Indian Court Bans Book About Flamboyant Guru-Tycoon

A New Delhi court has blocked publication of a book based on the life of Baba Ramdev, a flamboyant guru-turned-tycoon who straddles a US$1.7 billion global business empire peddling everything from consumer products to apparel to ayurvedic potions.

The reasons for the ban are unclear, raising questions about why Ramdev wants the book banned. But the injunction – on which the author and publisher were not allowed to present their version of events – has raised a furor in India’s publishing industry. Several eminent Indian personalities have slammed the censorship of the book, which traces Ramdev’s rise from nondescript yoga evangelist to corporate honcho with connections in high places, which could explain the ban. Outrageous claims that his medicines can cure cancer, HIV and even “heal” homosexuality have only fuelled his popularity. Today he is India's most visible guru, with a consumer goods line that directly connects with the masses.

The book is Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, written by an Indian journalist, Priyanka Pathak-Narain, and published by Juggernaut Books. Amazon and Flipkart, India’s biggest online marketer, have both been banned from selling it.

It is hardly a rip-and-read charade. The publisher, in a statement issued after the injunction, called it a work of serious journalism, the product of more than 50 interviews, many of them taped, with key players in Baba Ramdev’s life, including with Ramdev himself and close aides and family members. The book contains a detailed 25-page note on sources that lists the interviews, articles, police reports and RTI replies that are the basis of each chapter.

Pathak-Narain said that as a journalist she had followed Ramdev’s rise for 10 years.

"I had set off expecting to discover a rags-to-riches tale, of how a boy with no formal education became a national hero and tycoon through sheer grit, determination, hard work and conviction. I did find a portion of that story. But I also found much more," she told DNA Daily News and Analysis.

In going over the yogi’s early life – his birth record, education, early career, which are shrouded in mystery, the book also talks of murder, corruption and corporate takeovers as well as a reference to the death of one of Ramdev's close aides under suspicious circumstances.

Experts say the brouhaha over the book will only add to the saleability of Ramdev, a yogi distinguished from the pantheon of other gurus crowding India's spiritual spectrum by a burgeoning consumer goods empire that is the envy of Indian businessmen, with growing overseas tendrils. His corporate empire Patanjali Ayurved is one of the leading players in the sector with annual turnover for 2016-17 at US$1.7 billion.

The media-savvy tycoon has appeared on several public platforms with PM Narendra Modi. Top ministers and movie star, who regularly attend his yoga camps are on his speed dial.

Be that as it may, Ramdev's rise from a door to door salesman selling Chyawanprash (health tonic) on a rickety bicycle to a powerful tycoon makes for a fascinating story. The turning point for the 50-plus, bearded swami came in 2011 when he turned activist and spearheaded the Lokpal movement headed by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, which resonated across India. Ramdev‘s emphasis was on weeding out black money, a pitch that energized millions of his followers. His nationalistic speeches have also brought him close to the ruling Modi-led NDA government.

Experts say that a clever hitching of Ramdev’s businesses to lofty ideals of nationalism, yoga and ayurveda helped propel his success. He boasts openly of making India free of foreign multinational companies (akin to Modi's nationalistic pitch), a spiel that is a great crowd pleaser. At the same time, his products are giving market leaders like Colgate, Nestle, Pantene and Hindustan Lever sleepless nights, eroding their customer base and offering products that are of good quality as well as at least 30 percent cheaper.

Market analysts say that behind Ramdev's patriotic veneer ticks a razor-sharp business brain that has deftly charted the growth of one of India's most successful business houses. His personality seamlessly blends spiritualism with business acumen, politics and charisma.

“This is a deadly combination," said Anand Grover, an associate professor of sociology at Delhi University. "These traits have also helped him carve a niche in the competitive spiritualism and yoga market, which in turn forms the springboard for his business empire."

Ramdev has set ambitious targets for his business venture: greater pan-India presence through a more penetrative retail network in smaller towns, an augmented production capacity and capture of foreign markets. Patanjali products already sell like hotcakes in Mauritius. Pakistan and Afghanistan are next on the radar. Ramdev is also the owner of a Scottish island called Little Cumbrae that was gifted to him by his friends, the Poddars, an NRI-couple from Scotland, who also hold substantial shares in his company.

Sharing his vision for Patanjali, Ramdev said at a press conference, "We would grow more than double this year... By next year, Patanjali would be in the leading position, and in most product categories it would be number one".

Patanjali is currently focused on six main segments: natural medicine, natural cosmetics, natural dairy products and food, natural cattle feed and feed supplements, bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides, and natural indigenous seeds. Haridwar, the north Indian Hindu holy town on the banks of the Ganges, which houses the headquarters of Ramdev's business empire manufactures everything from shampoo and toothpaste to biscuits and noodles, and rice and wheat to honey and ghee. Never mind the latest reports that some of the products – including amla (gooseberry) juice – have failed quality tests. None of these allegations, however, seem to stick to the Baba or his business.

The man orchestrating the nitty gritty of Patanjali's daily administration is Acharya Balkrishna, Ramdev’s close confidant and managing director of Patanjali Ayurved. Patanjali’s high-powered marketing campaign is led by Ramdev himself with much of the publicity also done through the two TV channels the swami owns.

Despite a flourishing empire, Ramdev continues to live ascetically. He wakes up at 3.30 am and works for 15 hours every day. Three hours of yoga at the crack of dawn is followed by a frugal breakfast of fruit juice. Always dressed in a saffron robe with wooden sandals (think Dalai Lama), his only indulgence is his gleaming white Range Rover. He reportedly sleeps on the floor, uses none of his products, is a vegetarian and calls himself a fakir, a religious ascetic who lives on alms.

Meanwhile, the yogi is girding up for a long and hard battle in court with Juggernaut to scupper the release of his book. The question is why.