Baba Cool is hot business concept in India today

Mr Ramdev teaching yoga in Haridwar, India, on Feb 26. He is is the leader of what brand specialists call the Baba Cool Movement, where spiritual men market health products based on ayurveda.
Mr Ramdev teaching yoga in Haridwar, India, on Feb 26. He is is the leader of what brand specialists call the Baba Cool Movement, where spiritual men market health products based on ayurveda.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

HARIDWAR (India) • Sitting on an orange sofa set over a Persian carpet, in a gated office park of freshly painted tan buildings and manicured lawns, Mr Baba Ramdev is surrounded by the trappings of any major corporate leader almost anywhere in the world.

But he is also an Indian swami, having renounced all worldly pleasures and possessions, and he sits cross-legged on the couch, his face fringed by an untamed beard, his body draped in the saffron cloth of a Hindu holy man.

Famous for bringing yoga to the Indian masses, Mr Ramdev, 50, is also the leader of what has become known as the Baba Cool Movement - a group of spiritual men, known here as "babas", who are marketing health-based consumer items based on the ancient Indian medicinal system of herbal treatments, known as ayurveda.

His rapidly expanding business empire of packaged food, cosmetics and homecare products is eating into the sales of both multinational and Indian corporations.

The babas' message about the value of traditional ingredients is particularly resonant in the current environment in India, where a prime minister and his political party have built a narrative around the value of ancient Hindu practices, from yoga to reverence for cows.

Mr Ramdev is the most prominent of the brand-building babas, whose ranks include Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living, a spiritual practice, who promotes a line of creams, soaps and shampoos also called Ayurveda.

"There is truly a tectonic shift" in the consumer products business in India, said Mr Harish Bijoor, a brand strategy specialist and former head of marketing at a subsidiary of the big Indian conglomerate Tata Group.

Mr Ramdev and his friend and business partner, Mr Acharya Balakrishna, 44, run Patanjali Ayurved from a corporate headquarters in Haridwar, an ancient Indian city on the banks of the Ganges River in Uttarakhand state.

In an interview, Mr Ramdev said he was the creative force and public face of Patanjali, even though, as a swami, he does not have an official title or hold any shares of the privately held company.

Rising at 3.30am each day to drink the juice of the amla fruit, an Indian berry rich in vitamin C and considered the top immunity booster in ayurveda medicine, he unleashes a torrent of new product ideas - a herbal energy bar, a herbal hair dye, a sugar-free immune booster - that he records in large Hindi script in a spiral bound notebook.

Then he plunges into three hours of yoga, followed by a 12-hour day that is split between Patanjali business and the public meetings of a spiritual and political leader.

Managing director, Mr Balakrishna, runs day-to-day operations.

The two men met in the 1990s, when they studied at the same gurukul, a residential school that was the norm for Hindus before the British arrived. Both the sons of farmers, they went on to study in the Himalayas, Mr Ramdev focusing on yoga and Mr Balakrishna on ayurveda.

In 1994, they founded the first of three charitable trusts, to run a hospital and a university dealing in ayurvedic medicine, and an ashram. There, they held yoga camps and free health checkups at which they dispensed ayurveda treatments. Before long, they had set up a manufacturing plant for ayurveda products.

Around the same time, Mr Ramdev began his televised yoga classes. Lean and muscular, he proved to be a telegenic tour de force, bringing yoga to India's poor and the growing middle class.

He gradually became a public critic of government corruption, leading a mass protest in New Delhi in 2011 and later endorsing Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 election. Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power soon after, unleashing a strong Hindu nationalist sentiment that Mr Ramdev says has created "an ideal ecosystem" to support his business. Mr Modi pushed the United Nations to create International Yoga Day, and he launched it last year.

Mr Ramdev, given to raucous laughter and bouts of giggles that make him seem disarmingly humble, can just as suddenly overflow with bravado, as he did when asked about the source of Patanjali's popularity and power. "People buy our products because they believe I will only sell them good things," he said.

Beyond his appeal, Patanjali products are attractive because they are high quality and prices are about 20 per cent lower than the competition, analysts said.

It is not clear how Patanjali is able to charge such low prices, given that its profit margin of 13 per cent is within the industry range of 13 to 16 per cent. Mr Ramdev ventured that, with his fame, his advertising costs are much lower than those of his competitors, who spend as much as 15 per cent of their revenue promoting their products.

The faces of Mr Ramdev and Mr Balakrishna adorn most every building, billboard and truck connected to the company. The company expects to report revenue of US$750 million (S$1 billion) in the fiscal year that ended in March, more than double the previous year's US$300 million, the two men said.

Experts say that, for the foreseeable future, the only danger sign for Patanjali is the enthusiasm of Mr Ramdev. If he takes it "a bit too far, he'll lose new customers", said Mr Sunil Alagh, a business consultant and formerly chief executive of Britannia Industries, an Indian company famous for packaged cookies.

In the past, Mr Ramdev has dived into controversial conservative causes without hesitation. Last year, for example, he claimed that he could cure homosexuality by treating a person with yoga.

Controversy aside, Mr Bijoor has predicted that the Baba Cool Movement would eventually outsell both multinationals and top Indian companies alike.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Baba Cool is hot business concept in India today'. Print Edition | Subscribe