It was not for nothing that LK Advani, the senior leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a brilliant events manager. It was a skill that was up for display at the first International Yoga Day on 21 June 2015, today. The 1.4 kilometres long stretch of Rajpath in New Delhi was the showpiece of the event. About 35,000 people were expected to join Modi at Rajpath in New Delhi to practice yoga by 7.35 am In Delhi, metro service began at 4 am, two hours earlier than usual, to ensure easy commute for those who were inclined to make the journey. Indian Embassies and High Commissions in 251 cities in 191 other countries were also to follow suit.
There appeared to be many like me who had decided to come to the event without passes, attracted by the hype. At 5 am, the traffic police was ubiquitous in South and Central Delhi, deflecting the usual routes of auto rickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles. “We’ve been here since 3 am for this nonsense,” a traffic cop at Aurengzeb Road told me.
At around 5.30 am, I was abandoned at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium metro station by an auto rickshaw driver who was unable to find a way to get me to Rajpath. I entered the metro station and asked the policeman inside if the metro was functional. He, too, had been on duty since 3 am. “Nahi pata yaar, ja ke dekh lo”—I have no idea, go and check for yourself—he said. Visibly irritated, he added, “ya yahi baith ke kar lo yoga”—or just sit here and do yoga. After I told him that I was a journalist, he went on, “C****** sarkar hai ye, kaam kuch karte nahi hain, bas yoga yoga yoga”—It is a flawed government, doesn’t do any work and keeps harping about yoga. I had to cut the conversation short as a metro that was bound to Central Secretariat, the station that is closest to Rajpath, entered the station, and I ran downstairs to catch it.
Each of the several entry points to the main event at Rajpath was manned by dozens of uniformed men. It was an invite-only event, and many people had not realised that yet. Yoga sessions, which were open to all, were taking place in Lodi Gardens and elsewhere; but not many seemed to be interested in those. Yoga, it appeared, was not what the hundreds hovering around Rajpath were interested in; what they wanted was to be a part of the clique that was inside.
For these people who were stuck outside, the situation seemed unjust. They shouted slogans against the Delhi Police insincerely, and against the government laughingly. Without access to the media cell, or an invitation to get past the checkpoints, I roamed around the venue outside for two hours. With visibly irritated police officers who were repeatedly reminding everyone that they had been on duty since 3 am, and a vocal crowd having just been denied special treatment, skirmishes were inevitable. A couple of police officers lost their temper, but sense prevailed each time. At one point, a group of around 30 men belonging to the Rapid Action Force—a specialised wing of the Central Reserve Police Force—had to chase a crowd, of a little more than a hundred, off Janpath. Sloganeering began once again, causing the police to bring out megaphones to ask people to stay off the road and stick to the sidewalks.
On paper, the event would seem successful. Modi appeared to have managed what he had wanted: records that were broken in two categories of the Guinness World Records for the largest yoga class and the most nationalities in a yoga lesson. The earlier record for the largest yoga class stood at a class that comprised 29,973 participants and was achieved by students from 362 schools across India who performed the Suryanamaskar (Salute to the Sun) simultaneously for 18 minutes on 19 November 2005. They were led by Vivekanand Kendra, a spiritual organisation that is based on the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, at Jiwaji University in Gwalior at Madhya Pradesh. The second record has never been tried and Guinness set a bar of 50 nationalities. The man who promised to tear apart the old ways of doing things in Lutyens’ Delhi made it to the Guinness Book thanks to the cards that came in white envelopes to ease the select few through the security checks. The event may have been new, but it worked according to a very old kind of entitlement in this city.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gwalior is in Rajasthan. The Caravan regrets the error.