Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev forms party for elections

The New Age leader promises to 'cleanse' the system in 2014 but detractors - and his new rivals - say he will have little effect on voters.

NEW DELHI // The yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who is credited with taking the traditional Indian meditative practice to new heights, has announced he will form a political party to "cleanse" Indian politics.

Last week Mr Ramdev, whose real name is Ramkishan Yadav, said his Bharat Swabhiman Andolan (BSA), or India Self-Respect Movement party, would contest all parliamentary seats across the country in the 2014 general election and aims to eradicate political corruption. "In the next general elections our party will field candidates in all of the 543 parliamentary constituencies across the country, but I shall never run for election myself and I shall never accept any political post in my party," Mr Ramdev said during a press conference just outside Delhi. "I am joining politics only to cleanse the political system.

"We have already launched our Bharat Swabhiman campaign and its registration as a political party will take place soon." Mr Ramdev, 57, criticised Mayawati, the chief minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, for "turning politics into a personal business". She had said earlier he did not pose any political threat to her and that people would not "fall in the trap of such Babas", using a colloquial word for spiritual guru.

Mr Ramdev, who is based in the holy city of Haridwar, about 200km north of Delhi, continued: "Within one or two years our party will have 700,000 to one million members to work at a grass-roots level in every district of the country and by the time of the next general election Bharat Swabhiman will be a strong, deciding national political force. "Illiteracy and poverty are ruining the country. Many people go to bed with empty stomachs. More than 40 million people do not get food, nor do they have proper employment. Politics and bureaucracy are steeped in corruption. There are so many challenges before us."

Prakash Javdekar, the spokesman for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), said Mr Ramdev should stick to yoga, for which he has made India famous internationally. Mr Ramdev's yoga-promoting campaigns and efforts to rid people of their dependence on expensive modern medicines have tens of millions of followers in India and around the world. His two-hour yoga television programme has been the most watched show in India since 2003, drawing an average of 40 million viewers a day, most seeking remedies for various illnesses.

Mr Ramdev is a master of pranayama - the practice of deeply inhaling and exhaling in different postures. He says his breathing exercises are beneficial in the prevention and treatment of an array of diseases, and claims they have the potential to cure cancer and Aids. Each month his week-long yoga camps held across the country attract 100,000 people and another 75,000 devotees visit his 1,700-room yoga centre in the city of Haridwar, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to catch a glimpse of the New Age guru or seek his blessings. Last week's India Today magazine ranked Mr Ramdev 29 on its annual list of the country's 50 most powerful people. Apart from yoga, he sells traditional herbal medicine, and the magazine estimates that his empire is worth at least US$23 million (Dh84.4m).

The manifesto of BSA, which vows to make India the world's biggest superpower, states: "We will make the entire country 100 per cent yoga-orientated and make the citizens inward-focused by making them healthy and arouse the feeling of self-pride in each one by removing the cheating, corruption, hopelessness, disbelief and self-languor arising out of self-confusion, and awaken India's sleeping self-respect by building national character."

On his yoga television programmes, Mr Ramdev regularly talks about political issues, urging viewers to boycott non-Indian companies and proclaiming that his movement's sole mission is to eradicate corruption, crime and poverty in the country. He also advocates the death penalty for terrorists and those who slaughter cows. He approves the 50-per-cent quota for women in parliament and provincial assemblies.

In response to last year's ban on yoga by Islamic clerics in Malaysia, Mr Ramdev told Muslims that they can do the exercises chanting "Allah" instead of "Om". He demonstrated health benefits of breathing techniques and yoga postures at a gathering of 500,000 Muslims in November at the prestigious Islamic seminary of Darul Uloom Deoband in north India. "I have placed my manifesto before all the country's citizens. All of you who agree with our ideology will become supporters of Bharat Swabhiman, turning their back against the parties they are supporting now," said Mr Ramdev, whose followers are campaigning for him to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But many analysts believe Mr Ramdev and his party will not make much of a difference. "That Ramdev is launching a political party is not news at all," said Ujjwal Kumar Singh, a politics professor at Delhi University. "Ramdev might have been successful in the world of yoga or religious discourses, but mastering the skill of politics is an entirely different exercise." Rumki Basu, a political scientist at Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, added: "At best his party can win a few seats at provincial level, but it's impossible for it to achieve success at national level."

Still, Mr Ramdev's popularity is undoubted. Nasim Ali, a Muslim taxi driver who suffers from diabetes and follows Mr Ramdev's breathing exercises in the hope it could cure his condition, said: "Most of such Hindu gurus in India are communal and are closer to the BJP. But Baba is truly secular and so he has lots of non-Hindu followers. Since he is an honest man and wants to fight all evils in the society with sincerity, it will be very good for the country if his party becomes successful."