If you’re a fan of the US television series The Office, you’d remember a scene about the protagonist Michael Scott’s lonely childhood whose dream was to get married and have 100 kids, so he could have 100 friends, and “no one can say ‘no’ to being my friend”.
A similar thread runs through the new book Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev by journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain. Now a canny businessman, Ramdev was once an impoverished, sickly child who was very much isolated, and, if you can believe it, so obese that he had to be carried about. Pathak-Narain won the CNN Young Journalist Award for her coverage of the Sethusamudram channel project in 2007 and covered the ‘business of religion’ beat for Mint a solid six years (2007-2013). She imagines what the world must’ve seemed like to the young boy currently known as Baba Ramdev. “He probably felt very helpless, a sense of people laughing at him, which must’ve certainly made him feel like everyone thought that he wouldn’t amount to much. In some ways, he must’ve thought ‘I’ll show them’.”
The slim book not only traces Baba Ramdev’s journey from selling chawanprash on a bicycle and teaching yoga to people to his rise as a multi-hyphenate (he’s a yoga guru, media mogul, business tycoon and a sadhu), but also the strange dissonances in his extraordinary swadeshi management skills — skills that have led to a company estimated that generates revenues worth Rs 10,000 crore, according to the book.
The more you read this book, the more it becomes clear that Ramdev’s said management skills are similar to his products — he slaps a swadeshi label on mundane objects and routine capitalist practices — because a little bit of sweet nationalism makes it easier to swallow the FMCG product.
Here are six commandments from the Ramdev start-up manual.
Thou shalt become the face of the nation and the brand
Baba Ramdev, who founded Patanjali Ayurved in 2006, at one time didn’t believe in advertising his business, even though he owned the country’s two largest religious television networks, Sanskar and Aastha. But in November 2015, he changed his mind and spent hugely on traditional advertising, and in nine of the following 12 weeks, Patanjali topped BARC’s weekly list of total ad insertions, says Pathak-Narain. But nothing beats having your face on shop billboards, especially if your generous flowing mane and saffron dhoti uniform make you stand out. This billboard advertising was part of the three-layered distribution format followed by the company — the others being their chikitshalays and ‘freelancers’ (more on freelancers below).
Called swadeshi kendras, the freelance retailers were pre-existing stores that would lease a part of their space for Patanjali products in return for Ramdev’s image on a billboard. Pathak-Narain says, “They went to the mom-and-pop shops across the country where they said ‘retail our stuff here and in exchange for it you can put Baba Ramdev’s hoarding on top’. Baba Ramdev’s picture is a huge draw so even a store that’s not part of the Patanjali distribution network, would put his picture up and get a lot of footfalls. It was a very innovative approach to business which is Baba Ramdev’s trademark — a very canny way of doing business, find a way to make it work for everyone.”
Thou shalt chant ‘Swadeshi is my birthright and yours too’
How can you couch garden variety rapacious capitalism in crusading terms? At a 2016 press conference Ramdev said, “Colgate ka gate bhi band hoga, Pantene ka to pant gila hone wala hai, Unilever ka lever bhi baithega aur Nestle ki chidiya bhi udegi (The gate of Colgate will shut, Pantene will wet its pants, the lever of Unilever will break down, and the little Nestlé bird will fly away).” After that brief lesson in smack talk, if you are seriously in pursuit of the BBA degree (Baba Business Administration), introduce swadeshi jeans to help build your brand, move on to shudh desi cow ghee (which actually may or may not be from a cow), soap from cow dung and floor cleaners from cow urine. Ramdev has cleverly crafted a “rhetoric to yoke his commerce to a lofty and noble ideal”, writes Pathak-Narain. What is if it can’t be monetised?
Thou shalt run your company like a gurukul
Pathak-Narain says the key difference in Patanjali from conventional FMCGs is that Ramdev takes all the decisions in the company; he’s the guru. “He’s closely involved with the making of every single product — he will look at the packaging, he will smell it, eat it and he will have an opinion on whether it meets the bar or not,” she says.
But the reason Patanjali is a ‘true’ gurukul is because the minute Ramdev enters the office, everyone falls at his feet, and during a meeting, people are expected to sit on the floor under him. “His subordinates viewed him as a ‘guru-bhai’ rather than as their boss,” she writes. Moreover, what his employees were doing wasn’t work or labour, but ‘seva’, and renaming work as ‘seva’ was apparently an “organisation-wide phenomenon at Patanjali,” according to SK Patra, the company’s former CEO, who as an IIT-trained engineer managed to put the nuts and bolts into place, before quitting in 2014, after an unpleasant face-off with Ramdev over the money that he was owed. Another symptom of the gurukul model? Workers are hesitant to ask for raises as the seva culture is constructed to make them feel selfish for asking.
The writer says, Baba Ramdev embodies the idea of a godman, “but also [the idea] of a freedom fighter and a nationalistic figure as well. People who come to him and touch his feet are doing it for one of two reasons: One is either religious or because they think he’s the true patriotic emblem of our age.” This tight control over his image continues to cast a virtuous glow over him and his FMCG business.
Thou shalt remember that any publicity is good publicity
Pathak-Narain first encountered Baba Ramdev when he along with some others launched the Ganga Raksha Andolan in Kanpur in 2008. “That’s where I first kind of met him and got to know him better and hung out. The reason I got roped in was because my sources in the VHP and RSS were like “aap ko aana chahiye” and I got to know him better and I realised that he was willing to shed his role as merely a yoga guru and take on something bigger. It was a very palpable sentiment you could pick up on,” she says.
Like many successful Indian businessmen, Ramdev has always associated closely with the political establishment. His friends and associates range from then Uttarakhand Chief Minister ND Tiwari to Amit Shah and Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav all the way to the proto-AAP. Taking part in the famous 2011 anti-corruption movement along with Anna Hazare or launching his own party Bharat Swabhiman in 2010, Ramdev has carefully sowed the seeds of his legacy. He also gained a political mentor in Rajeev Dixit around 2007-08 of the Azadi Bachao Andolan (an organisation that describes itself as a movement ‘to counter the onslaught of foreign multinationals and the western culture on Indians, their values, and on the Indian economy’), “who helped shape his social economic message,” as Pathak-Narain puts it. “I could see that ambition starting to take some kind of shape and I met him a few times in Haridwar around the time when he was ready to announce his political party.”
Thou shalt get your hands busy but never let them look dirty
No, I’m not talking when Patanjali’s ‘healthy, desi’ noodles contained worms, when a customer from Haryana cooked them. Or when CPM politburo member Brinda Karat alleged that there was no mention of his products containing traces of human and animal bones in his medicines (even after AYUSH confirmed the findings in its lab tests, Ramdev’s clout in the then ruling Congress party is said to have helped him escape consequences).
Some of most disturbing details of the book are around the death of Ramdev’s mentor Rajeev Dixit in 2010. Even though Ramdev claims that Dixit died of cardiac arrest, Dixit’s fellow swadeshi activists demanded a postmortem as they felt there had been foul play. These activists believed that both Acharya and Balakrishna and Ramdev’s brother Ram Bhat were resentful of Dixit and his growth as Ramdev’s trusted political mentor. Ramdev refused to entertain it and grew “angrier by the minute”, writes Pathak-Narain when Dixit’s aide Madan Dubey kept pushing for the postmortem. So Ramdev instead stormed into the funeral hall and asked his men to move up the cremation by two hours before any activist could lay claim to the body. And mysteriously, when Dixit’s laptop and cellphones were wiped clean, while his room in Haridwar was ransacked, according to the book.
None of these allegations seem to stick to the Baba or his business. Including the latest report that some Patanjali products such as the amla juice failed quality tests.
Thou shalt not confuse sanyaas with poverty or abstinence.
Even if you have no deep interest in the business of religion, the book will fascinate you with alittle nuggets about Ramdev and his various dealings. Did you know he owns a Scottish island called Little Cumbrae that was gifted to him by his friends the Poddars, an NRI-couple from Scotland, who also hold 12.46 lakh shares each in the company? Or that Patanjali Ayurved melts tonnes of white butter, sprinkles some herbs and names it desi cow ghee? Or that his company, according to Pathak-Narain, has inspired other sadhu-based, merchandise such as Sri Sri Ravishankar’s “Divine Shop” that produces honey, coconut oil, green gram and cosmetic and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha store that sells Ayurvedic and siddha medicines, and ‘snanam’ powder that promises to control body odour?
But despite all that Baba Ramdev claims he sleeps on the floor — “I am a fakir… all the profits are going to charity. I don’t own anything in my name… don’t trust the multinationals or stooges of other corporations who defame me.”
Co-published with Firstpost.