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.

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.

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.

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