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