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.

By , Correspondent

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    Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev gestures while addressing a press conference in New Delhi last month.
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It’s not yet 5 a.m, but hundreds of Indians are quietly shuffling into a football-field-sized yoga hall.

A sea of people in white and saffron orange – gangling aging men in loincloths, young angelic-looking women in pajamas, and wide-eyed children – sit cross-legged on yoga mats. On the stage before them sits their full-bearded and bare-chested guru, Baba Ramdev.

Through the windows behind him the sun rises, a deep red. His followers wait for him to begin what will be a four-hour session: He’ll move through a series of acrobatic postures that range from walking upside down on his hands to blowing hard, hissing breaths out his nose. But Ramdev’s yoga is not just about the body, the breath, or the mind.

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 It is also about politics.

He ends his session with a fiery political speech about the corruption facing India’s Congress Party-led government and his disdain for foreign influences in the country. His voice grows angry. He hollers and rails against the corruption and graft. The tranquility of the morning is shattered. His followers join the frenzy, jumping to their feet and wildly clapping their hands. Some pull Indian flags out from under their mats and whirl them above their heads.

“Hindustan! Hindustan! Hindustan!” They shout the popular name for the Indian subcontinent, capping the end of a spectacle televised every morning to tens of millions of Indian homes.

Baba Ramdev (born Ramkrishana Yadev) is the latest incarnation of the spiritual political reformer, an archetype familiar to Indian history. Whether expressed by the ancient emperor Ashoka who embraced nonviolent Buddhism, or Mohandas Gandhi who upended the British Raj in the 20th century, or Anna Hazare who is rivaling Ramdev for mastery of the anticorruption moment in India, the message is similar: Inward purification is the way to cure a body politic that's fallen ill.

Reforms that have brought new wealth to a growing middle class have also introduced new temptations like fast food and an array of international products from Western movies to Levi’s jeans. Ramdev is credited with helping reintroduce yoga and good health to a country undergoing massive social change.

In the seven years since he began airing his yoga sessions, his popularity has exploded. Some 30 million Indians watch his show each morning.

Along the way, the yoga guru has amassed a personal fortune and numerous critics who view him as a charlatan or a stooge of right-wing Hindu parties. Still, millions of his followers believe the guru has his finger on the disgruntled pulse of Indian society.

Many share his views that the government has been blackened by corruption and Indian society tainted by the invasion of foreign goods. His solutions echo Gandhian concepts of swaraj, or self-rule, which starts with self-purification, and swadeshi, or self-sufficiency, which includes rejecting dependence on imports and foreign ways.  

Folk healer

For many, despite the loud criticism against him, Ramdev's shift from promoting a personal health campaign to encouraging a call for national wellness seems natural. 

His folksy reputation, which includes his belief that homosexuality can be healed through yoga, has made him an overnight success. Many believe Ramdev has healed them from ailments such as Hepatitis B and now devote their lives to following him. 

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.

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.

One Ramdev fight: Wal-Mart 

At a time when the government is trying to push through the biggest reforms in two decades, Ramdev has a different vision for the country’s future. Congress wants to expand foreign direct investment in the retail sector, opening the door for big-box stores like Wal-Mart.

Ramdev, on the other hand, wants Indians to boycott all foreign products and buy only Indian brands.

He says the greatest threat facing the country is the illegal money many wealthy Indians keep stashed away in overseas bank accounts. He promises his followers and the rural poor that once this money is brought back to India, the economic problems facing the country will be solved.

“Now we have enough money, infrastructure, technology, and professionals to support us,” says Ramdev, who grew up in a rural farming village in the state of Haryana. “India has everything we need. We don’t need foreign support.”

The government says foreign investment would bring needed upgrades to how India gets its goods to market. At the moment, up to 40 percent of the country's produce rots before ever reaching market, yet India suffers from one of the world's highest malnutrition rates. 

Ramdev insists the way forward is for India to reinvest in its own farmers and foster self-reliance through traditional practices. In agriculture, he supports cow-based farming, which makes use of traditional methods such as using cow manure and urine, instead of expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

The guru has even developed a cleaning-product line made from cow urine. Every day some 4,000 liters of cow urine is collected from villages near Patanjali. In the absence of modern machinery, workers collect the urine with their bare hands by soaking the liquid up with a rag and wringing it into a bucket or catching it as it comes from the cow. The cleaning product and hundreds of other products are sold in villages across the country and can even be purchased through Ramdev’s online store.

Ramdev, the political neophyte

Some of the skepticism about Ramdev as a serious political contender stems from his lack of experience in the political arena. 

"He doesn’t have the civil-service experience that typifies most political players,” says Gurcharan Das, an Indian economist and author. He says it takes years to form a powerful political movement, and Ramdev does not have that kind of know-how or support. 

“I don’t think these people will follow him down a political path,” says Mr. Das. “For them he is simply a yogi.”

But for many he is quickly becoming something they can relate to on multiple levels. Homemaker Aruna Rathi begins her mornings sitting cross-legged with her family on the living-room floor, each of them watching Ramdev on TV.

“My son asks me before buying anything, ‘is it an Indian product?' ” says Ms. Rathi.

Along with breathing exercises, she has embraced his wider platform as well, eschewing imports, using Ramdev’s yellow-tinged cleansers in her kitchen, and raising her 10-year-old son to reject McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.

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