Till a few years ago, I was a regular consumer of Ayurvedic medicines manufactured and marketed by the empire of Baba Ramdev – Patanjali Ayurved.
Drawn to one of his shops after battling chronic lower-back pain for close to three decades, I found refuge in a communicative “vaidji” who sympathetically heard the litany of health complications.
“It will take time but theek ho jayega.”
Greatly relieved, I did not let it bother me that these products were rather expensive. I reasoned that allopathic medicines and tests often cost a lot more. Hope, it is said, often denudes rationalism.
I believed that a tiny packet containing brownish powder was worth its cost of several hundreds of rupees, as the man at the counter explained that the price was high because “gold was used” in manufacturing the medicine. It had to be mixed with other powders – cheaper than this – and then had to be taken in prescribed doses at designated hours.
Over several years, many medicines were added for other ailments, beginning with diabetes and a few other chronic ailments. Yet none of the “problems” were alleviated. In time, my back pain worsened and I chose to try out oil massage therapy of the Kottakkal school of Ayurveda.
In contrast to the Hindi-speaking vaidji at Ramdev’s shop, the doctor who I was assigned to was an English-speaking Punjabi lady – an oddity in the Malayali-dominated hospital in East Delhi.
Ramdev has gone beyond being yoga guru, and is now often referred as what he actually is – an industrialist.
The question must have been scribbled on my face because she volunteered that she had studied in an Ayurvedic college in Punjab before settling in Delhi after her marriage and taking up a job at the hospital. She read the supplementary question too and explained:
“Basically, all Ayurvedic medicines are the same. Be it ours, Dabur, Hamdard or even Baba Ramdev’s. Our medicines respond better to certain ailments like muscular pains and neurological disorders because we use oils with medicines mixed in it. Also, they are applied to affected parts by trained hands.”
I also agreed to supplement the massage with oral medicines. That is when I began reading the fine print of constituents in the medicine and discovered, to my astonishment, that some of them were the same as the Patanjali medicines.
Before I went to try the Kottakkal therapy, I had been further sucked into the Ramdev web. I started buying Patanjali’s hair oils and shampoos in the mistaken idea (not that my hair will grow again) that itching in the scalp would stop. A sucker for diabetic products, I began buying Patanjali biscuits despite rating it lesser on the taste parameter compared to those “sugar-free” products manufactured by FMCG regulars.
I remained a committed Patanjali consumer till the summer of 2011 when I began examining if CPI leader Brinda Karat had indeed raised valid questions about its products and medicines.
After all, anyone who was engaged in genuine “sewa” would not behave in the selfish manner Baba Ramdev chose to in June that year when he abandoned thousands of followers disguising himself in a woman’s attire and exposing them to grave danger.
I was particularly incensed that while the Baba scooted, a poor woman, Rajbala, took police batons on her body and eventually died of injuries. Only a professional politician abandons followers, and not someone who likens himself to gurus and swamis, I reasoned. And my disenchantment with Ramdev, opportunistic campaigner against corruption, grew.
In the past five years Ramdev has gone beyond being a yoga guru, and is now often referred as to what he actually is – an industrialist.
After all, after having become a Rs 5,000-crore company this past fiscal, he is now aiming to round off the current financial year with a turnover of more than Rs 7,000 crore, and an annual sales figure of $1 billion.
Every business activity of Patanjali is justified in the name of Ramdev’s vision of providing an alternative. (Photo: PTI)
As his business grew by leaps and bounds, my reasons to stop using Patanjali products also increased for several reasons, but most importantly, I found the idea of guru and business anachronistic.
This is not a campaign piece. Let me make it clear that I do not object to members of my family from using Ramdev products, if they wish – and many do with great faith.
Yet, because of being in the business of news and views, and since we often write about personal experiences, it is probably apt for me to do so because Ramdev is in the middle of an aggressive campaignagainst Chinese goods.
A person having diverse business interests is one matter, but if he also begins displaying active political interests and promotes his products by political and nationalistic reasons, then his sincerity is suspect in my eyes.
Once again, let me confess that I have not been buying Chinese brands for several years, though there is almost no escaping multi-national brands assembled or manufactured in China, and thereby, I am partially on the same page as Ramdev.
Where we differ is that I have no business interests, while he has. And thus his decision is suspect in my eyes.
On radio, over TV, Patanjali products are advertised ad nauseam and it is estimated that Ramdev’s face appears on one major Indian TV channel every 30 seconds, which coupled with ad spends for print and radio, involves an annual expenditure of Rs 400 crore. That too because the cost does not involve that of the “model” – the so-called yoga guru himself.
But most importantly, in radio ads, his sales pitch is that Patanjali products must be purchased to secure “aarthik azaadi for Bharat”. Similarly, in one of frequently aired ads references are made to the Swadeshi movement of 1906 and imagesof Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad are used liberally.
Essentially, this means that Ramdev is likening his products to those that were popularised in the first flush of the nascent national movement and he is presenting himself as part of the generations of India’s freedom fighters.
A businessman must remain in his territory and such tactics must be disallowed. It is for the government to decide that. If it chooses to allow Patanjali or any other company using national icons, symbols and episodes of the freedom struggle, it becomes open to charges of pandering to crony capitalism.
The ruling dispensation also attracts this charge because Ramdev has claimed that he advises Modi on political matters — “I tweeted to Modiji that he should talk about Buddha and yudhha (war) side by side.”
In his advertisements, the promoter of Patanjali also claims that profits earned from the sale of products are accrued in the account of any person. However, Balkrishna, Ramdev’s aide who spent time in jail on charges of money laundering, owns 94 per cent of the shares of Patanjali Ayurved Limited.
Watch: How India Today got Baba Ramdev’s ‘Power Yogi’ pose
Interestingly, Forbes magazine recently listed Balkrishna as one of India’s richest individuals but, for the sake of pretence, he is always clad in dhoti and half-sleeve kurta.
The BJP governments in several states have also been large-hearted in their largesse towards Ramdev’s empire by allotting land at concessional prices for pursuing his businesses, which are cleverly woven into his yoga camps.
The favour bestowed on Ramdev is obviously part of the quid pro quo arrangement that was worked out in return for Ramdev’s support to Modi during the 2014 polls and thereafter.
While the almost-iconic photograph of Ramdev on the India Todaycoverwhere his inversely vertical image has been a rage, little is known to the public about the intricate business arrangement of his four verticals — food, cosmetics, herbal and home care. To add to these, he now intends adding dairy as the fifth vertical.
Every business activity of Patanjali is justified in the name of Ramdev’s vision of providing an alternative. He is a clear leader in a sector which has witnessed the entry of others who peddle spirituality besides yielding enormous political clout, for instance, Sri Sri Ravishankar and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of Dera Sachha Sauda. But because of the economic and social class that Ramdev targets – mainly the middle-middle group – he is the clear winner in this category of businessmen.
Ramdev’s political clout makes it easy for him to evade government scrutiny. (Photo: PTI)
Though his vow is to provide alternate products, the business model that Ramdev uses is no different from what MNCs and other big companies. His products are manufactured in similar production units but without any information if laws related to their functioning and labour regulations are followed or not. (Karat was embroiled in the controversy after workers went to the CPM-controlled CITU with complaints of law laws being violated by Patanjali)
Because of the veil of doing “good business”, no information ever comes out as government officials refrain from checking if norms are being followed or not because of his political connections.
Ramdev is successful because he preys on the insecurities of potential consumers (“you will fall ill if you continue consuming products made by existing companies” or “their products are harmful while mine are not”).
After nudging consumers from their perch of safe and secure consumption, his marketing ploy emphasises on two themes – faith and purity.
Ramdev in this manner emerges as clear leader in the F&P sector as his primary product is yoga, or “ticket” to well-being, while Sri Sri and Ram Rahim’s primary outreach vehicle is spirituality as membership to a sect. All Ramdev’s followers are his clients, though not all consumers are his followers.
Riding on the unbeatable formula of spiritualism, politics and business, Ramdev has now stepped into fashion and footwear, which by no imagination can be termed as “alternatives”.
Jeans, after all, are a foreign idea and to say that there can be “Swadeshi jeans” is stretching the imagination too far. However, it gets accepted and stores put his products on their counter because they fear political pressure.
Ramdev tweets from the latest Apple iPhone, quite unmindful that they are assembled in China. This makes one wonder if in times to come Ramdev will also step into the mobile market and come up with Pat Mobiles?
Ramdev’s political clout makes it easy for him to evade government scrutiny of his products and processes, and this gives him an unfair advantage in the market. Having being gullible once, I now opt again for products made by long-standing companies, who do not have the capacity to evade routine inspections from government officials.
Many of these products, I am sure, get into the market by greasing palms. There have been several studies that have demonstrated that cold drinks, infant milk, instant noodles contain dangerous contaminants. But it is probably wiser to wade into a territory knowing that there are landmines than stepping into a field about which we know little.
Because of the size of Ramdev’s business and the wide range of products, it is time that consumers had better information about these products, rather than be guided by faith and believing blindly that they are pure.