Haridwar, India— Narendra Modi leaned to whisper in the ear of the man sitting cross-legged and barefoot next to him, the one clad in saffron robes with a long beard and squinty gaze. It was late in the afternoon of March 23, 2014 in New Delhi and the start of national elections was a fortnight away.
A few minutes later, the yoga guru and entrepreneur known as Baba Ramdev turned to a microphone and urged the crowd before him to mobilize votes for Modi: “You’ll make other people understand, won’t you? You won’t sit at home, will you?” The crowd roared back, “No!”
Modi grinned. Ramdev laughed. The politician and the co-founder of a billion-dollar consumer products business were both headed to the pinnacle of a right-wing Hindu movement that seeks to shape the destiny of the world’s fastest-growing major economy. About two months after the rally, when voting had rolled across the vast country, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the long-ruling Congress Party from power.
Modi had prevailed, in part, with promises to reform the economy and root out corruption. His business-friendly language won widespread praise. But it was also his trumpeting of a Hindu nationalist message – the idea that India should be ruled as a nation by and for Hindus – that helped propel him to victory.
In ways not previously disclosed, Modi and Ramdev, each a product of the Hindu right, owe part of their success to the other. The yoga guru is one of the most instantly recognizable figures in India and his company’s traditional foods and health supplements are among the country’s fastest-growing brands. He tapped his following as a TV yoga celebrity and deployed resources from his consumer goods empire, mobilizing voters and synchronizing messaging with the BJP in a 2014 campaign that was larger and more tightly coordinated with Modi’s party than is publicly known.
In return, leading BJP figures have endorsed Ramdev’s vision for India, a populism laced with assertions of Hindu primacy that twins nostalgia for ancient glory with suspicion of foreign influence.
Since Modi came to power, Ramdev’s company has received more than an estimated $46 million in discounts for land acquisitions in states controlled by the BJP, according to a Reuters review of state government documents, interviews with officials and real estate estimates. It gained access to other land free of charge. The firm, Patanjali, has also received something of an official imprimatur from a newly created ministry and BJP leaders.
It is a partnership that reveals the inner workings of influence and money in Modi’s India, where the relatively secular world view of the Congress party he ousted is being chipped away.
Three weeks after the rally in New Delhi, a trust controlled by Ramdev released a YouTube video in which senior BJP members posed with a signed “Shapath Patra,” Hindi for “Oath.”
The document, reviewed by Reuters, laid out nine pledges. These included the protection of cows, an animal held sacred in Hinduism, and reforming much of Indian life to make it “swadeshi,” a word used by Hindu nationalists to invoke that which is truly Indian. That set of beliefs, the oath said, extended to the courts, government, cultural institutions and education. The five signatories pictured in the video included the present ministers of foreign affairs, finance, internal security and transportation. None of the ministers responded to questions about the pledge.
“These renowned BJP leaders have signed their names on these oaths because of the hope that I have generated among millions, I want people to see a change in government,” Ramdev said in the video. “We have created these nine points.”
A spokesman for one of the signatories, BJP party elder and former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, at first denied knowledge of the document and then said it was unrelated to Ramdev. “It was the party’s program and all the senior leaders had signed this document,” Advani’s personal secretary Deepak Chopra said.
A Patanjali official familiar with the document said senior members of the BJP had put their names to it as a condition of Ramdev’s support.
Ramdev’s business has boomed since the BJP took power. Revenues at his consumer goods enterprise are soaring – from about $156 million in the financial year ending March 2013 to more than $322 million in the year to March 2015, according to financial filings. In early May, Ramdev said revenues in the financial year just ended had jumped to about $1.6 billion.
The firm’s products range from toothpaste to clarified ghee butter and household cleaning materials. They are found in every corner of the country, from the scantest villages to teeming cities.
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