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Book excerpt: Baba Ramdev’s journey from a yoga guru to India’s leading brand

An excerpt from The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon: From Moksha to Market, the biography of yoga guru Baba Ramdev, written by Kaushik Deka and slated for a May release.

books Updated: May 23, 2017 09:21 IST
Baba Ramdev

The book cover of Baba Ramdev’s biography by Kaushik Deka. (Rupa Publications)

Modi, His Friend

Ramdev’s association and tilt towards BJP’s philosophy is no secret and the yoga guru has been quite candid about it. He is personally close to several BJP chief ministers — Manohar Lal Khattar, Devendra Fadnavis, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Sarbananda Sonowal. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he openly extended support to Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature. But in the last two years, though Ramdev’s business empire has grown manifold with support from BJP-led government in several states, his relationship with Modi has witnessed several mood swings.

His influence over the Prime Minister could be gauged from the fact that a chance meeting with the yoga guru in a flight to Kolkata earned singer Babul Supriyo not only a BJP ticket but also a ministerial berth later. In February 2015, Modi announced that the income of yoga-related charitable trusts would be exempted from service tax. Ramdev has often praised Modi for what he has done for Baba Ramdev.

The Baba Ramdev Phenomenon popularizing yoga. ‘AYUSH Ministry has been formed. With his capacity Modiji got international recognition for yoga. Both at international and political level the recognition itself is a huge achievement. Now AYUSH Ministry must devote attention towards research,’ said Ramdev.

But in December 2016, when he was asked in an interview if he was happy with the NDA government’s performance so far, he said, ‘A yogi should neither be happy nor unhappy. I am stuck somewhere in the middle.’ Unlike in the past, Baba’s praise for Modi was reserved. He was not willing to bat for Modi the way he used to do earlier against all bouncers. In February 2017, at a press conference in Haridwar, he said that he had supported Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections because Modi was against black money and corruption. If the Congress seeks his support in national interest then he is ready to support it.

His unhappiness with Modi could stem from various developments. The Prime Minister is yet to clear his proposal for a Vedic education board. Modi government has rejected his proposal that Patanjali Yogpeeth be given full control of khadi marketing and management across the country. But his biggest grudge against the Modi government has been its failure to tackle the black money issue the way it had been envisaged by the yoga guru.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, armed with a research report by JNU professor Arun Kumar and two other papers by Transparency International and Global Financial Integrity, Ramdev raised the issue of black money, a favourite campaign slogan of the then BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. This was not the first time Ramdev has publicly talked about black money in Indian economy. On 27 February 2011, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, he alleged that Indian nationals had around lakh crore in black money, out of which Rs 300 lakh crore was stashed in banks abroad. ‘I did not estimate the black money amount in the air. I consulted economists such as Kumar for hours and read reports, and then went by the minimum possible amount,’ says the yoga guru who loves to talk about economist Joseph Stiglitz and historian Nial Fergusson besides quoting from Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

President Pranab Mukherjee with Baba Ramdev and Patanjali CEO Acharya Balkrishna at the inauguration of the Yoga Shivir in Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 15. (PTI)

His black money narrative has been almost the same as what Prime Minister Modi has often propagated. ‘The biggest black money is in mining, followed by gold, land, politics and drugs. If we can get hold of the black money in these five sectors it will hugely benefit the economy, Ramdev often used to prescribe.

It’s also true that he has been one of the earliest votaries of cashless economy. ‘Cash transaction is not traceable and this leads to black money. Notes of higher denomination should stop. The way banking services have expanded, the transactions should be in cheque, card and draft. We will put pressure (on the government) to get this done,’ he had said in 2011. In May 2016, he even claimed that he was seriously thinking about foraying into banking sector.

Though Modi government’s first cabinet decision was to form an SIT to investigate and take action on the issue of black money, the follow-up action for next several months did not meet the expectations of Ramdev.

Speaking to India TV, he said: ‘It is true that the amount of offshore black money that was expected to be brought back did not come. There is a need to speed up efforts.’ In June 2016, he continued his attack on Modi government. ‘Because of lack of effective steps (by the government) on the black money issue, I and people in the country are dissatisfied.’

Baba Ramdev promoting Patanjali products in New Delhi. (HT Photo)

In January 2017, when reporters in Raipur, where he had gone for a yoga camp, asked him when the country would see the Prime Minister fulfilling his promise of achhe din (good days), the baba quipped: ‘Practice yoga’. ‘No politician or political party can bring achhe din. One who practises yoga will be able to bring achhe din. Yoga can turn every day into achhe din. We will have to work ourselves to get the feeling of achhe din. And for this, perform yoga in the morning and later do hard work during the day.’

Despite all these public comments, Ramdev has always maintained that he had no rift with Modi. ‘I have known (Narendra) Modiji for fifteen years, and we have had some meetings before the 2014 elections. During those meetings, he told me that he supported my vision for a beautiful India by rooting out black money, not 100 per cent but 200 per cent. Because of my resolution to provide the country with a strong political alternative and as I came to realize that Modiji was that alternative, I put all my trust in him as has the rest of the country. We all hope and believe that he will prove to be the most successful prime minister the country has ever seen. You form an emotional attachment with some people in your lives, and that’s what I have with Modiji. I don’t represent any party and never will. Our friendship is based on a commonality of thought, principles, ideology and policies. And that would be the case with anyone, irrespective of his or her party,’ he told The Indian Expressin December 2016.

His frustration with Modi was evident when he made a veiled attack on the Prime Minister during an interaction with journalists from The Indian Express. When he was asked about Indian army’s surgical strike at terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Ramdev subtly hinted that Modi had failed on two accounts—black money and poverty alleviation. ‘Eliminating the evil is not violence. I think (Prime Minister Narendra) Modiji will also decimate Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed, so that people of this country forget any grudges they have with him with regard to black money and poverty alleviation.’

When I asked him about his equation with the Prime Minister and the growing perception that the two have been drifting apart, he laughed uproariously. Then he composed himself and said: ‘Why do you think I need any personal favour from Modi? I did not support him because I wanted something from him. He is the best we can have now. He is doing a good job. I’m a fakir and I don’t want to meddle in the affairs of governance. Whenever I have raised any issue, I have represented the public voice, not my personal demands. I could have interfered in the functioning of Modi government with my influence. I never did it. Even Prime Minister Modi asked me how I could withdraw so much.’

He may have claimed to have withdrawn from politics but he certainly plays an important role, and that’s the reason why political leaders across party lines don’t hesitate to offer him a red carpet. Firstpost’s Sandipan Sharma notes that many of these outlets in North India are Yadav-owned and they are an important vote bank in UP and Mewat, across Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. By helping them set up financially viable businesses, Ramdev has earned the loyalty of many movers and shakers in the Yadav group.

It’s the same reason why former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has also tried to keep the Baba in good humour. He not only allotted 750 acres of land along the Yamuna Expressway but also laid the foundation of the food and herbal park in Greater Noida, alongside it.

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