What concerns the workings of democracy is how he could evoke such fierce loyalties.
Political parties and other outfits that are based on the cult of personality and divorced from a political programme pose a threat to democracy. Despite being recently sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for a rape case reported in 2002, the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, still commands an enormous following.
What concerns the workings of democracy is how he could evoke such fierce loyalties. He could not have amassed millions and acquired the power and influence he did but for political help. Once he acquired some following, leaders of political parties flocked to his doorstep to seek his support during elections. He variedly offered help to the BJP, Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress. His help to the BJP in 2014 reflected shrewd political judgement.
Gurmeet Singh exploited the people’s poverty, the state’s neglect of the poor, underprivileged and the wronged — and on their susceptibility to religious appeals and claims to faith healing.
He provided food, subsidised ration and money to the poor. He also fostered a feeling of equality among dalits by asking followers to adopt the title of “Insaan” and forsake their surnames, which reveal a person’s caste identity. Dera Sacha Sauda appealed to women particularly with its strong stand against liquor and drug abuse, which had played havoc with families. People found equality and dignity in its ranks denied to them elsewhere. Free medical aid was supplemented with faith healing; the Baba’s blessings or healing touch. His success provides proof of the state’s failure to do its duty — in crime detection, poverty alleviation, provision of medical and other services and, not least, in wiping out rampant caste discrimination.
A far more instructive parallel is the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Set up in 1966 by a cartoonist, Bal Thackeray, it sought to arouse and exploit a feeling of discrimination among the Marathi-speaking people of the state. They felt insulted at the delay in conceding their just demand for the inclusion of Mumbai in Maharashtra. It began as a movement against South Indians, accusing them of monopolising jobs in the city; moved against Gujaratis gingerly; and settled on the more promising plank of Hindutva against Muslims. Thackeray’s resort to violence remained unchecked. He was also courted by some industrialists and businessmen to curb Communist influence in trade unions, as well as by prominent Bollywood figures and politicians.
The Shiv Sena is in coalition with the BJP in Maharashtra. Censures of an inquiry commission on the killings during the Mumbai riots after the demolition of Babri Masjid did not affect the Shiv Sena or its leader — nor did the Central Bureau of Investigation’s citation of Thackeray as an accused in the demolition case. For years, successive Congress state governments have turned a blind eye to Shiv Sena’s recourse to violence and its politics of intimidation.
One of the most insightful studies of this outfit is by German scholar Julia Eckert in her book, The Charisma of Direct Action. Eckert writes of how electoral results reveal that “the Shiv Sena has been stagnating at a certain percentage of votes for several years, these turning into victories or into defeat depending on its opponents’ strategies”. These opponents hardly oppose. Its technique is to work in three spheres — the political realm, the street and homes. “Direct action replaces parliamentary politics and is considered to be superior in efficiency and moral rectitude.”
The Shiv Sena set up an ambulance service in 1968. Many shakhas (branches) have their own ambulance and use it for various purposes. Shiv Sena activists organised “cleanup” drives and medical camps; put pressure on the municipality on behalf of the wards for water connections and other civic amenities. “The shakhas organise leisure activities and training in vocational skills for young people. Rooms have been made available for school studies and preparation for examinations.” They offer assistance with job applications, school admissions, and other formalities which require recommendations. They also step in with advice and support when there are illnesses, births, deaths or marriages. “Sometimes funds are collected to meet emergency situations in a family.” Women activists help to resolve “cases of marital unrest, dowry quarrels, wife-beating, alimony and other issues”.
Issues resolved range from quarrels about the rights to a specific location of a hawker’s stall, disputes over garbage sites, noise pollution, petty crime and cheating, to litigations over loans and property, to real estate disputes.
Like Dera Sacha Sauda, the Shiv Sena steps in where the state has failed. Its work is translated into votes. Democracy suffers by the activities of such bodies and the failure of the democratic state to do its duty by the people. The political process is fouled. Politics cease to revolve around issues of public policy.
By arrangement with Dawn