Monday, March 14, 2016

For Brand Modi, Endorsing ..... Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard/ March 13, 2016

For Brand Modi, Endorsing New Age Gurus Tiny Price to Win Over Classes and Masses Alike

There’s no business like the godmen business, they say, with no fixed working hours, exotic travel, much public adulation, and no need for a shave every morning. 

No wonder, saints and self-styled godpersons have been around from time immemorial, most of them symbols of sacrifice and wisdom. Some made mountains and caves their natural habitat. Others lived in palaces and forts, as advisers to the throne, with kings and queens running to them for salvation and solutions. 

Today, in the 21st century, we still have gurus and preachers of all shades and faiths, and with solid community, caste or religion support. If yesterday, they were courted by royalty, today they enjoy the patronage and protection of the kings of polity. For, they represent vote banks and mould public opinion. From Punjab to Kerala, from Gujarat to Assam, the nation is dotted with men and women who act as spiritual advisers to the ruling classes and a source of inspiration for the masses. In the process, some of them acquire the image of kingmakers or influencers of government policies.

Consider Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev, who have done some admirable work in their respective fields. Their ever-growing visibility and clout in the current political dispensation is an indication of the renewed importance of the guru in the establishment. Both have easy access to the nation’s high and mighty; both have followers across political parties. Corporates, Bollywood stars, even diplomats, stand in awe of them and touch their feet. 

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not indifferent to their lure. Indeed, the duo provides him easy access to two extreme ends of the Indian social milieu and a huge audience that the Prime Minister loves to engage with. Last week, when Modi chose to attend, and address, the World Cultural Festival (WCF) on the banks of the Yamuna in New Delhi, it reinforced the relevance, effectiveness, acceptability and credibility of India’s saintly symbolism. By spending over three hours at the venue, Modi left no one in doubt that his faith in Sri Sri and his Art of Living (AoL) foundation was unshakable. Not only did Modi and his ministers dismiss with contempt all criticism of the event, they ensured that the entire might of the state was mobilised to make WCF a grand success. Modi, in fact, called WCF a Kumbh of all cultures. Harking back to history, the Prime Minister addressed Sri Sri as Parampujniya Guruji (most revered) and said, “This is the Kumbh Mela of culture. Through Art of Living, the world has got to know about India. I remember a reception by the Art of Living family in Mongolia. We are all linked not only by economy but also by culture.” 

Much like the maharajas of yore, Modi clearly understands the utility of the new-age gurus. Known for his attention to detail, the Prime Minister knows that both the AoL chief and Ramdev represent the pulse of two major social groups. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar connects him with an upmarket, global following. Indeed, among Sri Sri’s disciples and admirers are the chatterati and upper middle class of all parts of India as well as leaders from the Western world and Muslim-dominated West Asia. He also has a huge following in South India. Above all, his organisation possesses huge skills and expertise in mobilising large numbers of people in many parts of the world. Given that Modi has been targeting the Indian diaspora and people of influence during his foreign visits, he finds in AoL a natural ally.  Ever since Modi took over as Prime Minister in 2014 (when Sri Sri was one of the few spiritual leaders to come out in his support), AoL has been connecting him with many international leaders. Though Ravi Shankar’s posturing on Indo-Pak relations may be at variance with that of the Prime Minister and Sangh Parivar, Modi has allowed the AoL guru to pursue people-to-people contact with Pakistan. AoL also has powerful connections in Jammu and Kashmir, where it is considered to be the most secular link with the ruling party at the Centre. 

If Ravi Shankar is useful to the Prime Minister owing to his connection with the world and liberal India, Baba Ramdev delivers to Modi the rural and urban poor and middle class. The Baba, who belongs to a backward class and has made ‘Everything Desi’ his mantra for success, is one of the rare spiritual leaders with hardly any formal education and training. The 50-year-old guru started his Patanjali Institute to bring yoga to the common man and, within a period of two decades, has acquired over 25 million followers across the country. His yoga camps are attended by over 10,000 people daily. While Sri Sri promotes breathing as an instrument of wellness, Ramdev emphasises on physical exercises. In the past few years, Modi has been a frequent visitor to Ramdev’s ashram in Haridwar and has always invited the Baba for any important official function held in connection with spirituality. 

There may be a connection of conviction between Ramdev and Sri Sri and the Prime Minister, but critics believe the relationship is based on an understanding of mutual advantage. Modi detractors have already charged the NDA government with doling out huge financial and other concessions to both the gurus. For the New Delhi event, they point out, the Union government not only gave a massive grant, but it also deployed the Army to create the infrastructure at the venue. Now, with AoL beginning the sale of daily use products like mineral water and toothpaste, their suspicions are even more heightened. On his part, Ramdev has never hidden his commercial interests. His swadeshi Pathanjali has taken on well-established multinationals selling FMCGs and hawks energy drinks, beauty creams and yoga DVDs. Various government agencies, including the defence ministry, are among his clients. 

Given their huge fan following and resources, both AoL and Patanjali’s dependence on the government is quite baffling and erodes their credibility. But for Brand Modi, it is a tiny price to pay for the endorsement of Sri Sri and Ramdev who mesmerise a substantive section of Indians, here and abroad.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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