It was a picture that radiated temporal Lutyens-land power: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar flanked by half a dozen Union Cabinet ministers, including the finance minister, the BJP president, the Delhi chief minister and the Lok Sabha speaker. Arun Jaitley may have filed a criminal defamation suit against Arvind Kejriwal, the BJP leadership and the Aam Aadmi Party may be engaged in a bitter war of words, but Sri Sri’s political-cultural jamboree along the Yamuna floodplains appeared to melt away the differences. The World Culture Festival had been inaugurated by the prime minister, now it was ending with a galaxy of national and world leaders in attendance. As a power statement, the Art of Living founder had confirmed his status as India’s most well connected self-styled spiritual godman.
The sheer dazzle of the occasion meant that the controversies swirling around the event were quietly buried. Only a day before the event, the National Green Tribunal had fined Sri Sri with a `5 crore fee for environmental violations. In an act of brazen defiance, Sri Sri had claimed that he would prefer to go to jail than pay the fine. And yet, that hadn’t stopped the PM from spending two hours at the inauguration extolling Sri Sri’s virtues. Think about it: What if any one of us broke a traffic light, refused to pay the fine, challenged the policeman to arrest us, and then had the police commissioner publicly hail us as model citizens. Bizarre though it may seem, that is precisely the analogy to be drawn from what is further evidence of selective application of the rule of law in this country: A poor man will have his ‘unauthorised’ hut razed on a bitter winter night but a wealthy and powerful spiritual leader can have an illegality ‘blessed’ by the PM.
But why single out Narendra Modi? The success of Sri Sri’s event management style is that it is inclusive and non-discriminatory. So, the Army was requisitioned to set up pontoon bridges, the urban development ministry was asked to provide temporary toilets, the Delhi government was a sponsor as were public sector navratnas for what was essentially a ‘private’ celebration. Kejriwal may claim to stand for the ‘aam aadmi’ and rail against VIP privilege, but this was one event where he seemed more than happy to share the stage with the ‘khaas aadmis’.
Nor should any of this come as a surprise. First, Sri Sri was, in a sense, only cashing in on the political IOUs he had built over the years. He may have pleaded for a ‘cultural’ event not to be politicised, but the fact is that he has never hesitated from romancing with politics. At the 2001 Maha Kumbh, he was part of the sadhu-sant samaj at the VHP’s dharma sansad that reiterated the call for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. He was actively involved in Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign till he discovered that Kejriwal was keen to forge his own independent platform. And in the 2014 general elections, Art of Living volunteers openly canvassed support for Modi.
Second, while his supporters may justifiably claim that a cultural event that was being webcast live across 150 countries is evidence of India’s growing ‘soft power’, it is also a sign of the ascendance of ‘soft Hindu power’. Despite the presence of a few maulvis, Gulf sheikhs and global members of the Art of Living, the fact is that the core constituency of Sri Sri lies in the Hindu urban middle class. Identifying with the activities of Sri Sri is a subtle attempt by the political class to cultivate a distinct Hindu vote bank in a relatively non-adversarial manner.
Third, Sri Sri is able to combine a populist edge to his spirituality with an uncanny knack of attracting the affluent devotee. This isn’t a guru living in penury but someone who travels first-class, swings into an interview in a Bentley, lives in a luxurious ashram in Bengaluru, will stay in the capital at a posh Golf Links address and is often seen in the company of the bold and the beautiful. The access to money power — although his lawyer strangely claimed in court that Art of Living didn’t have Rs 5 crore to pay up — means that Sri Sri’s skills as an impresario can create a grand spectacle of the kind witnessed in Delhi this time.
None of this should suggest that Sri Sri doesn’t deserve his moment in the arc lights. We are, after all, in the age of hype, and it does require a special talent to choreograph an event of the scale which Sri Sri pulled off. As someone selling ‘feel-good spiritualism’ Sri Sri — like the government’s other favoured godman, Baba Ramdev — has built a remarkably successful global business enterprise. The question is, should the State be actively patronising a form of ‘crony spiritualism’ where well-networked gurus and babas (or indeed, imams and maulvis) are given special benefits and privileges? Then, be it the promotion of Ramdev’s yoga camps and food products, or disregarding environmental concerns at a Sri Sri cultural event, does it serve the interest of a modern State to align itself with individuals who seek self-aggrandisement above all else? Or are the Sri Sris and Ramdevs simply the spiritual equivalent of our buccaneer crony capitalists?
Interestingly, as a new age guru Sri Sri is a step ahead of the political class in some aspects. Last month, he came out strongly in support of gay rights and striking down the abhorrent Article 377: One wonders how many of those who shared a stage with him would be willing to take a similar progressive stand in public.
Post-script: The most striking moment at the cultural festival was when a Pakistani maulvi chanted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ at the event with Sri Sri happily urging him to also say Jai Hind in unison. Would such a joint slogan constitute sedition, a friend asked me. Not when you have an eye on the Nobel Peace Prize, I said with a smile.