Alas, Ramdev thought he could go from curing the body to curing a nation.
Dog biting man is no news, but man biting dog is – that's what generations of aspiring journalists have learned in classrooms. But today, for a TV channel, the incident of a man publicly biting a dog would not only be news but ‘breaking news'. The footage of the man biting the dog would be shown repeatedly, with perhaps a red circle pointing to the exact moment his teeth sink into the poor animal. And then there will be sound bites (pun not intended at all) from various people: a psychiatrist analysing how the man could stoop to such a level; an animal lover demanding imprisonment for the man; the veterinarian giving an update on the dog's recovery; and so on.
A few years ago, a cat stranded on the sunshade of a high-rise became the ‘breaking news' on one of the channels, and that was when I completely gave up watching news on TV. I began catching up with the day's events the old-fashioned way – reading the next morning's newspaper.
Until last Sunday, when I decided to make an exception by being a couch potato, and as a result found myself caught in the crossfire between the Central government and Ramdev. The channels – all of them – reported no news other than the midnight eviction of Ramdev from the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, where he had sat in protest to demand the return of stashed-away black money to the country.
As I watched the drama, memories went back to 2003, when I was initiated into yoga in an ashram located in the forests of Kerala. Also around that time, a channel called Aastha had started telecasting live the yoga camps conducted by Ramdev in various towns.
Since I knew my yoga by now, I took an instant liking for him: a good-natured, talkative, saffron-robed man who had taken yoga from hallowed ashrams into the drawing rooms and bedrooms of the common man. He demystified yoga and brought about a revolution in urban India.
But is that why he is so popular and powerful today? No. His real power stems from the evangelist-like statements he makes about the curative powers of yoga. The kapaalabhaati kriya alone, he says, can cure all diseases that afflict mankind. He, therefore, came as a godsend to the middle-class, middle-aged Indian – as someone who promised them quick, painless and free cures for their raised sugar levels and blocked arteries.
While the health benefits of yoga cannot be disputed, it is not known how many diabetics or heart patients were actually cured by following him on television. But faith can be blind. So the number of his followers swelled by the millions, and Ramdev went from strength to strength, holding a yoga camp even at Rashtrapati Bhawan, at the invitation of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. And then, success went to his head. He became ambitious. He thought it was time for him to cure the nation of its ailments.
But Ramdev made two mistakes at the Ramlila grounds. One, he forgot to discard his saffron robes. A saffron-robed yogi is supposed to be a renunciate who pursues spiritualism and preaches detachment – he does not take on corruption but instead seeks to rise above it. Two, he forgot that people come to the camps for purely selfish reasons – they are interested in Ramdev as long as he talks about yoga and its benefits. Corruption is something they've learned to live with; their real enemies are diabetes and hypertension.
Which is why his campaign failed: it got mass coverage, but not mass support.
Today, all that is being talked about is whether the government was right or wrong in evicting Ramdev from the Ramlila grounds. Black money remains where it is.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 11 June 2011.