Yoga guru mystifies India's rulers
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's bewilderingly complex political arena has a new player -
the country's most popular yoga guru, Baba Ramdev.
An extremely successful yoga evangelist and entrepreneur, the saffron-robed
Ramdev has promised to cleanse the country's rotting body politic of corruption
and is currently on a nationwide campaign to mobilize support among the masses.
"Yoga has the immense potential to cement the bond of amity between the people
across the country and make them mentally strong and physically fit for
transforming the nation into a spiritual and economic superpower in the world,"
he said at a recent public rally at Khammam in the southern Indian state of
Fifty-seven year old Ramdev has taken traditional yoga and
pranayama (breathing techniques) to new heights. He has reintroduced
yoga to the Indian middle class through his hugely popular television programs
- believed to draw an average of 40 million viewers daily - and camps where he
teaches unhealthy, overweight middle-class Indians breathing exercises and yoga
postures to rid themselves of diseases ranging from depression to diabetes. He
has also controversially claimed he can cure cancer and HIV/AIDS.
A self-proclaimed celibate, Ramdev, once known as Ramkishan Yadav, is referred
to by his followers as "Swami Ramdev". He says that his saffron robes and
wooden footwear are his sole possessions.
But he is no ascetic.
Ramdev presides over a multi-million dollar empire that includes yoga centers
and spas, property, a hospital, a university, an ayurvedic (Indian
traditional medicine) pharmacies, and a cosmetics manufacturing unit. He even
owns a small island, Little Cumbrae, off the Scottish coast, a donation from
one of his devotees, he says. He travels around in a convoy of cars.
He says he believes in traditional ways. But clearly he understands the power
of modern technology and knows how to use the media.
When Ramdev launched his Bharat Swabhiman Andolan (BSA) or India Self-Respect
Movement last year, he said he was "joining politics only to cleanse the
political system". Just as pranayama and yoga help free his followers of
their ailments, so they will rid the political system of corruption, he claims.
Scams and scandals are not new to India but over the past year, a string of
corruption cases involving politicians from almost all parties sparked public
anger against politicians like never before. The involvement of ministers,
bureaucrats, the armed forces and corporate houses has left ordinary Indians
disillusioned and desperate for change. It is this mass discontent that Ramdev
is skillfully dipping into for support. His speeches to rid Indian politics of
sleaze have struck a chord with the masses.
Ramdev has said that he intends to launch a political party. He is expected to
do so in June. Only those who are honest will be allowed to join his party, he
has said. The party will contest in all constituencies in the next general
elections but he himself will not run for office.
What is his vision for India? His goal is to make India a superpower. He has
promised corruption-free governance, which will free India of poverty. He would
fight corruption by making it punishable with the death sentence, he says.
Those hiding illegal wealth abroad would be forced to bring it home to invest
in India. "Bring back the billions of rupees illegally stashed away in foreign
banks so that every poor Indian family can prosper," he thunders at one rally
after another."That loot needs to come home for development." He has offered no
details on how he might make this happen.
The BSA's manifesto says that it aims to "uproot the political and
administrative system put in place by the British, who sought to exploit, crush
and enslave India", and to "Indianize" the educational, health, legal, economic
and agricultural systems.
Ramdev has opposed globalization and wants a return to traditional Indian ways
of living. "Be Indian," he tells his followers. "Reject foreign clothes and
lifestyles. Throw out Coca-Cola." He has even called for rejection of cricket,
"a British sport imposed on Indians".
He claims to be a follower of Mahatma Gandhi but Ramdev's India will not
hesitate to use violence to fight violence. He promises capital punishment for
corruption, rape, dowry killings, terrorism and the killing of cows.
"Fast-track courts will be set up that will deliver justice in one to three
months, and these offences will be kept out of the purview of the presidential
pardon," says the BSA manifesto.
"We will call for a boycott of all foreign companies, and a campaign to make
yoga compulsory in schools to improve children's IQ, prevent drug addiction,
and curb sexual feelings among teenagers," Ramdev said in a recent interview.
He views homosexuality as an illness.
Some have hailed Ramdev for his "inclusive" approach to Muslims. When Muslim
clerics forbade Muslims from doing yoga, he said they could replace the
chanting of "Om" with "Allah". Yet he is in favor of a temple being built in a
famous temple/mosque dispute at Ayodhya town in northern Uttar Pradesh state.
However, he says that his nation-building will lead "our Muslim brothers to
themselves ask us [Hindus] to build the temple at the disputed spot".
When Ramdev announced his entry into politics, he was dismissed by major
political parties as a minor player. But the yoga guru has proved them wrong
over the past year, drawing huge crowds at rallies and building a political
network through his yoga classes.
Political parties which had brushed him off a year ago are beginning to take
notice. It is the ruling Congress that is mainly in his crosshairs. He has
blamed the Congress for most of the country's problems as it heads the federal
government and has held power for most years almost continuously since India's
independence in 1947.
Ramdev's targeting of the Congress has led its leaders to hit back. Senior
Congress leader Digvijay Singh recently challenged the yoga guru to prove that
money used to build his ashram (traditionally a hermitage, today a
center for spiritual/cultural activity) was not "black money" and that tax has
been paid on it. A Congress parliamentarian from Arunachal Pradesh is reported
to have described Ramdev at a public meeting as a "bloody Indian dog". The
gloves are off.
Ramdev shares several of the views of the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu
right-wing organizations. He is said to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS), the Parivar's ideological fount. He has denied links with the
right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but is reported to have donated a large
sum to it during the 2009 elections.
Still the BJP too is worried. Ramdev could split the Hindu vote if he floats a
party. BJP President Nitin Gadkari called on the yoga guru to refrain from
forming a political party on the grounds that "joining politics is too narrow a
field for a legend like him".
Political analysts say that Ramdev might draw huge audiences but this does not
mean he can win elections. His popularity will not translate into votes, they
say. They have drawn parallels with the response that many film stars get
during elections. They are crowd pullers but few have successful political
However, Ramdev's strength lies in the fact that he is a loose cannon, and this
has India's political heavyweights worried.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in
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