When Anna Hazare sat on a fast at Jantar Mantar many did not know who the Gandhian was. But thousands joined him because the issue resonated with them. In the process Hazare became an iconic figure.
When Baba Ramdev sat on a fast in Ramlila Maidan he too was fasting to protest the same issue — bhrashtachar — corruption. But for the thousands who attended that meet, shipped in by groups like the Patanjali Yog Samiti and Bharat Swabhiman Trust, most of them with their membership cards around their necks, the issue and the man were one and the same. “We trust him, he asked us to come and so we did,” said one attendee.
For them, Ramdev was a godlike figure and many had stories of how his yoga and his pills and potions had cured someone of crippling arthritis or diabetes. To them he was a krantikari who was sitting on stage, fasting and hurting no one but his health.
Of course that fast ended in ignominy. On one hand the Congress government blackened its own face by the midnight raid. Baba Ramdev trying to flee in his salwar kameez hardly covered himself in glory despite all his earlier bravado.
But the amazing thing about the Baba Ramdev story is that did not spell the kiss of death for his larger-than-life mystique. The Patanjali stores still dot towns big and small in India. The faithful still swear by him. And the BJP which has long flirted with him has come out in full-fledged embrace of the man in Haryana. He is not only the state’s brand ambassador, now the Khattar government has given him full cabinet minister status.
While Baba Ramdev cannot attend cabinet meetings, he will now, according to a government spokesman, “enjoy all perks of a cabinet minister, including cars, bungalows, staff and security from the state.”
The question is why does a renunciate in saffron robes even need all those perks? Are these things he really should have any need for on top of his Z-level security?
Ramdev is hardly the first godman to woo political proximity. Dhirendra Brahmachari was notorious for his closeness to Indira Gandhi and Chandra Swami for his access to PV Narasimha Rao. The late Sai Baba enjoyed enormous political clout from his seat in Puttaparthi. Ramdev has figured out that he needs political patronage to expand his business empire and he early on decided to hitch his wagon to the Narendra Modi campaign.
That empire is already quite something. DB estimates that sales of “swadeshi” soaps, oils, breakfast cereals and the like from his Patanjali Yogapeeth are on track to reach Rs 2,000 crore this fiscal up from Rs 450 crore in 2012. And unlike other brands who spent 20-30 percent of sales on advertising, Ramdev hardly spends anything at all. He is all the advertisement his brand needs.
And now this tie-up with the Haryana government will prove even more of a bonanza for him. DB writes that the Khattar government has decided to open 6,500 vyamshalas and hold yoga classes in state-run schools. Ramdev will oversee this and coach the personal trainers. In a way the rehabilitation of the man who fled in a salwar is complete. He is returning as the conquering hero.
It makes sense it is happening in Haryana. At his rally in Delhi, Baba Ramdev kept calling out to the faithful like a scoutmaster. How many people from Jammu and Kashmir? How many from Uttaranchal? But when he shouted out Haryana the roar was deafening. “Looks like all of Haryana has just picked up and moved here,” he chortled.
Haryana is friendly territory for him and a safe haven. It’s not surprising he has chosen to pitch his tent there now. But the question is what is the BJP getting out of this sweetheart deal?
The answer might lie in the mom and pop stores that retail his Patanjali products. From just around 150 stores in 2012, there are now some 4000 stores across India. 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 and the BJP hopes to piggyback on that loyalty.
And with Ramdev’s products now entering the supermarket chains like Big Bazaar, Hyper City and Reliance Fresh with Amazon.com in the pipeline according to DB his profile can only grow. Damodar Mall, CEO of Reliance Retail admits that while they were skeptical about Patanjali products for supermarket customers, they have been surprised by “the level of traction” his products have received at the stores.
What is amazing about Baba Ramdev is that he flaunts his high-flying lifestyle with insouciance while still projecting himself as a humble down-to-earth simple yoga guru. The thousands of middle and lower middle-class Indians who came to his rally at his behest with their bedrolls and tiffin carriers do not seem to see the contradiction between his lifestyle and his message. Whatever one thinks of Baba Ramdev and his over-the-top claims, one cannot dispute the sincerity of those who came to that rally.
That sincerity and unwavering faith in the leader is the envy of any political party. At one time it had seemed like Baba Ramdev would take the political plunge with his Bharat Swabhiman party but now thanks to the largesse of the Haryana government he is enjoying all the perks of political power without any of the headaches of electoral politics.