The excerpts of Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev published so far might make one believe it is a great journalistic exposé on Ramdev. So would the fact that the man who calls himself Baba Ramdev and not multimillionaire Ramdev has now got an ex-parte court injunction to prevent sales of the book.

If only Ramdev had taken some time off from selling his questionable cow ghee and other products as spiritual salvation, he would have realised that the author of the book is actually in awe of him as a businessman and hardly perturbed by any of the allegations or proven illegalities and immoral acts that she finds on his records. The book is actually a celebration of the “animal spirit” that resides within the businessman who prefers to call himself a “Yogashri” – symptomatic of much of business journalism on corporate India today. Within this frame, though, it is a job well done.

But what the book lacks is a moral compass. Consequently, it avoids pausing to ask questions and investigate developments that are instead treated as anecdotal allegations in passing.

Ignoring the allegations for the “inspiration”

As the author Priyanka Pathak-Narain proclaims in an interview, the book is written as “a genuine rags to riches story”. She says this repeatedly in the book as well, on several occasions and in various manners. For example, consider this summation towards the end of the book:

“Yet for all the dubious choices he has made since his rise to fame and fortune, no one can take away or belittle the legacy of this farmer’s son. Ramdev took yoga and Ayurveda out of the restrictive realm of religion and made it an accessible practice of preventive health care for millions of Indians. He reminded them that the pursuit of spirituality has little meaning if the body is unhealthy...Most important, he drew attention to India’s own health care heritage – Ayurveda. Leaving aside how it was all executed, Ramdev’s charisma reminded people that not every ailment needs a modern doctor. There are other options that are less intrusive. Ramdev has undoubtedly played a vital role in making Ayurveda and yoga relevant and accessible to millions of Indians.”

At the beginning of the book she listens as Ramdev tells her:

“Whatever I have got from the country, it is for the country. The wealth of Patanjali is not for any one person – it is for the country. It is all for charity.”

This makes the author conclude:

“It is difficult not to admire the sentiment. Or the devotion with which he set off to bring yoga and Ayurveda to millions of Indians.”

I am a bit confused. Here is an author who has woven together all the accusations, proven illegalities and gossip that Ramdev has rolled over to become a “yogi” who set up a Rs 10,500-crore business empire virtually overnight. Yet, she believes that Ramdev will (almost implying that he should) inspire many up and coming entrepreneurs:

“Whatever the future may bring for Patanjali, young people without degrees and money will draw inspiration from its dazzling ascent. In pursuit of that goal of offering healthy living options to the market, his astute business instinct has also spawned India’s fastest-growing company. The sheer speed of growth of his company and the breathtaking ambition of it as he chases another impossible-sounding target of doubling revenues to Rs 20,000 crore in 2017-18 will always inspire entrepreneurs.”

And what are these allegations and (some uncorroborated) accusations that one reads about in the book?

That Ramdev is a fraud.

That some people around him die mysteriously once they fall out with him, while others claim to live in mortal fear.

That when angry he can beat a person black and blue and leave them bloodied.

That his products are at times really nothing like he claims – the manufacturing is quite often outsourced to various factories and the products are packaged the way he wants to sell them.

That there are enough allegations against him as a businessman of having broken laws with impunity all through his career.

That starting from the question of his birth to his business operations, much is covered in the haze of obfuscation and mythology that he actively perpetuates.

That as an individual he has no compunction in breaking the moral codes of a “yogi”, a label which he uses as a protective cloak against greater scrutiny to further his business aspirations.

Empire of influence

These are not “dubious” choices that Ramdev has allegedly made. Many of these are allegations of gross criminality, which, if proven, would send an ordinary man behind bars for the rest of his life. One can be assured from reading the book that Ramdev is no ordinary man, but not in the way the author would have us imagine.

However, she skims over these allegations with the speed with which Ramdev can adopt yoga poses. In focusing on how he has built his business empire so quickly that it has shaken existing consumer goods companies, she makes some very useful mentions of Ramdev’s party-neutral political linkages and how these have created the ecosystem for him to flourish.

If one were to drill deeper into any of the allegations of how Ramdev has gained from these linkages. one would come up with a gold mine of journalism. Take this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Rahul Bhatia and Tom Lasseter for Reuters that looked into the land gifts Ramdev has received from politicians across the country. This single story, in my view, reveals more about Ramdev’s operations than all of the book under review does.

It must be said that Ramdev is not the first to allegedly use such “dubious” routes and still end up inspiring a “rags to riches story”. India’s history of corporate malfeasance and unregulated growth in breach of laws is strewn with such instances. Nor is Ramdev the first corporate czar to propagate the mythology of an entrepreneur with animal spirits, making their millions while being zealously driven by their inner desire to improve the lives of millions of poor people. Crony capitalism is built on such mythologies.

Ramdev is also not the first self-professed “yogi” or spiritual person to be deeply engaged in politics and business. While stories of legendary characters of this kind from the past are relatively well-known, India’s beneficial tax regime for charitable and religious trusts has spawned many more such “entrepreneurs” on smaller scales who are less written about.

Ramdev is perhaps a pioneer only in that he has muscled his way into the much more visible fast-moving consumer goods segment and used mass media in a manner that was not even an option before the 2000s. The author rightly gives Ramdev ample credit for that pioneering effort.

One can argue that India’s political economy continues to be of a nature that makes this the only way for a new business entrant to rise – break or skirt laws ruthlessly to become rich, powerful and connected quickly enough to ensure that no one bothers you about violating those rules. Next step: grow even more influence and get the regulations bent to favour you – all in the name of uplifting the masses from poverty, or of bringing Ayurveda and yoga to the masses. And, eventually, enter the hall of Indian entrepreneurial fame.

The book is the outcome of some fantastic legwork by the author. In a well-paced, smooth narrative, she has pulled together existing information cogently and brought out other details from Ramdev’s business and personal history that were not known before. But the tone is aimed at making the reader heady about, and even, at times, share in, Ramdev’s success.

The lesson that the book doesn’t offer – we learn it from the events after the publication – is that India has these mythologised entrepreneurs who thrive on the impunity that political patronage provides. These entrepreneurs cannot afford a single breach of the mythology, because they know that can lead to their cloak of impunity being lifted as well. And we know as well as they do that once they fall by the wayside, we shall all get busy scouring for the next “genuine rags to riches” story.

Godman to Tycoon: The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev, Priyanka Pathak-Narain, Juggernaut.