At first sight, Baba Ramdev looks like the world’s oddest tycoon — and with his infectious, lopsided grin and bright saffron robes, surely the most harmless. But India’s favorite yoga teacher has expanded his presence beyond the country’s multitude of religious channels, which are full of his sermons, and even its news channels, where he’s a strong supporter of the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now he’s moving into India’s grocery stores with his
Patanjali brand of “traditional” cosmetics and processed foods. The company — which is owned and run by his closest followers, not the supposedly ascetic Ramdev himself — grew 150 percent last year. Ramdev has said he intends it to grow as fast for the next five years.Patanjali products have developed an audience by purporting to be organic and quality-conscious. With them, and by helping to popularize yoga in its country of origin, Ramdev may have kept more than a few members of the notoriously overweight Indian middle class from toppling over. But the way Patanjali has chosen to market its products is disturbingly xenophobic. And their popularity may force other retailers to follow suit. Ramdev himself is, sadly, the most regressive shade of social conservative. Indian lawmakers have accused him of selling medicines that claim to encourage the birth of male children. He advertises “cures” for homosexuality in his ashram and has a running feud with Bollywood’s actresses, whom he has condemned as “characterless.” He fought against the decriminalization of homosexuality all the way to India’s Supreme Court and eventually won. (He also believes that only racism stops him from winning a Nobel Prize.) With Patanjali, Ramdev and his followers have promoted a stridently nationalist line. They would claim that when you buy a Patanjali toothpaste, you aren’t just preventing cavities but also buying freedom from the West. Newspaper advertisements underscore the argument: “Though we got political freedom 70 years back, economic freedom is still a dream. … The way [the] East India Company enslaved and looted us, multinational companies are still doing the same [sic].” Some of these ads have featured a map of India overlaid with a cross to symbolize the rapacious British East India Company, which for some reason upset Indian Christian organizations. Patanjali’s messaging thus effortlessly links nationalism, Hinduism and the virtue and quality of the company’s goods — and Ramdev’s multitude of TV programs gives him plenty of scope to spread the message.