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Eight hours before the government crackdown at Ramlila Maidan, there was a 15-minute conversation between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. A PMO source told India Today that the call took place around 4 p.m. on June 4. The details of the conversation have not been divulged but there is a chain of events that is fairly explanatory. Before Sonia and Manmohan spoke, there was another call. It was made by a Congress general secretary known for his proximity to 10 Janpath and it was to Delhi Police Commissioner B.K. Gupta.

A party source requesting anonymity said the general secretary asked Gupta what action could be taken to evict Baba Ramdev from Ramlila Maidan and whether the police was equipped to handle the task. Gupta replied that he would check with his team and get back. He found out that Ramdev only had permission for a yoga camp and Ramlila Maidan could not be used for demonstrations or fasts. The place for the latter, Jantar Mantar, was, ironically, denied to Hazare to stage his token day-long fast a few days later. Gupta relayed the information to the general secretary but added that since this was a politically sensitive issue, he could only act on orders from the home ministry. He was told that the orders would come soon.

They did. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who was to leave for Chennai by a 4 p.m. flight, was asked to postpone his departure. At 5.40 p.m. he met Home Secretary G.K. Pillai and Intelligence Bureau chief Nehchal Sandhu. The modalities were worked out and Pillai gave the police commissioner the go-ahead for the crackdown. Gupta was told to cancel the permission for the yoga camp and to clamp Section 144 at the Ramlila Maidan. The police were also told to withdraw permission for a protest at Jantar Mantar which was earlier given to Ramdev.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee then called a meeting at his Talkatora Road residence, attended by Union ministers Kapil Sibal, Subodh Kant Sahay, Pawan Bansal and Chidambaram. Sibal and Sahay were told to stop pandering to Ramdev. The duo left for the briefing hall at Shastri Bhavan from this meeting where they eventually called Ramdev's bluff and released the handwritten letter signed by his aide, Acharya Balakrishna. The letter promised that Ramdev would only sit on a three-day tap (meditation) if the government gave him a written assurance that his demands would be met. Sibal had given Ramdev up to 4 p.m. to call off his fast. When this did not happen, he made repeated calls to Ramdev but got no answer. Sibal's phone rang just as he sat down to address the media. He warned Ramdev that he would release the letter if he did not call off the fast. He and Sahay watched tv, waiting to see if Ramdev went ahead with an announcement. When he refused to call off his fast, the duo went ahead and released the letter which exposed Ramdev as a dealmaker.

An angry Ramdev cried foul and vowed never to speak to Sibal again. He also said that he would go ahead with his fast the next day as he was expecting as many as 50,000 followers to attend his anshan (fast). This is one of the reasons the government has cited to defend the police action, claiming that the numbers would have created a law and order situation. "If we can be accommodating, we can also be firm," Sibal said later.

Anticipating Ramdev's refusal, the Delhi Police had already started mobilising forces at the Ramlila Maidan. Senior police officers were ordered to reach the spot. Special Police Commissioner (Operations) Deepak Mishra was asked to coordinate with central paramilitary forces such as the crpf for additional support. By 7 p.m., Ramlila Maidan was swarming with policemen. When the crackdown finally happened around 1.35 a.m., there were more than 3,000 policemen in and around the maidan.

As expected, the Congress distanced itself-and its president-from the fiasco. Says a source close to 10 Janpath, "Sonia did not know about this till the next morning. She was very angry." Adds Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh, "The whole action at Ramlila Maidan was handled by Delhi Police and the administration. The party had nothing to do with it."

Chidambaram cited a threat to Ramdev as one of the reasons for the action. He did not divulge who gave the orders for the crackdown but said, "The Delhi Police decided to enforce a decision that he would be removed from Delhi. They will explain the events and the action taken by them in an affidavit to the Supreme Court."

Privately, some ministers and even Congress leaders admit that there has been a gross mishandling of the situation. "The government could have acted with more sensitivity. Both at the airport and at Ramlila," says a Cabinet minister. "He should have just been refused permission to hold a fast, for instance," he adds. Sibal refutes talk of differences between the party and the government, saying, "No such action takes place without 100 per cent unity of the party." However, both the prime minister and Mukherjee have termed the crackdown "unfortunate".

The decision to receive Ramdev at the airport was apparently taken by the PMO. A Congress leader claims that 10 Janpath had no idea about this 'ridiculous' plan. However, there is a growing view in the Cabinet that Manmohan Singh went by Sibal's advice.

"One option was that we would go to the airport and if he did not agree then he would not be permitted to hold his fast. This did not happen because he assured us that he was quite satisfied with our response and would do just a token hunger strike and three days of meditation," reveals a negotiator. Initially, only Sibal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal were to go to the airport. Mukherjee and Sahay were added later. The former because Sibal lacked the technical information on the government's steps to rein in black money stashed abroad while the latter has an equation with Ramdev that dates back to the time when he was food processing minister. Sibal had hoped to keep it a secret. "Neither he nor Chidambaram mentioned this at the Group of Ministers (on media) meeting that took place just before they went to the airport," revealed a minister.

Sibal was hoping that by rushing to the airport they would dodge the media which is one reason why Ramdev was not invited to North Block, as was Mukherjee's original plan. However, they were foiled in this by the Baba, whose aides sent text messages to the media claiming that as many as four ministers, along with Cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar and prime minister's Principal Secretary TKA Nair, were coming to see him. Nair did not go but the rest arrived to find cameras waiting for them. When contacted by reporters if they were going to the airport, two ministers denied any such plan. In other words, the media knew before the rest of the Cabinet.

With the Supreme Court demanding an explanation on the police action, the government will have to shed its mysterious ways and come clean on the crackdown. Otherwise it's in for a stormy monsoon session of Parliament.


- With Mihir Srivastava, Padmaparna Ghosh, Olina Banerji and Kruttika Kallury
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