It is impossible to read, write, talk—or review a book—about Baba Ramdev and his burgeoning influence on Indians without discussing the Prime Minister and his party’s rise to dominance. Historically, the two phenomena have been coterminous despite the very different origins of the two leaders. When the two lives converged in 2014 (just before the BJP and Narendra Modi swept to power) and decided to together promote yoga, swadeshi and Hindu nationalism, each played a part in the other’s success in a more synchronised way than is generally known.
There’s no dispute that Ramdev is a yoga phenomenon. His complicated postures, his fitness, agility and energy, even at this age, have impressed and inspired many. But journalist Kaushik Deka’s book, mysteriously subtitled From Moksha to Market, totally misses the core of the phenomenon, and is just a sloppy mishmash of the extensive reportage (including his own) on Ramdev. To say the 181-page book manages to barely touch the tip of the giant iceberg called Ramdev would be undermining the cliché itself.
After a quick recap of Ramdev’s emergence as a TV yoga guru, the book focuses on how he, together with first mate Balkrishna, captained the rise of Patanjali Ayurved as an FMCG player (it’s actually an organisation, not a listed company), a development that has sent industry leaders scurrying back to their drawing board to launch products leveraging traditional Indian medicine aka ayurveda to compete with Patanjali’s products. Yet, the book says only three products—ghee, toothpaste and shampoo—formed the mainstay of Patanjali’s Rs 5,000-crore revenues in 2015-16 (this has since gone up to Rs10,651 crore in 2016-17). What’s more, food products contributed 37% of this revenue, with the lion’s share coming from Patanjali ghee, ghee being an expensive product and Patanjali ghee being costlier than a few well-known brands.
A complete analysis is difficult, as we only have figures given out by the organisation. Still, in trying to pitch Patanjali as the largest threat to FMCG firms, the book doesn’t go beyond established facts and reports, and fails to draw some simple, logical inferences or ask some rather obvious questions—such as ITC and Hindustan Unilever revenues were Rs42,074.59 crore and Rs 32,416 crore, respectively, in 2016-17, which makes Patanjali a distant third despite its humongous product kitty of 500-odd. Secondly, as per an FE report, the stocks of the top 10 FMCG majors have risen as much as and over 50% over the past six months, belying the threat that’s claimed to be perceived by the market. There’s been a perceptible impact on only one product, toothpaste, where Patanjali’s Dantkanti has eaten away at market leader Colgate’s share.
Third, Ramdev doesn’t play fair. He describes his competitors’ products as based on harmful chemicals compared to his own. Yet, both state governments and the Nepal government have found his products to have made false claims and also failed quality tests. Also, he has been pulled up often by the Advertising Standards Council of India for unsubstantiated claims.
Fourth, Ramdev also unfairly plays the swadeshi card to the hilt—which corporates can’t publicly do—using his yoga sessions and camps to sell his products, and spread the erroneous message that all swadeshi is good and healthy. This argument is a bit stretched, considering that all toothpastes are basically detergents and Dantkanti is not at all chemical-free. To really adopt swadeshi, ideally one should go back to neem twigs!
Finally, the argument to end all arguments: Ramdev has the government of the country and most of its leaders solidly backing him. In 2014, the Centre converted the sleepy department of traditional Indian medicine into the fancily-named ministry of Ayush to popularise yoga and ayurveda. In 2015, the ministry of finance defined yoga as a “charitable purpose”, reducing the associated tax burden. Patanjali products are sold at central government groceries and served in defence and Parliament canteens. Private retailers, such as the Big Bazaar stores of the Biyani group, have signed deals with him now. Despite the current government’s business-friendly face, most corporates can’t even dream of currying such overt camaraderie.
That is because the ruling party fully endorses Ramdev’s populist vision for India, a heady punch of Hindu nationalistic supremacy that includes cow protection, revival of ancient glory and a suspicion of foreign culture and products that are still out of reach for most of the poor. Note, this is the same party that claims to rocket-launch India to the 90th rank on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index—we are 130th among 150 countries. The party is probably trying to tell us how they are going to do it with the Ramdev example—by allotting (or gifting) humongous parcels of land.
A recent Reuters analysis says “since Modi came to power, Ramdev’s company has received more than an estimated $46 million in discounts for land acquisitions in states controlled by the BJP”. Just Rs 300 crore in discounts for more than 2,000 acres of land acquired since May 2014 for building factories, research facilities and establishing supply chains of herbs for its products. That’s the money the states went without for Ramdev, ostensibly on the ground of job creation, money that would have created more jobs and skills anyway if invested in development projects. Worse, in the hands of Ramdev and his ilk, it’s probably creating Hindu nationalist vigilantes.
Deka does talk about this, in a single chapter (out of 27) called Land Controversies. However, he restricts himself to recent ones, such as in Nepal and Uttarakhand, and mostly cancelled deals. The book overwhelmingly focuses on Ramdev as a business leader, whereas his contribution has been really in disrupting the FMCG market and triggering a wave for natural ingredients in these goods. The good thing: the average consumer has benefitted from the price wars, as happens with any new entrant.
Ramdev has always been a journalist’s pet topic. The book clearly suffers from that burden, when the writers get so carried away by the subject that they miss out on the objective of the story. Also, the lure, as well as the pressure of producing a quickie, is too visible. Grammar is practically absent and typos abound—even figures have gone missing in sentences. Perhaps the book should have been written in Hindi.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist