Cover Story

Baba Ramdev: The Karma Yogi

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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A portrait of the ascetic as a cultural revolutionary in the marketplace. PR Ramesh gets up close with Baba Ramdev, the guru of good health

ONE LOOK AT THE MAN and you realise how yogic exoticism merges seamlessly with raw ordinariness: a wiry frame in saffron, a beard blowing in the wind from the Ganga, and his hair tied in a loose bun. This is India’s most kinetic yogi, known for yoga as much as his subversion of the marketplace. An ascetic who has spawned a pan-Indian cultural revolution. The bestselling brand of the spiritual super bazaar. The sanyasi who celebrates both soul and sinews. His journey from the anonymity of the Indian countryside to national mindspace is an epic of homespun ingenuity. Still, Baba Ramdev guffaws at his own cult.

When I meet him in his second-floor office of the sprawling Patanjali Food Park in Haridwar on a Saturday mid-morning, he betrays no sign of a man whose day begins at 3.30 am with a cup of gooseberry juice.

His stamina seems extraordinary. Originally from Alipur village of Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, he had dropped out of school after Class VIII. Fifty years old now, Baba is unofficially credited with the demystification and democratisation of yoga in India.

In the arena of political discourse, his breakthrough moment came in June 2011, when he held a mass agitation against black money at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds. A jittery Congress-led Government had deputed five senior ministers, led by Pranab Mukherjee, to receive him at the capital’s airport when he arrived for it. But he was implacable. As his crowd of listeners swelled, the Government in panic decided to crack down on the protest, citing a flimsy reason: that his presence near a minority-dominated area could cause communal tension. In a ham-handed operation at midnight, the crowd was subjected to a lathi charge. Baba fled the dais disguised in a borrowed salwar kurta, but was apprehended at the grounds’ exit gate and kept in custody overnight. The next morning, he was forcibly put on a BSF flight to Dehradun, the airport closest to his Patanjali headquarters in Haridwar. Despite popular anger against the Manmohan Singh Government over corruption charges levelled against it, Delhi’s elite ridiculed the Baba. Three years later, with the Congress routed at the polls, he would have the last laugh over the episode.

The Baba has stood the status quo on its head in almost every field he has got into. How huge is he? Remember the idea of ‘yogic levitation’ that went viral—even in the West—in the mid-70s, making Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a cult brand and his Transcendental Meditation (TM) a trademark? That’s pulp history in the annals of yoga practice now.

Baba rejects attempts to portray him as a man of the material world. “Politicians created the myth that sanyasis (ascetics) should not perform any task other than perform pujas (prayers). Organise satsangs (group ‘truth seeking’ sessions) and not go beyond that,” he says, “What? A sanyasi is a man with boundless knowledge and vision. According to me, if he does not use it for public good, he will end up as a selfish being.”

Just this morning, he led a yoga camp on the premises of Patanjali Yogapeeth, his vast ashram on the outskirts of Haridwar, the site of his business enterprise as well. Patanjali Ayurved Ltd (PAL), which sells almost a billion dollars’ worth of consumer products every year, looks every bit the corporate setup that it is. The office we’re in, at the Food Park at the other end of town, is plush. And like any corporate honcho, he holds meetings with executives, product innovators and tax experts. For all the implied renunciation of his saffron robes, it’s clear that he is the driving force of the business, though his partner and PAL co-founder Acharya Balkrishna is the chief of operations.

Neither of them, Baba later tells us, takes a single rupee out of PAL’s earnings. “Every paisa goes to charities. We have plans to start a world-class education institution and build a state-of- the-art stadium to train the country’s sportspersons.”

Slipping into the driver’s seat of his Scorpio, he drives me around the Kankhal area by the banks of the Ganga, where he spent his initial years in Haridwar after he moved here in 1993. He sees no contradiction in a twin life of spirituality and business. “Where is it written that a sanyasi should not do any work? Does any text teach us that we should be devoid of compassion or knowledge?” he asks. “God has given me some skills. I use it and what you see around is a manifestation of that.” Baba sees it as a duty of the spiritually accomplished to engage society in every way. “Sanyasis used to lead and guide the political system in this country,” he says, “They used to lead the health and education system. It was they who conceived taxation in this country.”

He is determined to upend the conventional wisdom on what ascetics should do or not do. “Because of yoga, I have attained fame. I will use my abilities to propagate it. I cannot be expected to suppress my passion for yoga.”

By early 2016, Baba Ramdev had pitch-forked himself into the realm of the unassailable. In terms of fame, he had achieved a feat of levitation few sanyasis or gurus have ever been able to claim. His cult has become a phenomenon. From svelte, young women in Kharagpur and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, to paunchy blue collar middle-agers in Ratlam and plump diabetic housewives in Karimnagar, from septuagenarians in Karnal to upwardly mobile wannabes in Mumbai, the appeal of Baba’s yoga lessons, thanks partly to Aastha TV broadcasts, now span the length and breadth of the country. He charges a fee for morning classes held on his ashram, but at specified centres countrywide, his instructors supervise free practice sessions for anyone who sign ups.

Yoga, for centuries an exclusivist practice of copybook physical and mental exercises and holistic health, has almost been redefined by him. His school of yoga has cast aside Brahminical rigidities and opened itself up to all. In technique, it has expanded far beyond the traditional to embrace freestyle exercise, seated dance movements, singing, laugh jogging, leap frogging and community meditation, all of it aimed at our collective mind-body- spirit health. This is profoundly unconventional, to say the least. “I want to create passion and glamour around yoga. A paagalpan, junoon (madness) around yoga and karma yoga,” Baba says.

Harking back to his Ramlila protest when he became the butt of leftist ridicule, he says, “I want to teach a lesson they’ll remember to those who run down sanyasis. Mein unko sabak sikhaana chaahta hoon. It is time that this section of people stopped lampooning ascetics and disrespecting them.”

Baba has also had to face opposition from status quoists clad in saffron. With his iconoclastic ways, he upset their preconceived ideas of yoga, and worse, in their view, he laid no claim to being a savant of the Upanishads and Vedas. He described himself simply as a practitioner of yoga. This turned out to be his trump card. He focused on efficacy and it helped him refashion, even contort, the established definitions and perceptions of the ancient practice.

Where is it written that a sanyasi should not do any work? God has given me some skills. I use it and what you see around is a manifestation of that. Sanyasis used to guide the political system in this country

He wears the scars of many battles—of class and caste, apart from commercial, social and cultural—with the pride of a victor. “In my youth,” he says, “I faced discrimination of the worst kind on account of my background. My parents were poor and uneducated. But my life changed when I joined the gurukul. It was run by the Arya Samaj. There, everyone was treated as equal. There was no discrimination. I did not know the caste or family background of my peers.”

Born to a Yadav family, he sought spiritual solace in the holy river town of Haridwar 24 years ago. That phase he remembers clearly. To his shock, he found his caste label chase him here too—he could sense fellow ascetics despise him for it. “The caste system was not endorsed by the Vedas,” he says, at the wheel, “According to the Vedas, people are not born to any caste. It is our karma that makes us part of a caste grouping. Over centuries, many distortions have crept in. Shudra was not to be an untouchable. He was tasked with bringing suchita (cleanliness) in society and that was seen as a service.” For a meaningful assault on the caste system as it prevails now, he believes, all caste-based processes, such as the anointment of a Shankaracharya, need to be transformed radically. “Who said that Shankaracharyas should only be Brahmins? Anyone who has the knowledge to interpret the Upanishads and has a profound influence on the growth of Hindu philosophy should be eligible to lead the maths (Hindu places of learning).”

THAT’S A STATEMENT that could provoke a controversy, but Baba doesn’t flinch. “I believe changes in society can only happen swiftly if our own religious institutions lead the change.”

Caste discrimination isn’t the only prejudice he faced. People, he says, tend to force fit and trap others in an image they form on the basis of their background, and this shackles their natural talents. “Looking down upon others and humiliating people cannot go uncontested. Our religious philosophy encourages questioning. But this should not degenerate into humiliation of others. If you are not of the same social standing, they mock you with, ‘What can this man from a village do?’ ‘What can this son of a poor farmer do?’ ‘His parents are illiterate’. They try to put you down before you can get started, by suggesting that a particular person is not from a decent background. A person should be considered civil or uncivil based on his conduct, not his social and economic status.”

His followers dismiss claims that Baba’s success and the exponential growth of his business of late have been the result of the Government’s favour. “Ramdev is so big that he doesn’t need politics, but politicians would give their right arm to have him endorse their parties,” says a marketing analyst in Delhi.

Consultants had told us that we should have brand ambassadors for each product. I refused. Actors endorse products, but a real-life Baba has entered this field for the first time... Today, all those who know Ramdev know Patanjali

After his black money protest of 2011, Baba appears to have hedged his policy on being detached from politics. “A sanyasi is one who has attained detachment from worldliness enough to realise that he is complete by himself. But is that enough? He is only half a sanyasi if he is happy with that and does not use that realisation to further the well being of others. He would be selfish, self-centred and self-obsessed if he does not use his wisdom to do things for the larger public good. An able person should devote his time to the welfare of others,” he says.

That sounds suspiciously like a one-size-fits-all argument. But the marketing analyst says that with a pitch-perfect brand, an extraordinary symbiosis of the spiritual and the commercial, shaping a worldview that includes political perspectives—even if indirectly—would be part of the overall project.

So did Baba have a strategy to use yoga to catapult his brand to a billion-dollar business? “We never really started out with an elaborate plan for Patanjali Ayurved Ltd,” he says, “We never dreamed of creating a giant brand. Or of turnovers or sectors that we have to work in. So there was no elaborate plan.”

In 1993, when he first started teaching yoga on the banks of the Ganga at Haridwar, he had only two students: Yogesh Gupta and VK Bansal. Patanjali Yogapeeth took about a decade to attract a mass following. The growth of PAL, in contrast, was explosive.

Today, the Patanjali brand sells virtually everything one would need from the cradle to the pyre, be it soap, toothpaste, face cream and other cosmetics, or edible oil, hing, salt, unpolished dal, quality rice, honey, biscuits, noodles and atta. Its ghee, of cow’s milk, the mainstay of traditional Indian cuisine and confectionery, is especially successful, claimed as it is to be 100 per cent pure and ultra healthful.

The company employs over 100,000 workers, directly and indirectly, in operations that range from sourcing and manufacturing to sales and distribution. “I see this going up to five lakh people in the next five years,” says Baba.

Patanjali’s market strategy is pegged, he contends, on a bond of trust between him and those who buy the products. For him, they are not ‘customers’, they are “our family”, and the quality he guarantees is on this basis, that they are his own kin. “They trust me with their spiritual health needs,” he says, “Now, they trust me to enrich their holistic health needs.”

His fans, of course, have been a captive market. But millions more have started buying the products, with the brand’s retail reach extending from urban and semi-urban regions to rural areas, appealing to a fast-expanding base of consumers who aspire for things that have been out of their reach all this while. Patanjali’s offerings are priced low, often a third of an MNC brand with the same promise of benefits, and the business has made use of insights that range from their spiritual to consumerist aspirations. After the sachet shampoo revolution of the 90s, this has been the next big effort to place packaged products within common access.

Even Colgate, a household name in dental care, has had to yield significant market share to Patanjali’s Dant Kanti, which is very popular in rural and small-town markets, far more than Dabur Red had once managed. Colgate, for decades the market leader, has almost been pushed off shop shelves in these parts. This is one success that does Baba especially proud. “I believe that MNCs are looting this country,” he says, “They have made our economy a prisoner of their interests and held thousands in their thrall. This is not good for my nation.”

IN KEEPING WITH his mission to oust MNCs from India, he has turned his ‘Be Indian, buy Indian’ call into an outright market campaign, complete with a strategy, goals and a media plan. “We work differently. In corporate setups, they do brainstorming on foreign shores, in Thailand and Singapore. Babaji ka brainstorming jhopdi mein hoti hai (happens in a hut). Things that you will hear about other CEOs—someone has set a record by buying an expensive house on Amrita Shergil Marg or Malabar Hills, for example—you will never hear of Patanjali. Other CEOs have homes in Australia and South Africa. We have adopted a 100-per cent desi model, both in our worldview and commercial practices.”

Balkrishna, recently listed by Forbes magazine as one of India’s richest individuals, is always in Indian attire, dhoti and half-sleeves kurta, as a mark of that approach. “Someone asked him whether he would hold a celebratory party. He retorted, ‘Party nahin hoga, hum phateechar hain. Dhotiwale hain (no, I wear rags, common clothes).” Couched in there was a dig at cultural codes and symbols of the West that India Inc flaunts. “For us, wealth is for service,” says Baba, “This is our philosophy. Confucius, whom Communists often quote, said that when wealth is centralised, people are dispersed, and when wealth is distributed, the people are brought together. And bringing the people of this country together is our core concern.” Baba also cites the example of Chanakya from ancient days: “Acharya Chanakya used to run an empire, but he lived in a jhopdi. I don’t hanker after running an empire Unlike MNCs, prosperity for the maximum number is my central motto, not profit maximisation. They have few principles in achieving their goal. We are people with a definite ideology and values.” This is a sustainable desi model of commercial and social enterprise, he believes, and expects PAL to overtake Unilever in size and product range. This will be done, he says, without wasteful expenditure on advertising. “I don’t believe in hiring outsiders to promote our products which we sell based solely on trust in our quality and integrity. I don’t believe in hiring big ad agencies. Nor do we have a fancy marketing team. We have zero budget for marketing. We have a sales team and a supply chain. What will marketing people do? They indulge in hyperbole. We don’t need them.”

IT ISN’T JUST MNCs like Nestle and Unilever that have been injured by competition from Patanjali products. Monopolistic homegrown herbal companies like Dabur and Baidyanath, too, have been shaken. One ad campaign made clever use of the rivals’ charge that many Patanjali products were neither fully ‘herbal’ nor ‘pure’ and that its food products lacked FSSAI certification. Advertising audiences were to hear the phrase ‘emotional blackmail’ again, as used in PAL’s countercharge. Baba led the defence himself, slamming rivals for trying to smear his products.

MNCs are looting this country. They have made our economy a prisoner of their interests and held thousands in their thrall. This is not good for my nation. We have adopted a 100-per cent desi model in our worldview and commercial practices

The power of desi genius, market analysts say, remains on Patanjali’s side. As a strategy, it worked at different levels for the brand. On the first, the very endorsement of India’s most popular cult figure in the mind-body-spirit wellness sector has helped sell a vast range of ayurvedic formulations. On the second, it capitalises on the resurgent sentiment in favour of all things desi, and take pride in Indian tradition. On the third level, it busts the myth fostered in subtle ways by MNCs that Indian traditions were not in consonance with progressive thinking and healthy living.

The celebration of things Indian— a process triggered off by success in the IT sector, the ebbing of Western affluence in recent times and its associated veneer of power—is a work in progress, if Baba’s worldview is to be believed. It gathered momentum in the last five or six years and found a reflection in the emergence of Narendra Modi to power. This self confidence has eroded the fixation with the Occidental, under which all things related to Indian culture and spirituality were dismissed as regressive. Over this period, there has emerged a widespread new appreciation of things desi, such as khadi, domestic cuisine and folk art. Patanjali’s sales pitch plugged right into this newfound worship of the desi, touching an emotional nerve of nationalism cutting across wide swathes of the country.

In business, Baba believes it is important to be self-reliant. After the brand’s sudden success, scores of professional advisors from big cities have descended on Haridwar, but he prefers to hold his own. “Consulting agencies cannot do much to conceive or establish a business. Ninety per cent of the idea should be yours. It can only be refined with outside help.” Patanjali’s success, he adds, was mainly due to key advice not taken from consultants. “It has a lot to do with my decision to ignore three pieces of advice from them. They had told us that we should have brand ambassadors for each product. I refused. Actors and actresses endorse products, but a real-life Baba has entered this field for the first time. We have gone against the internationally accepted practice. I took the risk, and it worked.” He was sure of his bond of trust with people. “Then they told me,‘You are a big name, but no one knows Patanjali.’ So they told me to delink myself from the project, arguing that its failure can affect my image. But I ignored that advice. This was last October, when we started production in a big way. It’s been less than a year. Had you heard of Patanjali a year ago? I told them flatly that I would lead the campaign and ensure its success. Today, all those who know Ramdev know Patanjali.” Again, he is having the last laugh. “Many ad gurus predicted our failure. But such predictions from dream merchants are themselves illusory.”

It was after Emergency of the mid-1970s that the Socialist leader George Fernandes went after MNCs, directing his attack mainly at Coca-Cola, the American soft drink that sold a lifestyle with every glug. In 1977, with the Janata regime in power, the company was forced out of the Indian market. But Fernandes failed to provide an alternative business model. Double Seven, a brand backed by him—launched by then Prime Minister Morarji Desai—was supposed to fill the vacuum, but it proved no match for the ‘real thing’.

The opposition to MNCs was stronger in those days. It was a time when university campuses from Delhi to Kerala were valorising Chilean leader Salvador Allende and erupting in anti-MNC slogans. Such a groundswell of sentiment should have helped Double Seven succeed. But it lacked the fizz, so to speak. Later, Ramesh Chauhan’s Thums Up did establish itself as India’s top cola, but was just another cola and didn’t make an overt swadeshi pitch, focusing instead on youthful verve and fun.

Three reasons can be ascribed to the failure of the anti-MNC struggle of the late 70s. One, Fernandes and Modern Foods failed to address the consumer’s need for world-class products. Two, the desi challenge to Western cultural domination was not as robust as it is today. And three, the flaws of the Nehruvian economic model had not yet been fully exposed.

Market analysts argue that ideological fervour alone is not enough to sustain local brands and business models. They require either unique products or those that meet needs in differentiated ways. One major reason that Patanjali is better placed to make a go of a swadeshi pitch against MNCs is that it offers functional benefits packed with an emotional appeal. ‘It works’ or ‘Good stuff at a good price’ is more likely to be heard of a Patanjali product than ‘We are opposed to MNCs and their cultural messages’.

Colgate ka gate bandh hone waala hai aur Unilever ka liver baithne waala hai (Colgate is about see its gate close, and Unilever, its liver collapse). God is my script writer

Either way, Baba is determined to double the turnover of PAL this year from about Rs 5,000 crore in the last fiscal year. If it happens, it would be a jump in retail sales unseen in Indian market history, but market watchers are not treating his target as bluster. The company plans to expand aggressively into the dairy segment. The size of India’s dairy market is Rs 4 lakh crore, and if Patanjali gains even 1 per cent of this, it would add Rs 4,000 crore to its topline.

The beauty of the brand, he says, is that it was multi-dimensional from the start. Colgate, in contrast, is associated only with dental hygiene, and Unilever can hardly sell ghee with conviction. “Colgate ka gate bandh hone waala hai aur Unilever ka liver baithne waala hai (Colgate is about see its gate close, and Unilever, its liver collapse). God is my script writer,” he chortles.

IS BABA THE Modi of spiritual India? A new kind of Indian authenticism in the spiritual as well as market space? While it is Baba who has made the homegrown popular and respectable once again in the commercial arena, Modi is seen as signifying a broader resurgence of Indianness. In politics, although the rise of Lalu Yadav was once seen as a power assertion of the subaltern, he failed to break the barriers of kitsch that Modi was able to on his way to becoming the prime mover of Indian politics.

Just as Modi grew to political prominence and power from the state level, so did Baba’s business draw upon an intuitive understanding of people on the periphery. ‘Bhuke bhajan yoga nahin Gopala,’ a saying which Baba cites often, is indigenous wisdom for spirituality being empty on an empty stomach.

It is to his credit that the subversive sanyasi from Mahendragarh has fashioned himself not as a spiritual guru like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before him, but has cast himself in a class apart as a practitioner and teacher of yoga, a wellness guide who has little interest in interpreting the scriptures for his followers. His mantra is simple, straightforward and sharp. It is not metaphysical, but physical: maintain good health, make money and become a productive citizen. It is such postures of pragmatism that make Baba Ramdev the 21st century guru of holistic health.