The Telegraph
Monday , September 2 , 2013
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Political rope trick on Asaram
BJP shies off defence, Cong hides hostility

Asaram comes out of the court in Jodhpur on Sunday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Sept. 1: Both the Congress and the BJP have been unusually quiet on the controversy raging around Asaram Bapu’s arrest, but for different reasons.

While the Congress wants to avoid charges of a witch-hunt against one of India’s most popular religious preachers, the BJP doesn’t want to be seen defending a rape accused.

Although some voices of support and criticism have come from both sides, the senior leaderships have taken care not to jump into the ring.

The Congress’s animosity towards Asaram, deriving from his persistent attacks on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, is well known. Nor is the link between the self-styled godman and the BJP-Sangh a secret.

Asaram has shared platforms with senior BJP leaders, several of whom have described his arrest as a political conspiracy. The seer had joined L.K. Advani’s dharna against the arrest of Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati in a murder case in 2004.

The embattled preacher’s official website displays comments by BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders in his defence, though the BJP has not officially issued any statement supporting him.

Supporters of Asaram Bapu stop a train in Mumbai protesting his arrest on Sunday. (PTI)

Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh has questioned BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s silence against this backdrop, knowing well that she cannot take a tough stand on the matter.

Digvijaya tweeted: “The most vocal voice of BJP against atrocities against women has been Sushma Swaraj. Why is she quiet in Asharam Bapu’s case?”

Swaraj responded: “In our country, there is a law that is same for everybody.”

But Digvijaya, eager to stretch a debate that would embarrass the Sangh-BJP, shot back: “This is very illustrative of the double standard of the BJP that they cry hoarse on issues where someone else is involved but where one of them is involved, they keep quiet.”

The Congress leadership too has faced uncomfortable questions about the delay in the religious leader’s arrest, amid insinuations that Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was soft on Asaram because of their purported personal relations.

But sources here defended the state government, saying that a quick arrest would have shifted the focus on the Congress decision and might even have triggered unrest.

“He is a popular seer with millions of followers across the country. It was good the media got the time to discuss his deeds…. In such cases, it is better to build pressure and let people’s perceptions change,” a senior Congress leader told The Telegraph.

During this interval, large sections of the media, which rarely scrutinise “godmen”, gradually turned hostile to Asaram. Reports of his alleged misdeeds helped the state government enforce the law without much repercussion.

So far, the violence by Asaram’s supporters has been limited to attacks on journalists but one group stopped trains in Thane near Mumbai this afternoon, PTI reported.

Asaram’s website, which now looks like a war zone, has criticised the media for “crossing all limits”, displayed photographs of “mass protest” across the country, and asked visitors to sign a petition against the media.

People write slogans on a effigy of Asaram Bapu during a protest in Ahmedabad on Sunday. (PTI)

The petition says: “Strict action needs to be taken against such newspapers for flagrantly violating codes of journalistic ethics and to make them accountable to society at large.”

The media have dug up old cases relating to the preacher’s ashram, including the mysterious death of two young boys and a purported sting operation that allegedly shows Asaram offering help to a woman who admitted her involvement in a huge financial fraud.

The Asaram issue has been raised in Parliament, too, where the Janata Dal (United), which recently broke away from the BJP, led the charge against the seer.

Several scandals involving “godmen” have emerged in the recent past but the mushrooming religious channels have helped them extend their network.

A purported sting operation had a few years ago claimed to expose seers involved in crime, particularly money-laundering. Politicians have been accused of using several ashrams and mutts to hide black money, and allegations of their links with fake seers have made for sensational stories.

Controversial “godman” Chandraswami was known more for his high political connections than his religious expertise. Baba Ramdev, who has emerged as one of the biggest stars in the field, took political networking to a new high by vowing to throw out the government of the day.

A couple of years ago, Shiv Murat Dwivedi — also known as Swami Bhimanandji Maharaj and Swami Ichchadhari Sant — was arrested in Delhi for allegedly running a prostitution racket involving hundreds of women. Although Dwivedi was never known for his spiritual prowess, big guns like Swamy Nityanand too faced charges of sexual misconduct.

Police sources claim to have information about illegal activities in hundreds of ashrams but say they can’t open this Pandora’s box without political support.

Although several politicians admit that many ashrams have turned dens of crime, especially financial fraud, nobody has the courage to start a discourse on the sensitive subject.

Already, several seers have begun to describe the attack on Asaram as a foreign conspiracy against Hindu saints.