Baba Ramdev: The multi-millionaire yogi

Corruption in Indian politics is under attacked from an unlikely direction - Baba Ramdev, a multi-millionaire yogi with a huge business empire.

Never underestimate "the timeless power of the Hindu ascetic to create turmoil in the world's largest democracy", says the FT. India is buzzing with the saga of Swami Baba' Ramdev, the saffron-robed yoga guru, whose mass anti-corruption demonstration ended in farce last week. He fled his protest camp amid scenes of police violence, disguised as a woman. As the Times of India reported, the yogi was only apprehended when one cop noticed his beard peeping out from his face scarf.

What a contrast to the scene a few days earlier when Ramdev a multi-millionaire holy man with an extensive business empire and national TV following flew in to Delhi to an official welcome "that would be the envy of any visiting head of state", says the FT. The Indian government had decided to defuse his plan "a fast unto death" (to demand the repatriation of billions of dollars supposedly stashed abroad by India's corrupt rich) by "managing" the event. Thus the swami got the go-ahead to pitch a vast "yoga camp", complete with 60 doctors, an intensive care unit and a state-of-the-art media centre. The tactic, however, backfired badly. When 100,000 supporters flocked to the scene, the government panicked and sent in police brandishing sticks and tear gas.

Beating up anti-corruption protestors while the cameras roll isn't "the most sensible public-relations policy" and it has left Congress party leader Manmohan Singh's ageing, inept administration looking ever more beleaguered, says The Economist. "Somehow this bungling government has turned a loony yogi, who peddles quack cures for Aids, cancer and corruption, into a rallying figure for an angry public".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Born into a family of poor farmers in India's north-western state of Haryana, Ramdev shot to fame ten years ago when his yoga instruction and ayurvedic medical treatments were broadcast on a Hindu religious channel. Viewers were attracted as much by his air of purity (an avowed celibate, he had tested his physical endurance by living alone in mountain caves), as by his stress-busting breathing exercises.

Since then, the yogi has advanced increasingly extreme nationalistic views. He abhors multinational corporations and believes the World Health Organisation (WHO) is an American big pharma "conspiracy". His aim is to free India from the corrupting influence of the West in all its guises.

Opponents claim that Ramdev, who has now retreated to his ashram in the holy city of Haridwar, is a media-puffed fraud. And that his $253m charity trust including a Scottish island donated by well-heeled disciples may not be squeaky clean, says The Hindu. As one fellow cleric says: "God has given him gifts, but his ego will finish him". Still, given the momentum he has already built, no-one in New Delhi is banking on that.

Why the middle classes back Ramdev's campaign

"We clean up our bodies. Then we will clean up our democracy!" is Baba Ramdev's rallying cry as he whips his "lithe and supple" body through a rapid-fire series of yoga poses on the banks of the Ganges watched by tens of millions on TV, says The New York Times. Supporters are convinced the swami is following an honourable tradition, "harking back to India's earliest leaders with his message of self-reliance, national pride and traditional values". He often compares himself to Gandhi. There are certainly similarities, says the FT. "Just as Mahatma Gandhi infuriated British viceroys with fasts and marches," so Baba Ramdev "has tied New Delhi in knots".

In more confident times, the ruling Congress party would have brushed Ramdev aside, as they once did Indira Gandhi's much more powerful "Flying Swami", says The Economist. But beset by allegations of graft, the government has lost its touch. In April, it caved in to the demands of another hunger striker, the radical activist Anna Hazare, who extracted a big concession winning the right to co-draft an anti-corruption law. As one local sociologist charges: an "effete government, incapable of tackling corruption itself, has allowed a bunch of oddballs and fetishists, masquerading as the new Gandhis, to take leadership of a media-driven movement".

Given the successive waves of political and financial scandals that have engulfed India in recent years, it is hardly surprising that the demands of Ramdev and his ilk find sympathy among a growing middle class, impatient with corruption and mistrustful of the elite. But even the opposition BJP party, which once thought to steal a ride on Ramdev's anti-graft bandwagon, has got the jitters about the impact of his incendiary Hindu nationalism on India's parliamentary democracy, says BBC India. As one of India's greatest thinkers, BR Ambedkar, observes, he has introduced "a grammar of anarchy". That's "a phenomenally dangerous trend".