POWER YOGI

HOW BABA RAMDEV DIS­COV­ERED COM­MERCE AND TURNED SPIR­I­TU­AL­ITY ON ITS HEAD TO EMERGE AS A PO­LIT­I­CAL, ECO­NOMIC AND CUL­TURAL SUPERBRAND

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The sun is about to set be­hind the forests on the out­skirts of Harid­war. The down­pour of the pre­vi­ous night has made it a rel­a­tively pleas­ant sum­mer evening. The si­lence in one of In­dia’s most guarded ashrams—CRPF per­son­nel frisk you ev­ery time you en­ter the premises—is punc­tu­ated by the sound of a foun­tain in the mid­dle of the man­i­cured lawn, and of a swing in the ve­ran­dah of an M-shaped cot­tage. In the saf­fron hues of dusk, a saf­fron-clad yogi is sit­ting on the swing. His eyes are closed, as if med­i­tat­ing to find the an­swer to the sim­plest, most ob­vi­ous, and some­how the trick­i­est ques­tion posed to him: why is a self­pro­claimed re­nun­ci­ate sell­ing sham­poo, tooth­paste, de­ter­gent and anti-age­ing cream?

When he opens his eyes, the lop­sided smile and the mis­chievous glint in the eyes are gone. “When I went to the Hi­malayas in my youth, I saw many sad­hus who had given up the ma­te­ri­al­is­tic life. But what were they do­ing? Noth­ing for the wel­fare of mankind. That can­not be the pur­pose of life. In In­dia, it’s be­lieved that sad­hus can’t do any­thing; they are sup­posed to live on do­na­tions. It hurt me. The real goal of a sadhu is not to at­tain mok­sha for him­self but to serve the masses. My busi­ness is not for profit but to spread well­ness,” says Baba Ramdev, 48, In­dia’s most cel­e­brated yoga guru, who is rid­ing high on a heady, hith­erto un­tasted cock­tail of yoga, sat­sang, ayurveda, busi­ness and pol­i­tics.

Ramdev stands out from all other gu­rus on the In­dian so­cial spec­trum not just be­cause of the size of his bur­geon­ing FMCG em­pire—worth Rs 5,000 crore at last count—but also be­cause he wears his po­lit­i­cal in­cli­na­tions on his sleeve. He pur­port­edly has a di­rect line to Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, and is close to sev­eral members of the Cab­i­net and a num­ber of chief min­is­ters across the land. He was one of the key fig­ures of the Lok­pal move­ment in 2011, was re­ceived at the air­port by then finance min­is­ter Pranab Mukher­jee as the UPA gov­ern­ment tried to bro­ker a deal with its leader Anna Hazare, and cut a com­i­cal fig­ure when he was taken into cus­tody at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi while

try­ing to es­cape dressed in a sal­war kameez. He is an ad­vo­cate of re­plac­ing the tax sys­tem with a sin­gle trans­ac­tion tax. He kick­started the black money drive that be­came one of the key cam­paign prom­ises of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tions. And he now stands as a ma­jor sup­port booster for the Modi-led NDA gov­ern­ment. When he isn’t slam­ming those who re­turned gov­ern­ment awards in protest of al­leged in­tol­er­ance, he is threat­en­ing to chop off the head of any­one who re­fuses to chant ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. From drug abuse in Pun­jab to the spir­i­tual health of the relationsh­ip be­tween a hus­band and wife, and from the pur­ported hor­rors of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (which he can help “cure”) to the im­por­tance of buy­ing desi, the guru’s dis­courses en­com­pass a vast uni­verse.

With his cor­po­rate em­pire grow­ing over 100 per cent last year, he isn’t the first busi­ness­man to cul­ti­vate po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships to grow fur­ther. Nor is he the first spir­i­tual guru with a po­lit­i­cal net­work. What makes him unique is that he is the first one to seam­lessly blend all three—spir­i­tu­al­ism, busi­ness and pol­i­tics. His po­lit­i­cal spec­trum grows be­cause of the au­thor­ity he com­mands in the realm of spir­i­tu­al­ism and yoga, which in turn forms the spring­board for his busi­ness em­pire. Ramdev is to­day In­dia’s most tele­vised guru, with an FMCG prod­uct line that di­rectly con­nects with the masses—ca­pa­ble, at the same time, of in­flu­enc­ing hearts, minds, votes and skin tones.

PACK­AGE GURU

Ramdev’s def­i­ni­tion of “well­ness” may be de­bat­able, but his sales pitch of pack­ag­ing yoga and Ayurveda as an in­stant, 30-minute rem­edy to all lifestyle ail­ments has al­lowed him to emerge as the flag­bearer of In­dian spir­i­tu­al­ism—both ethe­real and ma­te­rial. “There have been yoga gu­rus be­fore me but I sim­pli­fied the prac­tice to a few steps for an av­er­age per­son hard­pressed for time,” he says.

That’s not all he’s done. With nearly 1 mil­lion ac­tive fol­low­ers and thou­sands watch­ing Ramdev on Aastha chan­nel ev­ery day, his foray into the FMCG sec­tor through Patan­jali Ayurved Ltd, in­cor­po­rated in 2009, has caused an upheaval among es­tab­lished play­ers like Hin­dus­tan Unilever Ltd (HUL),

Nes­tle and Dabur. The last time a new en­trant caused a flut­ter in the mar­ket was ITC’s en­try into the consumer seg­ment in the late 1990s. Ramdev’s re­tail arse­nal, with nearly 350 prod­ucts, in­clud­ing sham­poo, tooth­paste, ghee, de­ter­gent, bis­cuits, ce­re­als and medicines, seeks to re­write the norms in the FMCG mar­ket by giv­ing a meta­phys­i­cal twist to the swadeshi doc­trine.

From a turnover of Rs 450 crore in 2012, Patan­jali Ayurved hit Rs 5,000 crore in March 2016, an eleven-fold growth in less than four years. In the past year, sales have more than dou­bled while its big­gest com­peti­tor HUL’s sales have risen by just four per cent. ITC’s FMCG seg­ment, other than cig­a­rettes, grew at 7.7 per cent be­tween 2014 and 2015. An In­dia In­fo­line Finance Ltd (IIFL) In­sti­tu­tional Eq­ui­ties re­port says that Patan­jali has al­ready gar­nered over five per cent mar­ket share, and es­ti­mates that this will in­crease to 13 per cent by 2020.

Ramdev has now set a 10-year sales tar­get of Rs 1 lakh crore—one-third the ex­ist­ing size of In­dia’s en­tire pack­aged consumer prod­ucts mar­ket, es­ti­mated at about Rs 3.2 lakh crore a year, ac­cord­ing to a Septem­ber 2015 re­port by FICCI and ad­vi­sory firm KPMG. HUL, a cen­tury-old com­pany, posted a net sales of Rs 32,482 crore this March. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by In­dia In­fo­line, Patan­jali’s rise will hit at least 13 listed com­pa­nies and IIFL es­ti­mates that by FY20 11 per cent of turnover will come at the ex­pense of HUL alone.

The im­pact is vis­i­ble on the fi­nan­cial re­ports of ri­val com­pa­nies. Tooth­paste maker Col­gate, which has around 57 per cent mar­ket share, saw a dip in its sales growth from dou­ble digit con­sis­tently be­tween 2005 and 2015 to 3.7 per cent in the first nine months of FY16, as Patan­jali’s Dant Kanti made in­roads. Such is his per­ceived in­flu­ence that when Nes­tle’s Maggi noo­dles was banned on the ba­sis of al­le­ga­tions that it con­tained ex­ces­sive quan­ti­ties of lead and monosodium glu­ta­mate, the spec­u­la­tion that this was done to ease the en­try of Patan­jali’s atta noo­dles into the mar­ket soon be­came an ur­ban leg­end.

“He has changed the rules of the game, forc­ing even MNCs to fol­low him. The Col­gate ad now talks about neem and salt in tooth­paste,” says S. Gu­ru­murthy of the Swadeshi Ja­gran Manch which, nat­u­rally, sees Ramdev as the hero it was al­ways wait­ing for.

Ramdev mar­kets his prod­ucts as an as­sault on for­eign MNCs which, he says, are here to “loot In­dian cus­tomers”. He ap­peals to In­dian pride when he says: “I will make the MNCs do shir­shasana (head­stand)”. To sup­port his loot-of-the-na­tion ar­gu­ments, his prod­ucts are priced much lower than those of his com­peti­tors. “We

don’t have high-flying ex­ec­u­tives who spend 90 per cent of their time in con­fer­ence calls and mak­ing pre­sen­ta­tions. Our pur­chase de­part­ment has men of in­tegrity. We have so far kept our distri­bu­tion net­work re­stricted to our flag­ship stores. And we don’t spend as much on ad­ver­tis­ing be­cause I’m a free brand am­bas­sador,” says Ramdev, ex­plain­ing the four reasons why his prod­ucts cost less. Ac­cord­ing to Acharya Balkrishna, Ramdev’s clos­est aide and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Patan­jali Ayurved, the com­pany op­er­ates at an 8-10 per cent profit mar­gin and prof­its are rein­vested in in­no­va­tion and ca­pac­ity ex­pan­sion to bring prices down even fur­ther. Patan­jali Ayurved is a cor­po­rate en­tity while his other ini­tia­tives, such as hos­pi­tals, yoga cen­tres and schools, are man­aged by the char­i­ta­ble Patan­jali Yog­peeth Trust, which is run by Ramdev and Balkrishna.

“Ab tak Col­gate ka toh gate khul gaya, Nes­tle ka toh panchhi urne wala hai, Pan­tene ka toh pant gila hone wala hai; aur do saal mein, Unilever ka lever kharab ho jayega,” he thun­dered at a press con­fer­ence on April 27. But, as he later told IN­DIA TO­DAY: “Those lines are said in jest. My goal isn't to harm any­one. I want to draw my line longer, not to shorten any­one’s. But this challenge should alert them not to cheat cus­tomers and over­price their prod­ucts.”

BRAND AM­BAS­SADOR

Things have started to change dra­mat­i­cally at the Patan­jali em­pire of late. Its prod­ucts were so far be­ing sold at nearly 10,000 consumer touch points— “chik­it­salayas” (dis­pen­saries) and “ar­o­gya kendras” (health cen­tres), op­er­ated by third-party vendors as ex­clu­sive Patan­jali stores. It has now signed up agree­ments for distri­bu­tion with Apollo Phar­macy, Fu­ture Group and Reliance Re­tail. The com­pany, which in the past re­lied on word-of­mouth pub­lic­ity and its own distri­bu­tion chan­nels, has also made a big push to­wards tra­di­tional ad­ver­tise­ment and distri­bu­tion routes. Patan­jali, which

“Ramdev has changed the rules of the game, forc­ing even MNCs to fol­low him. The Col­gate ad now talks about neem and salt,” says S. Gu­ru­murthy

started ad­ver­tis­ing in Novem­ber 2015, topped the weekly list of to­tal ad in­ser­tions in nine of the 12 weeks be­tween Jan­uary and March, ac­cord­ing to tele­vi­sion view­er­ship mea­sure­ment agency Broad­cast Au­di­ence Re­search Coun­cil (BARC) In­dia. Its weekly ad in­ser­tions on TV jumped 102 per cent from 11,897 in the first week of Jan­uary to 24,050 times in the week ended March 25. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, Ramdev ap­peared 234,934 times across TV chan­nels, which means he was on air ev­ery 30 sec­onds on one chan­nel or an­other.

In­dus­try sources es­ti­mate that the group spent nearly Rs 400 crore in ad­ver­tis­ing, but Ramdev says the fig­ure is less than Rs 60 crore. “We do hard bar­gain­ing,” chimes in Balkrishna, who has been as­so­ci­ated with Ramdev since 1987. If Ramdev has been the face of Patan­jali, Balkrishna has been the metic­u­lous plan­ner and anchor. Born Balkrishna Suvedi, to Su­mi­tra Devi and Jay Val­labh—Nepali cit­i­zens who later shifted to In­dia—he was Ramdev’s ju­nior at the Khan­pur gu­rukul in Haryana. Balkrishna, who holds 94 per cent shares in Patan­jali Ayurved, is also man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of over a dozen other com­pa­nies. He’s also vice-chan­cel­lor of Patan­jali Univer­sity and heads var­i­ous other trusts and in­sti­tutes. To­gether with Ramdev, he mon­i­tors the in­no­va­tion and evo­lu­tion of ev­ery prod­uct and even ap­proves the fi­nal de­sign pack­ag­ing. Emi­nent de­signer Itu Chaud­huri re­cently com­mented that Patan­jali’s “dis­mal” pack­ag­ing ac­tu­ally helped it. “It casts Patan­jali in a ‘ru­ral’ per­sona, too art­less to ac­cess de­sign. This chain of mean­ings links to pu­rity and an un­touched-by-progress qual­ity that ac­counts for the ‘true’ flavour of its ghee and the ef­fi­cacy of its tooth­paste,” he wrote.

The third pil­lar in this FMCG suc­cess story is Ram Bharat, Ramdev’s reclu­sive younger brother who avoids be­ing pho­tographed and re­fuses in­ter­view re­quests. The 38-year-old looks af­ter the day-to-day man­age­ment of two units of Patan­jali Yog Peeth in Harid­war. Started in 2006 and spread over 1,000 acres, it now houses the Patan­jali Ayurved fac­tory and re­search cen­tre, a ghee-pro­duc­ing unit, a univer­sity, a school, two gu­rukuls, a gaushala, a Bharat Mata Na­man Sthal mon­u­ment, and a food park with a test­ing lab­o­ra­tory. Nearly 15,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing top man­agers, are em­ployed there. “Con­trary to the con­spir­acy the­ory, we bought the en­tire land from in­di­vid­u­als at mar­ket price. The Ut­tarak­hand gov­ern­ment did not give us any land,” says Ramdev. “You can check the records.”

Inside the yog­peeth, 350 re­search schol­ars, in­clud­ing about a hun­dred with PhD de­grees, work in var­i­ous fields, from her­bal medicine, yoga and an­cient manuscript­s to nat­u­ral cos­met­ics, food, home care and natur­opa­thy. They draw monthly salaries be­tween Rs 30,000 and Rs 3.5 lakh.

Though there are five other fac­to­ries in Harid­war, three in MP and three in Ra­jasthan, the food park is the nerve cen­tre of Ramdev’s busi­ness em­pire where a core team of re­searchers and man­agers plan the next prod­uct in­no­va­tion. R.S. Shukla, 52, a deputy gen­eral man­ager in the pro­duc­tion unit, pulls out a bot­tle of the yet-to-be launched, Power Vite, a com­peti­tor to Bourn­vita and Hor­licks, and reels off the names of seven herbs in the prod­uct that he claims will strengthen im­mu­nity and stim­u­late the brain. Armed with a master’s de­gree in chem­istry, he looks af­ter the ex­trac­tion di­vi­sion of the group.

RISE AND RISE

Ramdev was born in 1968 in Saidalipur vil­lage in Haryana to farmer Ram Ni­was Ya­dav and his wife Gu­labo Devi. They named him Ram Kishen. As a young boy, Ram Kishen was hit by a par­a­lytic at­tack that af­fected the left side of his face. In 1977, he bor­rowed a book from a lo­cal sadhu and started prac­tis­ing yoga which, he says, al­most cured him but for the squint in his left eye. The story goes that in­spired by yoga he left for the Hi­malayas in search of mok­sha and spent three years near Gan­gotri. “Till I went to the Hi­malayas, I was only think­ing about my­self. There, I re­alised my pur­pose. To strive for one’s own mok­sha is not enough, the goal should be greater good.”

He re­turned to Harid­war as Ramdev in 1993 and started teach­ing yoga to two stu­dents on the banks of the Ganga. One of them in­tro­duced him to a Gu­jarati mer­chant, Jivraj Bhai Pa­tel, who took him to Su­rat, where Ramdev held his first yoga camp for about 200 peo­ple. He later started run­ning sim­i­lar camps in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. The fol­low­ing year, Ram Ni­vas Garg, one of his yoga camp or­gan­is­ers in Delhi, gave Ramdev Rs 50,000 to make ayurvedic medicines for malaria and kala azar (leish­ma­ni­a­sis), that par­tic­u­larly af­fects parts of As­sam. “That was the first time we made medicines and took them to Di­bru­garh and Udal­guri in As­sam,” says Ramdev. Balkrishna re­counts how in Udal­guri the duo faced re­si­tance from Christian mis­sion­ar­ies who sus­pected their mo­tives. “But Bodo mil­i­tants ac­tive in that region un­der­stood

that we were only serv­ing the poor and the sick and had no re­li­gious agenda. A group of mil­i­tants fi­nally met us, and they ap­pre­ci­ated our work,” says Balkrishna. Two decades later, Ramdev has now been al­lot­ted 750 acres in Chi­rang, one of the four dis­tricts un­der the Bodoland Ter­ri­to­rial Area Dis­tricts to start a school and gaushala, where a pro­gramme to cross-breed cows and the in­dige­nous mithun bulls is planned.

In 1995, with Rs 3.5 lakh do­nated by Jivraj Pa­tel and Rs 1.5 lakh from other “well-wish­ers”, Ramdev and Balkrishna started Divya Phar­macy, an ayurvedic hos­pi­tal and re­search cen­tre in Kankhal, Harid­war. The turn­ing point, says Ramdev, came in 2001 when he started ap­pear­ing in a 20-minute yoga pro­gramme on San­skar chan­nel in the 6.45 am slot— bare-chested, twist­ing and con­tort­ing his body. It was a show that got him im­me­di­ate na­tional at­ten­tion, and peo­ple across the coun­try started to recog­nise him. Three years later, he shifted to the more pop­u­lar Aastha chan­nel, which broad­cast his yoga ses­sions live. To­day, Aastha is al­most wholly owned by Ramdev's aides while Patan­jali holds a ma­jor­ity stake in San­skar.

In 2002, Ramdev opened four hos­pi­tals in Delhi, Su­rat, Ahmedabad and Patna. Three years later, he faced the first big con­tro­versy of his ca­reer when CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat ac­cused him of us­ing hu­man and an­i­mal bones in some of the Ayurveda medicines pro­duced by Divya Phar­macy. The con­tro­versy died a nat­u­ral death af­ter two dif­fer­ent labs gave con­flict­ing re­ports.

MR BHARAT

One of the big mo­ments in Ramdev's life came when he was in the eighth standard. He chanced upon the book, Sat­yartha Prakash, by Dayanand Saraswati and, as he puts it, en­coun­tered the con­cept of ‘swadeshi pride’ for the first time—a theme that has de­fined much of his so­ciopo­lit­i­cal jour­ney. “Dayanand Saraswati op­posed the Macau­lay ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy foisted upon In­dia by the Bri­tish. That’s why I quit the gov­ern­ment school, though I was a class topper,” says Ramdev, who en­rolled in a gu­rukul in Khan­pur un­der Acharya Pradyumna to study Panini’s gram­mar, the Upan­ishads, Ayurveda and the Vedas.

Swadeshi pride is at the core of Ramdev’s ed­u­ca­tion phi­los­o­phy, but not at the cost of learn­ing English. “I’m try­ing to speak bet­ter English my­self be­cause it’s im­por­tant on the global plat­form,” he says, in­ter­rupt­ing a phone con­ver­sa­tion in San­skrit with Balkrishna. He claims to be fluent in sev­eral In­dian lan­guages, in­clud­ing Gu­jarati, Marathi and Bangla.

It’s with great pride that he show­cases the class­rooms of the Acharyaku­lam, a CBSE-af­fil­i­ated school

M ZHAZO

THE RIGHT PO­TION (CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP) INSIDE VIEW OF COS­METIC DI­VI­SION, PATAN­JALI AYURVED, HARID­WAR; RAMDEV AND BALKRISHNA (LEFT) WITH TOP PATAN­JALI EX­EC­U­TIVES; A PATAN­JALI STORE IN DELHI

RAMDEV WITH TOP AIDE BALKRISHNA

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