The rule of exemptions: Political business on a yoga camp permit

When all Baba Ramdev wanted was exemption, what was the noise about?

sureshmenon

Suresh Menon | June 27, 2011




Some years ago, Bishan Bedi and I visited a former player in a leading Delhi hospital. Seeing us stand in the queue for the entry tokens, there was shock and amazement all around. "What sir, you too?" people kept asking Bedi. In the capital where everyone knows someone whose uncle grew up in a house opposite a person who went to school with an important official with string-pulling powers, it was a rare sight to see a public figure following the rules.

We are a nation of rule-breakers. Rules, like heart attacks and bankruptcy, are only for other people. But these other people are loophole-chasers, exemption-seekers and avoiders of the straight and narrow too. It is not the exception that makes the rule – exception is the rule.

Hence the planned anti-corruption measures that seek to keep the prime minister and the chief justice and a host of others beyond the pale. Or rather – if you want to be technical about it – within the pale, while the rest of us are beyond, which means we are the uncivilised. We’ve had corrupt prime ministers, corrupt judges, even the odd corrupt chief justice of India. If an exception can be made for them, why not for the fake swamijis, the fraudulent businessmen, journalists on the take, and serial killers? That way, the law-makers can claim to be politically correct.

Why do we love exemptions so much? It is a sign of insecurity. "See, I don’t need to stand in line" is the individual’s biggest ego-ride. And to avoid standing in line, he is willing to pay touts, politicians, anyone who promises him that the job will be done. The refusal to stand in line is at the root of so much corruption in the country.

You want a passport. It is your right as a citizen. Everything is computerised. You fill in forms online and hit the key to generate the date of interview. That date is two months hence. You call up a friend who knows someone whose neighbour’s cousin works in a travel agency. For a fee, this travel agent can get you the interview next week or even the next day (the rates vary, of course). Who are the officials in on the deal? How much do they make in a day? Work it out.

The average citizen looks to cut corners on average deals. Passports. Electricity connections. Property deals. The extreme citizens on the one end struggle for existence; at the other end look to buy votes, fix judgements, take a commission for every public job. Or decide that it is a wheeze to have 323 international telephone lines in your house (in someone else’s name). Or behave as if they own an international sporting event and act as a blocked sieve for all the liquidity.

Pakistan’s Asif Zardari was known as Mr Ten Percent for his cut in all national deals. Our politicians would find that insulting. It is twenty percent at least, if not more.

Till the other day, we were known simply as ‘people’ or ‘citizens’. Now we are civil society. A confused government asks as a Baba Ramdev emerges, ‘Is it a plane, is it a bird, is it Superman?’, and treats the man as if he is all three. He is a plane, so they go to the airport to meet him and discuss matters of national importance with a man whose grasp of economics would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. Then they treat him like Superman, begging him to give up a proposed fast, give him the sort of credibility that the government lacks. Finally they decide he is a bird after all, and set traps – land acquisition, financial jugglery, animal parts in his concoctions – to catch him.

Which genius decided that the best policy would be to grovel before Ramdev on day one, listen to him for a couple of days and then beat up his unarmed, peaceful followers? The prime minister has said that the police action was "unfortunate but necessary". And you want to keep the prime minister’s office above the purview of the Lokpal? Corruption can be economic as well as moral.

What do we know of Ramdev after the 24/7 exposure? Why does a man who takes so much care to maintain his jet black hair not bother to shave his armpits? They are not telegenic. Ramdev’s list of demands kept expanding and contracting much like his belly on his television shows.

This is where the right-thinking have doubts about the representatives of civil society. Instead of telling Ramdev to take a walk (which he finally did, as a cross-dresser), they humoured him for the same reason that the government did. Because of his huge fan base. The Congress should have countered Ramdev with Aishwarya Rai. She has a huge fan base too. And she looks after her armpits.

Ramdev hires a ground for yoga, but he wants exemption so he can use it for his political business. In the end – and this is the most impressive part of his theatrics – he gives some five thousand policemen the slip in the full glare of the cameras and disappears from the Ramlila grounds. If his shawl hadn’t slipped to reveal his beard (or was it an armpit?), there was no way the cops could have caught him.

Was that part of the exemption too? Catch Ramdev, but with one exception: don’t actually catch him.

As I write this, Anna Hazare is preparing to go on a fast again. We, meanwhile have to prepare for the next step – competitive fasting. Non-eating does strange things to people. It causes Sushma Swaraj to dance.

It is time Kapil Sibal went on a fast too. The other fasters have made it appear that the Congress is against anti-corruption. Sibal fasting will change that perception.

The prime minister, who would have risen in our eyes had he said ‘sorry’ after the Ramlila fiasco, can throw his weight behind the CSRs’ (civil society representatives’) demand for bringing his office and those of the others under the Bill. It is time he made an exemption to his hands-off policy.

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