Congress firm but Baba Ramdev, BJP to fight UPA government's "fascism"

The Union government swung into damage control mode on Sunday, in the wake of the early Sunday morning swoop by the Delhi Police on Ramlila Grounds and the bundling out from the national capital of a trembling yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who had exchanged his saffron garb for a white salwar kameez in the hope of escaping unnoticed. But this was not before Opposition parties, civil society groups and television channels had directed their combined wrath against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The Bharatiya Janata Party announced a 24-hour dharna against the government while the Baba called the Congress "cheats", brought up the foreign origins of its leader, Sonia Gandhi, and threatened an escalation of his campaign.

Two key members of the negotiating team — Union Ministers Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay — spent the better part of the day explaining the government's actions. The burden of their arguments was that the government had gone more than half way to meet the yoga guru's demands on a range of policy issues, but that the yoga guru had reneged on his assurances twice: first when he failed to honour the promise he had made in a note he had given them on Friday that he would announce an end to his hunger strike on Saturday at noon, and again after he promised Mr. Sibal in the evening to make the announcement on receiving a written assurance on a law on black money.

In the evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Media Adviser went a step further to justify the government's action. “On reflection, every liberal, secular and law-abiding citizen will want to applaud the government for upholding the Constitution and pre-empting another ‘December 6' moment,” he said, a reference to the 1992 crisis in which the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh government assured the Centre that law and order would be maintained at Ayodhya but then allowed the Babri Masjid to be destroyed. Other officials spoke of the possibility of some miscreant provoking violence and targeting Baba Ramdev — something that Dharmendra Kumar, Special Police Commissioner (law and order), had hinted at in his press briefing on Sunday when he said that the police had intelligence that the yoga guru could be attacked at the Ramlila Grounds.

Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani dubbed the police action as “naked fascism” and demanded an apology from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Speaking to the media in Chennai, he said President Pratibha Patil should convene an emergency session of Parliament to discuss the development, along with the larger issues of corruption and black money.

Mr. Advani, who was in Chennai to attend a wedding, said he was reminded of the Emergency imposed in June 1975 and felt that June 2011 could also turn out to be a similar “turning point” in the country's political history.

But it was clear that the police action in the early hours of Sunday had changed the public mood — even though it was quite clear that highly coloured versions of the events were being touted by Opposition parties and TV channels. On Saturday evening, civil society groups were divided, with the Anna Hazare camp clearly unhappy that it had been sidelined and its spokespersons expressing their objections to the presence of those with a communal history — such as Sadhvi Rithambara — on stage; the television channels had turned hostile against Baba Ramdev, asking him why he had betrayed his supporters by striking a deal on Friday with the government on ending his hunger strike by June 6. In the BJP and RSS camps, there was consternation that the yoga guru had been “co-opted” by the government.

The swoop wiped out all that: civil society groups closed ranks, the Anna Hazare camp held a press conference in Baba Ramdev's support; top BJP leaders held serial press briefings in Lucknow, Chennai and Delhi denouncing the government and recalling the dark days of the Emergency; and Baba Ramdev — despite his ignominious un-Gandhi-like exit from Ramlila Grounds — was a hero again.

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