Last year, when India’s most popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev announced his plans to launch a national party, few took him seriously, ridiculing him as a PT instructor with an ambition that would send him tumbling on his wooden clogs. But his recent series of public rallies, including the one last week at the Ramlila maidan in Delhi, where he’s drumming up support for his drive against corruption and black money, is sending chills down the spines of several political parties.
The first sign that he had gatecrashed into the big boys’ club in politics came when the Congress stopped ignoring his repeated, unsubtle barbs about its first family’s assets. Last fortnight, perhaps for the first time since the yoga guru embarked on his political career, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh came down heavily on Baba Ramdev, warning him not to point fingers at others unless he wanted to bring his own yoga empire under the scanner. But the celebrity guru—Swamiji or even His Holiness to his chelas—who has built an impressive Rs 1,000-plus crore empire of yoga centres, hospitals and spas across the world in less than 15 years, seems undeterred. “I have a billion followers across the world. Will they believe I’m a thief and not to be trusted with their donations?” he asks as we catch up with him during a brief stopover in Delhi, on his way from Meghalaya to his ashram in Haridwar. “I am a sadhu, I don’t own anything other than my saffron robe and clogs.”
But despite the saffron cloth thrown carelessly over his bare torso and the bushy, unkempt beard untouched by grey, there’s nothing sadhu-like about this 45-year-old from a Yadav peasant family in Haryana. He exudes an earthy vigour: quick to smile and show anger, street-smart rather than inward-looking. A middle school dropout not afraid to employ the best professional managers to run his many businesses and now his political career. He arrives straight from the airport in a convoy of cars, trailing a small troop of media managers carrying his files—a sheaf of plastic folders with all the facts and figures he will need for the four TV interviews scheduled for the day. But his smile is open and unassuming, confident, as he readily poses for as many pictures as our photographer wants.
Leg-up In traditional Naga gear, during a recent Kohima visit
Hardly sadhu-like too is his evident need for adulation. As he performs for the TV camera, one bright eye is always on the studio audience, watching as anxiously as any actor to see how it goes down with them, smiling triumphantly each time they break into untutored applause. He loves playing to the gallery.
His critics, of course, scoff at his tendency to confuse his large following—“over one billion people”, as Ramdev keeps reminding me—with potential voters. As social psychologist Ashis Nandy points out, “The Indian voter is very wily. They may come to his political rallies and love him for teaching them yoga and healthy living. But our democracy is over 60 years old, and the voters too seasoned. Why will, for instance, Dalits forsake Mayawati for Baba Ramdev? Besides, only big parties can win elections and would he be comfortable being a very small player in a very big party?”
Former Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, who has closely watched the man’s rise from anonymity to his present status as perhaps India’s most popular and influential yoga guru, agrees. “People are not fools,” he says. “Huge fan following never converts into votes. They may come to see Baba Ramdev just as they came to see Chiranjeevi, but look what happened to Chiranjeevi!” The Telugu film star raised the same plank of corruption against the Congress’s Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, but only ended up splitting the opposition’s vote, thus helping the latter get back into power in Andhra Pradesh.
But Baba Ramdev is offended at the comparison to a film star. In fact, he’s affronted at any comparison, whether with film stars, seasoned politicians or religious leaders who joined politics. “Don’t compare horses with donkeys,” he says, a shade impatiently. “Has there ever been a sadhu who taught yoga to a billion followers? Has there ever been a sadhu, or for that matter politician, who has built up a votebank of several crores in one year? For the last year, I’ve taken my campaign against corruption and black money to several crore people across half the country. By next year, I’ll cover the other half of the country. Which sadhu or politician meets 2,00,000 people everyday?” Along with yoga, Ramdev says, he also teaches them about black money and how it affects them. And when he asks them if they’ll stand by him in his campaign to bring back black money from tax havens and throw out the corrupt from the government, “they say not only will they vote for me but they’ll ask others to vote for me as well. These have become political issues during the last two years”.
Vote for Baba Ramdev? So is he planning to contest in the next general elections? It turns out that the yoga motivator’s political strategy is more nuanced than his opponents imagine. He’s planning to cobble together a national front—a sort of alliance of several national and regional parties as well as independents. They can have his substantial votebank in exchange for the terms he’s setting, including fielding only those candidates who have no record of corruption or black money, and include his agenda to stop corruption and bring back black money in their election manifestos.
It’s an offer that’s apparently tempting enough for both the Congress and the BJP to invite the baba for closed-door talks. Besides, he says, he’s talking to several regional parties as well. The picture, he says, will be clear by June this year. His biggest challenge, Ramdev admits, is to figure out how to excise powerful but corrupt partymen from their own parties. Meanwhile, he’s going ahead with his yoga-cum-political classes, trying to reach his target of building up a political cadre in every village across the country.
It’s an astute move, according to Nandy, bound to put political parties in a quandary. “They can’t reject an offer that looks so nice and moral; and at the same time they are afraid that he will make inroads into their votebanks and gain a voice in the nomination of their candidates.” It’s impossible, Nandy adds, to rid politics of corruption, but “the rhetoric will go far”.
Abroad gauge Arriving in Little Cumbrae, with fan following in tow. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, March 14, 2011)
When Baba Ramdev boasts that he has turned corruption and black money into a political issue, it’s not entirely conceit. No other public figure of his stature has been able to reduce a complex subject into something any villager can comprehend: “Bring back the Rs 300 lakh crore of black money stashed away in foreign banks so that every poor family can prosper,” is the message he has been repeating in every state, district, block, village he has been visiting in the last year. The result: 100 million signatures for his campaign.
So shrewd is the move that few can believe the outspoken Ramdev, a political novice, came up with the idea himself. “He must have a very good political advisor,” is Nandy’s first reaction when he hears of Ramdev’s political plan. He likens it to what V.P. Singh did in 1989. While Baba Ramdev achieved his charisma by providing health services, Nandy points out, V.P. Singh won his aura of sacrifice and courage by resigning from the government on grounds of secularism. Like VP, Ramdev also wants to fight an election against corruption. And like VP, he feels, Ramdev may have an impact on political culture without leaving any lasting impact on the polity.
So does he have a political advisor—a backseat mentor for his own backseat ambitions? Till he died a couple of months ago, social activist Rajiv Dixit filled those shoes somewhat. The whole swadeshi movement—‘be Indian, buy Indian, throw out the foreign looters’—was his contribution to Ramdev’s political vision, say observers. Of late, however, another figure is bobbing up: Govindacharya, the BJP’s intelligent, articulate, subtle Chanakya, until he was thrown out a few years ago. His reasons for hitching his wagon to Ramdev’s rising star: a mass movement, he says, is the only solution to break “this stagnancy in the cesspool of politics” and who better to lead it than Baba Ramdev, the yoga teacher who understood the potential of TV to take his message to millions before anyone else. “I feel he has learnt the ropes and is a very effective communicator. He has a rustic appeal and is able to reach across to his followers in every state he has visited.” A week ago, says Govindacharya, he was in Jolpara in Assam where Ramdev held a rally. “I don’t think any political party has ever held a rally there, but it was an eye-opener: 70,000 people came to listen to him.”
It’s a gamble, of course. “This kind of populist politics is like playing with fire,” explains Nandy. “People’s expectations rise so high that disappointment is inevitable.” But Baba Ramdev has no room for doubts. “People have changed, I can feel it. They are sick of the old politics of caste, family, religion. They need an alternative and that’s what I’m working for.”
It has been over six hours since we have been following him from one TV studio to the next, and he’s still springing out of the car, fresh and alert for the next TV camera. And I can see why so many politicians would be anxious to win him over to their side: he has a missionary’s zeal and energy.
The Material Worth Of Baba Ramdev
- Float an alliance of “honest” political parties/Independents who will support his manifesto
- Hold talks with Congress, BJP and regional parties
- Decide by June 11 on who to take on board
- Have a five-point manifesto which includes death penalty for the corrupt and those with black money abroad. Wants to bring back black money from foreign accounts. Close the Mauritius route and revoke licences of 12 foreign banks.
- Reach every village by 2012
- 100 crore Number of devotees Ramdev says he has. The figure may seem exaggerated, but even though there are no realistic estimates, he does have a sizeable following.
- Rs 1,100 crore Annual turnover of Baba Ramdev's Patanjali + Yogapeeth Trust and Divya Yogi Mandir Trust. Both are located in Haridwar.
- Rs 50 crore Earnings from nationwide camps where yoga is taught and health concerns are addressed
- Rs 50 crore Sale of medicines
- Rs 2.3 crore Sale of books/CDs
- Rs 17 crore 300 acres on Little Cumbrae island off the Scottish coast, gifted by an NRI couple.
- Rs 1,115 crore 1,000 acres in Haridwar where the trusts are located
- Rs 500 crore Investment in a food park in Haridwar
- Rs 44 crore 40 per cent stake in a food park in Jharkhand
- Rs 100 crore University of Patanjali, Haridwar, Ramdev’s pet project
- Rs 16 lakh Undervalued cost of 38 acres in Solan, Himachal Pradesh; actual value, Rs 90 crore