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Charismatic Yoga Evangelist Takes Indian Politics By Storm

India's bewilderingly complex political arena has a new player -- the country's most popular yoga guru, Baba Ramdev.

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 Andhra Pradesh.

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.

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