Bookshelf

The Godman and His Empire

Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev could become a key bulwark against the might of Ramdev’s spin.

In June 2011, barely a couple of months after the beleaguered and scam-tainted United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had given in to Anna Hazare’s demands for a new Lokpal bill in order to get him to break his fast, a new threat emerged. Baba Ramdev, a saffron-clad teacher of Yoga and maker of Ayurvedic medicines from Haridwar, was threatening to embark on another indefinite fast. Although he had been a part of the Anna movement, it seemed like he wasn’t satisfied with the promise of an Anti-Corruption Bill. He wanted the government to also commit to repatriating all the black money that had been sent out of India illegally.

When Ramdev landed in Delhi three days before the scheduled start of his fast, four senior cabinet ministers–including the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee–were waiting at the airport, hoping to convince him to call it off. Ramdev, the son of a poor farmer from Haryana who had grown up with nothing, had well and truly arrived.

The fast eventually fizzled out, as did Ramdev’s political ambitions, but that eventually proved to be a mere detour in the saga of Ramdev’s rise. Today, he controls India’s second largest–and fastest growing–FMCG company, Patanjali Ayurveda Limited, which has grown to a turnover of Rs 10,000 crore in just over a decade. Ramdev says it will hit the 20,0000 crore-mark this year. To put those numbers into perspective, Hindustan Unilever, the market leader, has been in operation for 85 years and has a turnover of 30,000 crores.

Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by Priyanka Pathak-Narain, chronicles this scarcely believable journey from penury to extraordinary wealth and power. Perhaps there is no better indicator of Ramdev’s influence than the current status of the book–its publication and sale has been stayed for the second time in two months after Ramdev initiated legal proceedings against the author and publisher. The district court which granted the first injunction against the book did not allow them a defence.

It is not hard to imagine why Ramdev is desperate to prevent the book from being read. The story of his spectacular ascent is riddled with disgruntled former allies who had been cast aside once they were no longer useful. And without direct access to Ramdev himself, it is their accounts that the book largely relies on.

Karamveer Maharaj, an early mentor who taught Ramdev how to teach Yoga, and SK Patra, the CEO who professionalised and scaled up Patanjali’s operations, are two key sources upon which much of the narrative rests. After brief periods by his side during which they were indispensable to his success, both seem to have left Ramdev’s side of their own accord.

Others seemingly stuck around past their expiry date and eventually met with unfortunate fates. Swami Yogananda, the man whose license Ramdev used initially to manufacture Ayurvedic medicines, and Rajeev Dixit, the activist who introduced Ramdev to the swadeshi ideology which he has weaponised so effectively against multinational companies, both died under suspicious circumstances. Shankar Dev, the guru who initiated Ramdev on the sanyasi path, disappeared mysteriously. And Kirit Mehta, who put Ramdev on his TV channel and made him famous, ended up signing over his company to his star performer for free.

Through media reports, documentary evidence, and interviews with people who were either directly involved with, or on the sidelines of these events, Pathak-Narain pieces together an unflattering picture that implicates Ramdev in no small amount of alleged wrongdoing. The narration is largely spare and to the point in the manner of most journalistic reportage. Much of Ramdev’s life is incredibly dramatic and could conceivably lend itself to a fair bit of literary flourish, but Pathak-Narain prefers instead to put the facts first and remain accessible. Hushed voices and vague recollections are a recurring feature of the narrative, with the fear of crossing Ramdev understandably playing on the minds of many sources. And in many cases there are no sources at all, just a cold trail marked out by whispers and rumour.

In fact, the early part of Ramdev’s life is almost entirely shrouded in mystery. In the absence of verifiable facts, all that’s left of his origin story is an archetype: of a boy with limited means discovering religion and using it – at first, as a way out of a hard life and later, as a means to achieve immense power.

Ramdev spent his formative years in Arya Samaj gurukuls which reject idol worship and propogate a monotheistic version of Hinduism. However, when it suited the goals of his fledgling business to take over Shankar Dev’s ashram and use it as a base of operations, he cast aside his ideological baggage and accepted the orange robes of a sanyasi – and the pantheon of gods and customs that came with them. When he became a TV yoga guru, Ramdev largely left religion at home and spoke mostly of practical health concerns. In his most recent incarnation as a businessman with a political edge, his public pronouncements are almost exclusively about the importance of Swadeshi and the need to fight exploitative foreign capital.

In the realm of politics as well, Ramdev has displayed an unparalleled ability to adapt. His early political patrons, who played an important role in helping his business empire take root, were all ostensibly secular leaders. By the time a saffron wave swept the country in 2014, they had all been replaced with proponents of Hindutva.

In tracing this wildly oscillating trajectory, Pathak-Narain makes two things very clear: that Baba Ramdev is, above all else, a great brand, and like many other great brands, he is extremely adaptable.

Perhaps the only constant in Ramdev’s life is Balkrishna Suvedi, who has been a friend and partner since their days in the Arya Samaj. Since sanyasis cannot have any material possessions, Suvedi, who goes by Acharya Balkrishna, is legally the owner of most of Ramdev’s business empire. The book does not offer a convincing reason as to why Ramdev is unwilling to cross this particular line in the sand. The question is particularly significant since he seems to have no qualms about violating another essential condition of the sanyasi path by keeping his family comfortable and close to him – often going to great trouble in order to do so.

His selective regard for religious norms notwithstanding, Pathak-Narain’s reportage makes it clear that Ramdev has always viewed the laws of man either as distractions to be ignored or obstacles to be circumvented. The book chronicles a laundry list of allegations against his companies: charges of corruption, adulteration, tax evasion, exploitative labour practices, and misleading advertising are all part of the public record.

But the charges have always bounced off Ramdev, and the book puts it down to his expert media management skills and political connections. An illustrative example is the case of the CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat, who took on Patanjali in 2005 for allegedly violating labour laws and for using ingredients unfit for human consumption in its medicines. Ramdev sidestepped the allegations expertly by playing the swadeshi card. He painted Karat as a stooge of multinational corporations who was against traditional Indian medicine. As politicians across party lines lined up on Ramdev’s side, Karat found herself cornered despite her party being a crucial member of the ruling UPA coalition.  By Ramdev’s own admission, the controversy only served to strengthen his brand.

Today, as Patanajali soars and Ramdev’s infectious brand of swadeshi ad absurdum infiltrates and colonises the minds of more and more Indians, there is a very real danger of his misdeeds being obscured and eventually forgotten. Godman to Tycoon’s narrative is not without its gaps, and most of the facts reported in it are already in the public domain. But it is an important book because it presents a comprehensive portrait of a reprehensible man, thereby acting as an impediment to his rehabilitation.

Considering Ramdev’s mastery of media manipulation, it is unlikely to turn public opinion against him enough to dent the sales of his toothpaste or ghee. Books – even those as accessible as this one – rarely have such far-reaching impact these days. But, if the justice system allows its publication, it could become the a key bulwark against the might of Ramdev’s spin.

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About the author

Visvak

Visvak is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Follow him on Twitter @visvak.