Organised by the Central government to promote food-related industries, the World Food India 2017 trade fair in Delhi last week made news for a giant vat of khichdi. Pictures of Union Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal and yoga guru-turned-consumer goods magnate Ramdev struggling with an oversized spatula went around with humorous social media commentary about why the guru hadn’t covered his beard.
But Ramdev’s presence at the fair raises the even hairier question of conflict of interest. Ramdev is, after all, associated with a large corporation with interests in food processing. What message does the government send out by giving him a platform at a taxpayer-funded event centered on food processing?
If anything, this incident is further evidence of the Bharatiya Janata Party government patronising Ramdev and his corporation, Patanjali. In turn, Ramdev uses his celebrity status as yoga guru and religious leader to support the party politically.
Sharing the stage
Legally, Ramdev is only the brand ambassador for Patanjali Ayurved, a major fast moving consumer goods company that sells everything from Ayurvedic medicine to cosmetics. In practice, however, Ramdev acts as Patanjali’s chairperson. A day before Ramdev cooked khichdi along with Badal, Patanjali signed a memorandum of understanding worth Rs 10,000 crore with the Union Ministry of Food Processing. What the agreement entails was not made public.
Scroll.in asked the ministry why Ramdev had been invited to the fair and sought details of its agreement with his corporation, but did not receive a reply. The co-organiser of the fair, the Confederation of Indian Industry, also did not reply to questions about Ramdev’s role, nor did the event management company that oversaw the programme. Calls to SK Tijariwala, spokesperson for Patanjali, went unanswered.
This was not the first time a BJP government has provided a platform to Ramdev and his business. A few months after winning the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi met the yoga guru to, in the latter’s words, discuss “issues of national importance”. In May this year, the prime minister inaugurated a research centre for Patanjali.
Taking its cue from Modi’s endorsement of Ramdev, the BJP government in Haryana named the yoga guru the state’s brand ambassador and, in an unprecedented move, granted him the status of a cabinet minister (Ramdev turned down the latter privilege). Ramdev will also oversee yoga classes in the state’s public schools.
In 2017, Ramdev conducted the Union government’s Yoga Day programme in Ahmedabad, where Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani as well as several top bureaucrats and police officials contorted themselves as per his instructions. A few days previously, Ramdev had conducted a yoga session inside Lucknow’s Raj Bhawan with the governor and chief minister joining him on stage. In 2016, he was invited to be the chief guest at the Madhya Pradesh government’s global investors’ summit.
Ramdev’s close relationship with the BJP is not limited to sharing podiums with its leaders. Since Modi’s election, several BJP state governments have gone out of their way to support Patanjali. Even the Indian Army has introduced Patanjali products to its subsidised canteens, although this caused some embarrassment when the Patanjali juice was found to be substandard and hurriedly withdrawn.
In 2016, Patanjali acquired land for a food park in Maharashtra. Curiously, though, it was the only serious bidder, something The Indian Express credited to the “peculiar conditions” of the deal. Moreover, the Opposition has alleged that the land had been undervalued. Bought at Rs 25 lakh, the Congress claimed it was actually worth Rs 1.16 crore. More curiously, the cheque issued by Patanjali for the purchase has bounced twice. In Assam, Patanjali was even allocated land for free to establish a bovine research station.
According to an investigation by Reuters, the BJP’s land largesse has helped Patanjali significantly. In BJP states, the news agency estimated, Patanjali has got Rs 297 crore in discounts while buying land. This amounts to a discount of 77% on market prices. From the financial year ending 2014 to the financial year ending 2017, Patanjali’s revenues have gone up nearly nine times.
Allegations of a conflict of interest are strengthened by Ramdev’s ties with Modi. Ramdev publicly endorsed Modi’s candidacy for prime minister – a significant endorsement, given his fame as a popular yoga televangelist – and Patanjali volunteers hit the ground to canvas for the BJP. Before the election, prominent BJP leaders publicly promised to follow Patanjali’s lead in policymaking in areas such as cow protection and swadeshi, the political doctrine abjuring the use of foreign-made goods.
Since the election, Ramdev has consistently supported the government on matters such as Hindutva and militant nationalism. He has, for example, spoken out in favour of last year’s surgical strikes in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as well as demonetisation.
All this should raise serious questions about conflict of interest. Yet, Ramdev’s popularity as a yoga guru, and the resultant influence on voters, means rather than hide his association with the government, the BJP is keen to flaunt it, making sure the televangelist is publicly associated with government events.