Yoga guru's political foray has India in a roil

June 3, 2011 - 10:44 PM
India Corruption Protest

Renowned yoga guru Baba Ramdev addresses supporters, a day ahead of his proposed fast against corruption, in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 3, 2011. Ramdev said that he will go ahead with his plan of fasting from June 4, 2011 to protest against corruption and what he says is the Indian government's inaction in bringing back black money stashed abroad. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI (AP) — For years, the wildly energetic man with the cascade of black hair has contorted his body through a series of complex yoga poses, drawing millions of people across India to gather in front of their televisions to follow his every move.

His promise: health and happiness.

Now the charismatic and controversial yoga guru Baba Ramdev is spinning that popularity to fuel a political movement that he says will root out India's endemic corruption.

Ramdev started an indefinite hunger strike in the Indian capital Saturday that his critics say undermines the country's democratic institutions, but that he says will last until the government agrees "one hundred percent" to his long list of demands.

Tens of thousands of his followers also went on hunger strikes across India and in several cities in the United States, Europe and Africa, Ramdev told his cheering supporters in New Delhi.

"You can drink water," he advised them.

Ramdev chanted Hindu religious hymns and performed yoga exercises before starting his hunger strike.

He vowed to battle the pervasive culture of corruption in a country where everything from getting a driver's license to setting up a business involves paying bribes.

"There is a powerful anger in the people of this country. They want urgent action," he said.

Ramdev also said political parties could present him letters of support, but that he would not allow any politician to address his followers.

So enormous is his popularity that four federal ministers showed up at the airport when his chartered plane landed in New Delhi on Wednesday. The government, already reeling from a spate of very public corruption scandals, has fervently tried to persuade him to call off the public fast.

In a country bursting with religious gurus and spiritual healers, Ramdev — part Dr. Phil, part televangelist — has transfixed India with an ostensibly simple message of finding fulfillment through the ancient Indian practice of yoga.

The holy man, wearing a sarong with a saffron cloth thrown across his bare torso, burst onto the national imagination in the early 2000s, expounding the health virtues of yoga.

Thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of people were drawn to his message of physical fitness. But as his followers grew, so did his message.

He began to speak of ending dependence on expensive Western medicine, and the wonders of vegetarian diets. He claimed that by using yoga he could cure everything from cancer to homosexuality, which he called an addiction.

Ramdev quickly became a television phenomenon. His daily television appearance — where he chants sacred Hindu verses before launching into yoga poses — reportedly draws tens of millions of viewers, making him one of the most-watched people on television in this nation of 1.2 billion.

His ashram, the Patanjali Yogpeeth, a sprawling complex in the northern Indian pilgrimage town of Haridwar on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, includes a yoga center, a hospital that works on the principles of Ayurveda, a centuries-old traditional Indian school of medicine. It also manufactures and sells herbal medicines. The ashram runs dozens of yoga centers and shops selling herbal products in the United States and Britain.

Followers plaster his photograph on their cars, pay thousands of rupees (hundreds of dollars) for front-row seats at his appearances and are known to light incense sticks in front of their TVs during his shows.

And in keeping with his rockstar-like status, he evens owns an island.

In 2009, two Scottish devotees of Indian origin gave him Little Cumbrae, a rocky island off the west coast of Scotland.

That was the year Ramdev began expanding his focus from the health of the body to include the body politic.

In a country deeply frustrated with official corruption and government mismanagement, he promises "hope, sanity, order," says sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan.

India was ranked 87 out of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

Ramdev — the term "baba" is a title meaning father or wise man — was born in a northern Indian farming village. His official biography doesn't mention his age, and news reports say he's anywhere from 36 to 45 years old.

He arrived in New Delhi after nine months spent traveling across India to garner support for his anti-corruption movement. He wants the death penalty for corrupt officials and demands that the government recover billions of dollars of so-called black money from overseas tax havens.

A 19-acre (76,200-square-meter) tent has been erected at a fairground in the heart of the Indian capital, where hundreds of teachers from his ashram will expound on yoga's benefits. Ramdev says along with giving up food he will also take a vow of silence.

For his followers, the guru is someone who can almost magically make both physical and social problems go away.

"He has healed the minds and bodies of hundreds of thousands of people and now he takes on the challenge of changing this country," said Shambhu Prasad Ganeriwala, a retired office worker who spent 36 hours on a train traveling to New Delhi from the southern city of Chennai.

Critics says the guru, whose real name is Ramkishan Yadav, is an opportunist trying to cash in on his popularity to subvert elected politicians. Many also question how he has amassed a fortune in donations — a fortune thought to total many millions of dollars — with little accounting of where it came from or whether proper taxes had been paid.

The country's main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has thrown its weight behind Ramdev's hunger strike, leading some to charge he is a front for the party.

Ramdev denies all allegations of financial wrongdoing. He insists his political movement is simply a way to channel India's simmering rage, and that he has no political affiliations.

Religious and spiritual leaders have always been a part of India's political landscape, advising leaders on everything from auspicious dates to launch election campaigns to the correct precious stones to wear for good luck. But before Ramdev, none had ever positioned themselves at the forefront of a political movement.

Sociologist Vishvanathan says Ramdev views himself as a modern-day prophet, allowing him to make extreme demands — like the death penalty for corruption — that are eagerly embraced by his followers.

"He's saying if I have God behind me, why do I need the Parliament?" Vishvanathan said.