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Baba Ramdev: Can a yogi turn Indian politics on its head?

Baba Ramdev is a Hindu yoga guru-turned-anticorruption campaigner. He's the latest incarnation of the spiritual political reformer, an archetype running throughout Indian history.

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It’s a role Ramdev takes seriously. About 100 miles outside the capital, a huge archway marks the entrance of Patanjali, Ramdev’s palatial headquarters. It has a state-of-the-art medical facility that specializes in the Hindu system of traditional medicine native to India, and modern apartments that house thousands of his followers.

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Here, Ramdev is training political foot soldiers. Once they complete a boot camp ranging from weeks to months, they will fan out across the country to preach yoga along with political resistance to unseat the government in the next general election in 2014.

“We will go in every house in every village and city,” says Ramdev, wiping perspiration from his brow between meetings. “Our volunteers will talk to every villager. Coming 5, 10, 25 years we will change. We want to change socially, economically, spiritually, and politically.”

It is this ability to mobilize supporters – as well as donations – that makes Ramdev a powerful force in Indian politics, says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian political analyst and elections expert.

Ramdev has raised hundreds of millions in financing and donations, and has raised eyebrows with the purchase of a Scottish island. The government has alleged he is involved in a $60 million tax evasion scandal.

“Baba Ramdev is one of the 'God men' who have dotted the India scene for a long time,” says Indian political columnist Amulya Ganguli. “Most of them were disreputable characters. These outsiders thought that politics could be a profitable venture so Ramdev tried to enter politics but he has not gotten anywhere.”

Mr. Ganguli echos the sentiment among critics that Ramdev’s ideas – such as his view that the English language is representative of a colonial legacy, or the fact that he professes an abhorrence of India’s most beloved sport, cricket – are outdated and outmoded.  

But some political analysts believe Ramdev is a force that can’t be ignored.

“I don’t see many political parties that can mobilize 10,000 people,” says Mr. Deshmukh. “Ramdev touches the semi-urban and to a great deal the rural areas through his network and yoga camps. He has more bandwidth and money than any other anticorruption fighting group.”

Ramdev’s moment?

Political discontent is running high in India and many are looking for something new. The government has been in power for eight years, with the most recent ones racked by high-profile scandals and slowing economic growth. Top ministries have misallocated billions of dollars in public money and have become symbols writ large of the petty corruption rampant in daily life throughout India. 

The timing of Ramdev’s political entrance couldn’t be better, say analysts, though just how Ramdev would channel India’s anger remains somewhat unclear.

Shazia IImi, like other political activists in India, believes Ramdev could be galvanizing support for the country's conservative opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

But Ramdev adamantly denies supporting any specific political party and says he’ll announce which candidate he will support before the 2014 elections. In recent weeks, however, he has increasingly used his countrywide reach to lob scathing comments at Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born politician who is president of the ruling Congress Party. Among other things, he accuses her of being "a foreign imperialist bar girl."

Some observers believe Ramdev is attacking Ms. Gandhi to deflect attention from the fact that the government has accused him of graft and is in part responsible for a brutal police baton charge, which ended in the death of one of his followers and his attempted escape dressed as a women in a protest he held against corruption in 2011.

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