C&B Notes

Baba’s Empire

Patanjali is the fastest-growing consumer products business in India, which probably has the most attractive long-term demographics in the world.  It is informally led by Baba Ramdev, a yogi who pledged poverty but still enjoys the financial spoils of this business empire.  He is a fascinating stew of influences that include capitalism, spirituality, ambition, idealism, traditionalism — and branding.

But today he can be found in the most material of places.  Turn on an Indian TV, and there’s Ramdev, a supple yoga megastar in saffron robes, demonstrating poses on one of the two stations he oversees.  Flip the channel, and there’s Ramdev in commercials selling shampoo and dish soap.  Walk any city on the subcontinent, and there’s his face in stores selling the wares of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd., the multibillion-dollar corporation he controls.

Ramdev has said his goal is to sell an ayurvedic item, based on India’s ancient medical traditions, for every household need: toothpaste made from cloves, neem, and turmeric; hand soap made from almonds, saffron, and tea tree oil; floor cleaner made from the “natural disinfectant” cow urine.  Since 2012, Patanjali’s revenue has climbed twentyfold, from $69 million to $1.6 billion.  It’s the fastest-growing company in Indian consumer goods, and Ramdev predicts he will overtake the subsidiaries of multinational giants such as Nestlé SA and Unilever NV as soon as next year.  “The ‘gate’ in Colgate will shut,” he once gloated.  “Pantene will wet its pants, the lever of Unilever will break down, and the little Nestlé bird will fly away.”

It might seem like an impossible arrangement — observing an oath of poverty while also being one of India’s top entrepreneurs.  But Ramdev is a master of contortion.  Patanjali is an omnipresent brand in India, and though everyone refers to it as Ramdev’s company, he’s not technically its owner or chief executive officer.  It would be scandalous for a sanyasi to profit from a corporation, and Ramdev neither owns shares nor takes a salary.  He says his net worth is zero.  The company calls him merely its “brand ambassador,” a title that belies his power.

Despite his success, Ramdev’s life has gone strangely unexamined.  No one even knows the year he was born.  (He’s probably in his early 50s.)  “He’s so visible, and yet so little understood,” said Priyanka Pathak-Narain, a Mumbai journalist whom Juggernaut hired in 2016 to write his biography.  She sees him as “a perfect lens through which you can examine India today,” sitting as he does at “the nexus of business, religion, and politics.”  Patanjali’s ayurvedic brand has soared in the climate of Hindu nationalism that lifted India’s ruling party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to victory in 2014.  Ads for the cow-urine floor cleaner, for example, urge consumers to “save the country from the economic exploitation of foreign companies” and “join the movement to save the cow, our holy mother.”

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