NEWS. VIEWS. ALL THE JUICE.
Is the Sai Baba's empire beginning to disintegrate?
Hyderabad, November 29, 2000
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, cricketers Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Loyd and Steve Waugh, actress Meenakshi Seshadri, rock singer Jimi Hendrix and the underworld don of Chennai, Wodeyar - they all have one thing in common: unstinting devotion to the Sathya Sai Baba, whose gargantuan empire is spread across 165 countries, where 13,000 institutions run on the financial steam of a collective membership of about 37 million, give or take a few.
A section of this membership is reportedly becoming truculent, for not everything is said to be aboveboard in the house of the holy. A spate of incidents, such as the attack on his life, attempts by his Japanese devotees
to take over the Prashanti Nilayam in Puttaparthi, the drying up of his grandiose Rs 350 crore scheme to provide drinking water to the people of Anantpur district, and the worldwide campaign to tamp down rumours
of his alleged child abuse, muddied the festivities surrounding his 75th birthday celebrations last week.
Against a projected two million, hardly half a million turned up; most of the new apartments in Puttaparthi valley, with quoted rents of Rs 5,000-10,000 a week,
went vacant. Of the 2,500 special trains deployed
to transport the devotees, less than 750 were
After the convocation of Sathya Sai University on November 23, attending dignitaries slipped out of Puttaparthi without participating in the other events
of the day. Both Union Human Resources Minister
Murli Manohar Joshi and Chief Minister Naidu dashed
to New Delhi in the afternoon. Many industry bigwigs
also hotfooted it out soon after.
ornaments from thin air.
According to an unofficial estimate of the Income Tax
(I-T) department, which has granted blanket tax exemptions to all donations to the Sai Baba's trust, the total value his assets, both in India and abroad, is about Rs 5,000 crore. He receives donations worth Rs 65
crore every year.
Sai Baba's popularity nosedived after the attack on his
life in 1994 by a few of his own trusted corps of volunteers (see Ashram Mandiram: fortress of solitude). He
managed to dampen the outcry against the conspiracy within the Prashanti Nilayam Ashram. His influence
with the state police helped him hush up the episode, which could have snowballed into a major embarrassment because the police killed four of the offending "volunteers" (four others were "pardoned").
"They are out of Prashanti Nilayam but not out of
Baba's coterie, which runs his vast empire," says
a critic in Hyderabad.
The case was
personally handled and an inquiry conducted by a senior deputy inspector