Writers on their books

‘Tragedy follows him everywhere:’ What I discovered while writing my book about Ramdev

Priyanka Pathak-Narain talks of the question marks hanging over Ramdev’s journey from spiritual leader to business magnate.

I first saw Baba Ramdev and noticed his flair for drama on a blistering September evening in 2008. Surrounded by fawning, adoring fans, he was standing tall, rock-star like, on a floodlit boat on the Ganga in Kanpur. Ramdev – who incidentally also had deep links with the Congress – was kicking off the VHP’s Ganga Raksha Andolan with a fiery speech.

I trailed Ramdev when he retired that evening to a government guesthouse in the city. A masterful strategist and public speaker, Ramdev, guarded by private security supplied by businessman Subrata Sahara, now in the dock for a Rs 17,000 crore Ponzi scheme, was taking questions from journalists. He laughed and chortled, at himself and at us reporters. I found it impossible to keep journalistic distance from this yoga guru turned swadeshi business tycoon turned politician. I found myself fascinated, enraptured. Ramdev wanted you to like him. And you did.

Every time I met Ramdev thereafter, he was charming, earthy and self-deprecating. A gifted storyteller, Ramdev, like many good politicians, has a remarkable ability to project proximity and familiarity while remaining closely guarded and calculating. No matter how much time I spent with him, I never felt like I was able to scratch beyond the surface. So, many years later when I decided to write a book on Ramdev I knew that in order to tell his complete story, warts and all, I’d have to tell it not in his words but in the words of the people who witnessed and were part of his spectacular rise.

I began at the beginning. I spoke to members of Ramdev’s family: his mother Gulabo Devi, brother Devdutt Yadav and uncle Jagdeesh Yadav. I spoke to his friends: from his junior at the gurukul he attended in his early twenties, Acharya Abhaydev, to his lifelong deputy, Acharya Balkrishna. I interviewed long-time Haridwar residents who have known Ramdev since his early days conducting yoga camps for a few dozen people there. I met people who had worked for Ramdev at different points of time – from Vipin Pradhan, an aide of Ramdev’s between 2002 and 2005, before Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd was even established, to SK Patra, the CEO who helped lay the foundations for Patanjali’s phenomenal growth. All in all, I spoke to fifty-two people to unravel Ramdev’s story.

I fully expected to find disgruntlement and a fair share of unhappy acquaintances – after all, fame always comes with backbiters and naysayers. But when I stepped back to admire the arc of Ramdev’s life, a troubling pattern emerged: the likeable and warm Ramdev has in his wake a trail of dramatic falling-outs and tragedies.

Ramdev’s first serious falling out was with Karamveer Maharaj, his first mentor, the man who taught him how to teach yoga.

In their early days they would travel across the country together holding yoga camps, and making chawanprash in rented utensils and selling it on bicycles in Haridwar. Eventually they set up the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, of which Karamveer was founding vice-president, and under whose aegis they conducted yoga camps and established an Ayurvedic pharmacy. Karamveer had a bitter parting with Ramdev. One day in March 2005, he just left without telling anyone, never to return.

The idealistic Karamveer couldn’t brook, he says, the gradual commercialisation of a trust established for charitable purposes or the inroads that he felt Ramdev’s family were making in their establishment. He says, “Idealism is easy when you have nothing. It’s what you do when you have fame, money or power that matters. Unfortunately, I saw it changing them [Ramdev and Bakrishna].”

The spat with Karamveer seemed to be the beginning of a trend. In 2009 Ramdev fell out with Kirit Mehta, one of the founders of Aastha TV, the channel that propelled Ramdev into a league of unimaginable celebrity, after he took over the channel. And then again, in 2013, Ramdev had a sour altercation with his most pivotal CEO, SK Patra. They had differences over how the company was run – Ramdev sees working for Patanjali, Patra claims, as service, to the nation and for swadeshi. Patra, on the other hand, has a more orthodox view: he worked for compensation and recoiled against the culture of enforced reverence in the company.

But Ramdev’s life story is also dotted by a mysterious murder, an odd disappearance, and a death under curious circumstances.

Each one of these instances is on the public record. First is the murder of Swami Yogananda, an Ayurveda doctor and friend who allowed Ramdev’s Divya Yog Mandir Trust to use his licence for their Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing unit when they set it up in 1995. After eight years of operating under Yogananda’s licence, the alliance was dropped in 2003. Over a year after the Divya Pharmacy stopped using Yogananda’s licence, in December 2004, he was found dead in a pool of his own blood in his home in Haridwar. The case was closed unsolved in October 2005.

Then in July 2007 Ramdev’s 77-year old guru, Shankar Dev, who gifted Ramdev his ashram and its lands, enabling him to establish the Divya Yog Mandir Trust, disappeared. Shankar Dev, who lived austerely to the end, even after the success of his disciple’s venture, went for a morning walk and never returned. He left a cryptic, garbled note about a loan he had taken and was unable to repay. At the time of the disappearance, Ramdev was on a yoga tour in the US and UK and did not return home till the following month. When asked at a press conference why he did not cut short his trip, Ramdev said, “If I knew he was alive, I would have.”

The CBI opened an investigation into Shankar Dev’s disappearance in 2012. From the agency’s reply to an RTI filed by me, it is clear that the case is still open.

Then in 2010, Rajeev Dixit, Ramdev’s second mentor, and from whom Ramdev learnt his swadeshi messaging, died suddenly. After making a speech in Bemetara canvassing for the political party that they had founded together, Dixit collapsed in the bathroom, evidently due to a cardiac arrest. He died that night aged 43. The following day, Dixit’s colleagues noticed his face “was unrecognisable...a strange purple and blue. His skin was peeling strangely”. They demanded a post-mortem but Ramdev, eyewitnesses claim, refused to allow it citing scriptural prohibition and had Dixit’s body cremated instead.

When I started researching Ramdev’s life, I anticipated a spectacular rags-to-riches tale. Ramdev was born to a poor farmer and is now at the helm of an empire with over $3.6 billion! And, of course, I did find that story. But I found so much more. There is no evidence linking Ramdev to these deaths, and he has consistently denied any involvement in the cases. Yet tragedy just seems to follow Ramdev everywhere he goes.

Priyanka Pathak-Narain is the author of the forthcoming From Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, Juggernaut.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.