August Issue 2015
Letter from India
Even without believing the stuff about how it can cure cancer or dissolve tumours, there is much to be said about yoga. It is now recommended by most orthopaedics as a way to strengthen muscle tissue gently and fend off a great number of aches and pains. The real yogis will tell you that the postures are only the sideshow to yoga — they are meant to prepare the body for the real core of the practice, which is meditation.
Many generations of Indians have dabbled in it, seriously or non-seriously, to lesser or greater extents. And while no one has doubted that it is essentially an Indian regimen and has roots in Hinduism, it has been popular worldwide as a secular practice for fitness and wellness from the early years of the 20th century. It is only recently, with the simultaneous rise of the Indian middle class, that it has taken on a mass consumerist dimension in India.
But it was with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success in getting the United Nations to declare an international day of yoga, that it became a vehicle for Hindutva and national pride. In the days to the build-up for International Yoga Day, some BJP politicians were saying that those who won’t do yoga should leave India. Muslim clergy and others from the community protested that yoga, and particularly the Sun Salutation, was a Hindu practice and should not be imposed on any Muslim. Congress accused the government of promoting Hindutva, and the BJP accused Congress of politicising the issue and claimed it wasn’t imposing yoga on anyone. And despite all its protestations, one of Modi’s key pointsmen, Ram Madhav, gave the game away by questioning vice-president Hamid Ansari’s absence from the main yoga day event organised by the government.
The government had thrown itself into organising that mammoth event with such zeal that it seemed to be the only thing that it was busy with for a whole two weeks, procuring Chinese-manufactured mats for the mass spectacle on India’s Road No 1, Rajpath, and ensuring that enough people turned out to participate in it. There was a Guinness record to set, and the government had to gear up for it.
It is probably the first instance of a head of government leading the nation in quest of a Guinness record. Indians have a fascination for Guinness records, perhaps because it’s not that hard to achieve. It’s not like running the fastest 100 metres, or doing the highest pole vault, or doing the longest jump. The folks at Guinness are game for anything — longest nails, longest hair, longest moustache, fastest turban tier, shortest man, and so on. Never mind that the Guinness is to records what the Eurovision contest is to music. What Modi did on June 21 was to give India’s love affair with the Guinness record factory a prime ministerial stamp of approval, naff or not.
Modi admirers thought yoga day was the best thing that had happened after his election, and spoke glowingly about how it was a victory for Indian soft power, a long overdue appropriation by India of what was rightfully its own to be deployed to win friends and influence the world. But they are forgetting that soft power projection needs a more subtle hand. Those who don’t like Modi have ended up describing yoga as “soft Hindutva.” Those who like yoga just wished it had been left alone.
Even before the mats had been rolled out on Rajpath, the government was doing a different kind of stretching, all because of another Modi. The government has been insisting that two of the BJP’s key members, both women — External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scinida — had done nothing wrong in helping Lalit Modi, the runaway ex-boss of Indian Premier League, get travel papers that would allow him to visit Portugal from the UK where he has lived since quitting as IPL boss four years ago in controversial circumstances. He is under investigation on money laundering and other charges, and his passport has been cancelled by the Indian authorities.
Both women had recommended his case. The Rajasthan chief minister is a family friend of the flamboyant Lalit, no relation to Narendra. Her son used to have business links with him. Her recommendation on Lalit’s behalf, before she became the chief minister, dissed the investigation against him as “victimisation” by the then UPA government, but stressed that she was writing this on condition that all this should never come out in public. Sushma Swaraj’s husband and daughter are both Lalit’s lawyers, have been for years. Her daughter is his defence counsel. The external affairs minister conceded she had helped Lalit Modi, adding that she had done so purely on “humanitarian” grounds, to enable him to be by his wife’s side during a cancer surgery in Lisbon in August 2014. He had to be there to sign the consent papers for the surgery.
As has been his won’t when his party members are in the middle of a controversy, Narendra Modi has said nothing. But it is being described as the first big crisis for his government, soon after it celebrated its first anniversary. Ministerial impropriety is not a small issue, but until the time of writing this, the government seems to believe it can ride out the storm by just standing solidly behind the two women. So far, only one voice from within the BJP, a member of parliament who is a former home secretary, broke ranks and said LaMo was a fugitive and whoever helped him had acted wrongly. The Congress has been asking for nothing less than a resignation, but Home Minister Rajnath Singh ruled it out, saying this was an NDA government, not a UPA one, whatever that meant.
Nothing may come out of the latest episode in the Lalit Modi saga, but it would have at least served to drive home the point that BJP ministers have the same dubious friends as their predecessors in the UPA, and that they use them and are used by them in the same way. LaMo, who knows the uses of Twitter as well as NaMo, has been using social media to devastating effect, drawing in more and more VIPs on all sides of the political divide into his story. He got his passport back in September 2014 under orders from a court, which went unchallenged by the government. Now as his friends’ feet are being held to the fire, LaMo, true to his undiminished style, has been tweeting, partying, tweeting (and Instagramming) about his partying, all of it cocking a snook at Indian politicians and Indian officials. Even in the month that his wife was having the surgery in Lisbon, the reason for which Sushma Swaraj said she supported his case for travel papers from the British authorities, he seems to have spent not much time by her bedside but with friends in Ibiza. Since then, his Instagram feed shows him partying across the world with his friends and random celebs. Let’s all just do some yoga and keep calm.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s July 2015 issue.
Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.