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“Mere paas vote bhi hain, aur note bhi’ : My first meeting with Ramdev after he announced to form a political party.

Posted on: December 6, 2011

The sprawling 45-acre campus near Roorkee has a different hum these days. On the face of it, it looks just the same — the 10,000-odd daily visitors who go to the scenic ashram continue to line up for Baba Ramdev’s yogic and ayurvedic solutions to their many problems. But there’s a quiet buzz on the campus. Meetings are being held and strategies planned. And it’s not just the state of the body that the yoga guru is worried about. What’s keeping Ramdev busy is the state of the nation.

The next general election is four years away. But preparations are already afoot at Patanjali Yogpeeth, as the ashram is called, for the race to Parliament. Ramdev, who recently announced that he would float a political party, has been holding closed-door meetings with rich donors from Britain, the United States and Canada on the strategy of his yet-to-be-named outfit. In daily sessions with his devotees — ranging from doctors and lawyers to teachers and homemakers —Ramdev has been urging them to take up honest politics. And ashram insiders hold that billions of rupees are being donated by his followers to set his political ball rolling.

“The stage is all set,” says Ramdev. “Mere pass vote bhi hain, aur note bhi (I have both votes and notes). Each one of my followers has been donating sums ranging from Rs 11 to Rs 1,100 for this political party. Some are even contributing more. What else do you need to enter politics,” says the confident 57-year-old Hindu ascetic seated on a sofa with his legs folded under him.

Some years ago, Ramdev — who grew up in Haryana as Ramkishan Yadav — was just one of the thousands of saffron-robed preachers in India. A popular television programme — in which he advocates the benefits of yoga with practical demonstrations — changed all that. Overnight, the Baba — who said he had remedies for everything from obesity and falling hair to cancer and Alzheimer’s — had become a household name in India.

Ramdev, who runs a multi-crore industry that produces medicines made with natural ingredients, is now looking beyond his empire. And he is convinced that his party will turn the country around. Ramdev says he will field candidates for all 543 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 election, though he himself will not be in the fray. True saints don’t crave power and money, he stresses.

The idea, clearly, has been gestating within him for long. “Anyone who has followed me for the past 15 years knows that I always intended to cleanse the existing corrupt political system,” he says.

He has his numbers all worked out. The swami’s 300 lakh disciples worldwide, he says, will be his support base. He expects the participation of some 10 lakh people who have registered themselves as members of the trusts he runs. And two lakh devotees have already been trained to take an active part in the political campaigning.

Not everybody is convinced that the arithmetic will add up. Politicians are downright sceptical of his campaign. “He can daydream about his success but he should not mistake his huge fan following for yoga as his vote base,” says Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Prakash Javdekar.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee member Nilotpal Basu is more cynical. “I wonder why someone like Ramdev who claims to be a saint has plans to join politics,” he says. Basu fears that he may “use” religious sentiments to garner votes. “We have seen in the past that these godmen take an interest in politics for all the wrong reasons. Nothing can convince me that Ramdev will be an exception.”

Ramdev is not greatly bothered about the criticism that his announcement has evoked. Earlier this month, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad — a former follower— derided Ramdev’s political ambitions, saying that he had gone “berserk”. Ramdev, who taught Prasad yoga to help him cure his high blood pressure and blood sugar problems, says the remarks don’t trouble him. “I don’t need a character certificate from him, nor do I need any advice on whether to join politics or not,” he says.

It will be a while before his manifesto is written, but some subjects are clearly very close to Ramdev’s heart. Let the liberals baulk at the death sentence — Ramdev has no qualms about executing wrong-doers. “For both corruption and crime, there will be just one punishment — death,” he pronounces. “Lawyers and judges who are members of my political party are also convinced that the age old Indian Penal Code needs to be replaced by more strict laws for eradicating all evils from this country,” says the self-proclaimed follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel.

His other priority is to turn India into a wealthy nation. He wants to bring Indian black money stashed away in Swiss accounts back to India. “We will recall all currency in circulation and issue a new one — all unaccounted for money should be brought back to the country.”

While his political campaign is expected to evolve over the coming months, Ramdev has already started talking like a seasoned politician.

The one getting the brunt of his attack now is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “He is the representative of a particular person and not of the people at large,” he says. His prime minister, he claims, will be different. “My candidate would be someone who is honest, hard working and above all, brave.” Ramdev has some harsh words for the Congress too. “If the Congress takes the credit for whatever little development that we see in the country today, it should also take responsibility for the increasing poverty, illiteracy and poor health conditions that reflect the lives of 80 per cent of the people,” he says.

The Congress in turn is equally scathing about Ramdev’s political advent. “He should know that politics is a far more serious and difficult game than practising yoga,” says Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari.

The swami, it seems, will have no dearth of money for his campaigns. Apart from his devotees’ donations, his own empire has not been doing too badly. His three charitable trusts — Divya Yog Mandir, Patanjali Yogpeeth and Bharat Swabhimaan — which provide medicinal and ayurvedic health care through services and products have an annual turnover of Rs 170 crore. Ramdev has also acquired a 750-acre island off Scotland and 99 acres of land in Houston in the United States. The first, he says, is a gift from a Scottish couple of Indian origin, and the second has been presented to him by his American trustees.

His supporters believe that it’s not money, but Ramdev’s ideas that will usher in a new political climate. But Tiwari would like to voice a word of caution. “He should know that politics offers both bouquets and brickbats. When he gets the latter, he should not take refuge in the name of a saint,” he says.

But right now it’s bouquet time for Ramdev. He has four years to go before he starts feeling the thorns.

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