HARIDWAR, India (Reuters) - From the Himalayan foothills he runs a $40 million-a-year health empire, owns a Scottish island and claims to cure cancer. Now, India’s star yoga guru plans to enter politics to help the poor and punish the corrupt.
Swami Ramdev is out to “cleanse” the world’s largest democracy of 1.2 billion people of greed and foreign influences, drawing on the support of a television audience of millions and his claim to have a follower in every Indian household.
It is too early to say whether Ramdev will prove a serious political force or a passing fad. But he could appeal to millions of Hindus whose traditional bent grates against a rapidly globalizing economy, and be a man other politicians may woo.
Dressed in his trademark orange robe, wooden sandals and lounging in a chair, Ramdev told Reuters that his party will contest all 543 seats in the next election due by 2014.
If his TV audience is anything to go by, he will have a head start. At least 30 million watch Ramdev’s daily yoga teachings treating anything from diabetes to high blood pressure.
A Ramdev-led government will overhaul India’s political, legal and education systems which he says are hangovers from colonial rule, and set up fast-track courts to pass sentences for capital crimes including corruption.
“People who are corrupt should face capital punishment. This is how it will stop, otherwise it won’t stop,” Ramdev said at his sprawling ashram in the northern town of Haridwar, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites on the banks of the Ganges river.
“The policies which were formed by the British were not to run the country ... they were formulated to loot the country.”
Ramdev wants to withdraw the rupee and issue a new currency, with the aim of taking the old money out of criminals’ pockets. Foreign corporations will be boycotted.
Yoga will spread far and wide, especially to schools and hospitals if Ramdev wins power. He also has little time for shopping, TV soaps or cricket — another British import — though he insists these are his personal preferences.
His ashram can host 6,000 people and is the nerve center for three trusts worth $40 million in turnover last year, including a Scottish island now renamed “Peace Island.”
But Ramdev, who does not disclose his age, has drawn sharp criticism in the past over issues such as his claims to cure cancer and his belief that homosexuality is a mental disease.
In an interview punctuated by Ramdev’s frequent laughter and the occasional burp, he says he wants to “befriend” gay people who could come to him for treatment. He also says he was misquoted in another row over claims he has an AIDS cure.
“People like to create controversies for me,” he said.
Posters of Swami Ramdev are dotted around Haridwar, which has been celebrating the religious festival “Kumbh Mela” since January. Some 50 million people are expected to attend.
It is five in the morning on a Thursday and Swami Ramdev is already two hours into his 20-hour working day, fueled by a diet of milk, green vegetables and seasonal fruit.
In a tent guarded by a dozen security men, more than 500 people sit cross-legged in front of Ramdev ready to watch and copy his moves.
There is applause when he performs postures like a headstand or making his belly dance inside his ribcage, a trademark.
The morning’s teaching is also laced with political messages, especially on the recent killing of 76 police by Maoist rebels.
“Corrupt politicians are responsible for the Maoist problems,” said Ramdev, who rose from a illiterate farming family to rank 29th in a recent list of India’s most powerful people.
“Politicians should go and die if they cannot provide security,” he added. “If any politician got a bullet anywhere near them, they’d pee in their pants.”
Ramdev’s views on corruption may gain traction in a country where, according to Social Watch India, a quarter of lawmakers had criminal charges pending against them last year.
Ramdev says he will speed India’s economic rise by retrieving billions of dollars he believes are stashed away in foreign tax havens, which echoes a key manifesto item by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the last election.
However, his critics say some of his treatment claims on cancer and swine flu are misleading and worry what will happen if Ramdev’s influence translated to a role in government.
“If he has influence in the political process, it will be very dangerous,” said Sanal Edamaruku, of the Indian Rationalist Association. “If he is in the political decision-making process, it can do enormous damage to the country’s progress.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton