cause it to lose focus.
"Any election requires money, which carries its own costs," said Sarvesh Sharma, a political analyst and former advisor to Common Cause India, a civic group. "Going into politics could make them dirty themselves."
What's left is an increasingly splintered movement with two figures offering competing visions and different pet issues, analysts said. Whereas Hazare was until recently focused on the ombudsman law, Ramdev is keen on fighting "black money," untaxed or illegitimate funds hidden in overseas accounts.
The danger, some analysts say, is that a large stratum of Indians — not necessarily the poorest, but those scraping by who feel left behind by India's economic rise — will vent its rage in less constructive ways.
"It's a collective tinderbox," said Dipankar Gupta, a retired sociology professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, who estimates that up to a third of India's 1.2 billion people are potentially disaffected. "If these people are not in the Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev movements, they could become much more destructive, get drawn into violence, channeled into crime."
Public anger has focused on the Congress Party-led government, which during its eight years in power has been shadowed by massive corruption scandals in the coal, telecommunications, real estate, defense and sports industries allegedly involving tens of billions of dollars.
The government and ruling party should use the lull created by all this confusion in the anti-corruption camp to pass its own ombudsman bill, however watered down, analysts said. This would allow it to tout its responsiveness to public concerns, dissipate discontent and take the air out of future anti-corruption demonstrations.
"They should really make use of this time they have," said Sanjay Kumar, an analyst at New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a think tank.
But a significant number of lawmakers resist tighter oversight, given the millions of dollars in black money needed to fund a regional or national political campaign, despite calls by India's election commission to limit spending to $50,000.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, meanwhile, has failed to capitalize on public anger and government missteps in part because of its internal problems, particularly a fight over leadership. "It has a large number of No. 2s, but everyone thinks they're No. 1," Kumar said.
All the political drama is distracting leaders, some say, at a time when India faces a weaker economy, rising inflation, declining foreign investment, poverty and health problems, amid lower demand for its exports.
"Now that the world outside is collapsing, India can't keep up," said Gupta, the sociologist. "There's no real policy.... It's all a bunch of Band-Aids."
Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.