Charismatic Yoga Evangelist Takes Indian Politics By Storm
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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 careers.
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 Bangalore.