Allegations of criminality are nothing new for self-styled godman Asaram, who is said to have been a bootlegger before making his professional transition from spirits to spirituality — sometime in the 1960s.
He has in the past been accused of crimes as serious as murder, sexual harassment and exploitation of women in his ashrams and ‘minor’ crimes like land-grabbing but has sailed through it all with the help of his powerful connections in various political parties. The price he pays for these favours is small — swinging votes of his massive support bases in several parts of the country, mainly Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
“Asaram has followers among the OBCs, tribals and Sindhis, whose votes are sought by all political parties,” said an observer who didn’t want to be named.
It is therefore no surprise that when a case of sexual assault was registered against him by a 16-year-old girl, political leaders such as the BJP’s former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti sprang to his defence, describing the teen’s complaint as a “motivated conspiracy to defame the Hindu saint”.
The BJP is however not the only party to have backed him and sought his electoral blessings. “In Gujarat, he has been close to the BJP governments but previous government were also liberal with him,” Ahmedabad-based political analyst Devendra Patel said.
In 1996, then Gujarat revenue minister Atmaram Patel in the Shankersinh Vaghela government backed by the Congress had overruled the Surat collector and revenue secretary for objecting to the allotment of 5,000 square metres of land acquired by the godman ostensibly to build water tanks for farmers. The Gujarat high court quashed and set aside the allocation in 2006-07.
Even before the Rashtriya Janata Party government headed by Vaghela came to power in Gujarat, then Congress chief minister Chimanbhai Patel extended full support to Asaram the way today’s BJP governments are doing in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattishgarh.
In 2005, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi organised a gala event of releasing Narmada water into the dry Sarswati River in Sidhpur in north Gujarat. Among the main invitees on the dais with Modi was Asaram, who lavished praise on the chief minister standing beside him with folded hands.
When the National Democratic Alliance government was in power at the centre, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee attended many of Asaram’s events and shared the stage with him.
“During the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Asaram supported organisations such as the VHP and RSS. It is this connection that brought him close to the BJP,” said another political observer in Gujarat.
In Madhya Pradesh when Congress leader Digvijaya Singh was chief minister, he allegedly shared the stage with him. Kamal Nath, another Congress stalwart and union minister from Madhya Pradesh often seeks Asaram’s “help” during elections. Singh is now a bitter critic of Asaram and has been demanding his speedy arrest in the Jodhpur sexual assault case.
“Only because of his proximity to the Modi government, which has given political patronage to him, was he not booked for the murder of our two children,” alleged Praful Vaghela, whose son and cousin had died mysteriously in Asaram’s gurukul at Motera in July 2008.
Vaghela and his family had tried in vain to seek action against Asaram but the Gujarat government authorities did not even question Asaram about the killing.
(With inputs from Bhopal and Jaipur)