Will competing monks help the BJP regain lost ground?
Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, is where yoga entrepreneur Baba Ramdev’s core base is growing and he could be a key player for the ruling party
Yoga entrepreneur Baba Ramdev’s close association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), has eventually paid off.
His dream project called the Food & Herbal Park was given full clearance on Tuesday after being stuck in legal battles for two years.
The speedy approval came after consumer goods company Patanjali threatened to move its mega food park from Noida in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, citing bureaucratic hurdles.
To retain the mega project worth US$1 billion, the State Cabinet, or council of ministers, resolved a long pending issue by allowing the transfer of allotted land between two subsidiaries of Patanjali – from Patanjali Ayurveda Private Limited to Patanjali Food & Herbal Park Private Limited.
“The Food Park will enjoy the same incentives as committed to [the] Ayurveda Park earlier,” said Satish Mahana, the Minister of Industries in Uttar Pradesh.
However, highly placed government officials said only the cabinet could take such a decision. “Any decision taken at the bureaucratic level to allow subleasing of the land between sister companies could have led to allegations of favoritism owing to revenue loss.”
The food park, touted as the biggest in the country, will be spread across 455 acres and is supposed to generate 10,000 jobs and produce goods worth $4 billion annually.
The delay in clearances followed by Patanjali’s Managing Director Acharya Balkrishna tweeting about shifting the project out of the state was read by many as a rift between two saffron-robed monks, Ramdev and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
However, observers said it was just a “friendly fight” for public consumption.
Two saffron monks
Their friendliness is well known in political circles. Ramdev was the first guest to visit Yogi when he became Uttar Pradesh’s chief ministerin Lucknow in March last year. That visit lasted four hours.
One day later, Ramdev inaugurated the Yoga Festival in Lucknow where he showered praise on Yogi and said he wanted to develop the state “together” with him. He also urged the chief minister to include Yoga in the school curriculum, which was promptly agreed to by the Uttar Pradesh government.
Ramdev flew to Lucknow again in December to “congratulate” the chief minister on the BJP’s good performance in the civic polls. BJP leaders, however, claimed that Ramdev was a “thorough businessman” and had been close to every ruling party in order to expand his empire. So his meetings with Yogi should not be viewed as “personal rapport” with the chief minister, they said. The party admits that the celebrity Yoga guru is close to RSS and is on good terms with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To repeat its success in general elections next year, the BJP needs to perform well in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous and politically significant state which carries the largest number of parliamentary seats. The party won 75 of the 80 seats there in 2014.
Along with Modi, the party relies heavily on Yogi – the Hindutva’s poster boy for electoral campaigns who propelled a massive mandate for the BJP in the State Assembly last year. However, Yogi’s popularity seems to be on shaky ground on his home turf. Under his leadership, the BJP has lost three parliamentary seats in recent by-elections, including Yogi’s parliamentary seat.
On the other hand, Ramdev’s core base is intact, if not growing, thanks to yoga and his fast-moving consumer goods business, primarily based on the Ayurved-swadeshi-cows theme, which is similar to the RSS ideology. The faithful, mostly the middle class, still swear by Ramdev. That unwavering faith in the leader is the envy of many political parties.
Ramdev’s ability to blend the spiritual with nationalism and political rhetoric could make a difference in the 2019 polls, observers say, just as it did in the 2014 general elections. Uttar Pradesh cannot afford to lose such a strong campaigner.
Uttar Pradesh, with a huge developmental backlog, needs Ramdev the businessman as well. Big investors have largely been elusive despite the all out efforts of Yogi. He has also not succeeded in tackling crime and corruption, adding up to the anxiety of BJP’s core voters.
Ramdev’s Patanjali promises to train and involve local farmers and youth in organic farming and dairy farming. The process could create goodwill for the BJP in rural areas and possibly change the face of Uttar Pradesh from a “grain producer state” and “cow belt” to a processed food-maker.
This project, with packaged food verticals, is a shot in the arm for Patanjali, which aims to capture a 25% share of the Indian consumer market in the next few years compared to its 14% share at present.
The company’s revenue over the last fiscal year remained stagnant and it blamed changes in the tax regime. However, its business has boomed since the BJP took power. Revenues at the consumer goods enterprise are soaring – from about $156 million in the financial year ending in March 2013 to about $1.6 billion in 2017.
The firm’s products are available in every corner of the country, including in the canteens of India’s security forces, Parliament and malls. Patanjali advertisements echo the RSS’ Hindu nationalist ideology by appealing to consumers’ patriotism and emphasizing the ancient Indian medicine system Ayurveda.
Ramdev’s official link with the BJP started in March 2013 when he met its then chief Rajnath Singh in Delhi. Singh offered to support Ramdev’s vision and asked him to campaign for the party.
The yoga guru campaigned extensively across India to help make Narendra Modi the prime minister. A fortnight before the elections, Ramdev invited Modi to Patanjali’s headquarters in Haridwar, in the neighboring state of Uttarakhand.
In return, BJP leaders endorsed Ramdev’s vision of India, a populism laced with assertions of ancient Indian glory and nationalism. Yoga is also being promoted globally and Modi has taken command. The collaboration is expected to continue at least until the 2019 elections.