ALL publicity is good publicity—so the old marketing slogan goes. Is that why Ramdev courts controversy by laughing at Covid-19 victims gasping for air on his Aastha channel? His attack on allopathic medicine as “stupid science” and false claims that “10,000 doctors have died” after two vaccine shots are recent examples. Ramdev courts controversies as it provides him free advertisements for himself and whatever he sells. Make no mistake, it is the Ramdev “brand” that sells his Patanjali products, from noodles to Ayurvedic medicines. That is what has made the Patanjali empire one of the biggest FMCG groups in the country.
For Ramdev and Patanjali, any controversy will only help business, even if the consequence of his barrages of disinformation is that people die. The government will, at most, give Ramdev a mild rap on the knuckles, as Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan did recently, but it has his back and supports his business empire.
Ramdev is not the first to build an empire out of babagiri. Many others have made religion a business, from Puttaparthi Saibaba to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Compare Sri Sri’s Rs. 50 crore annual revenue from his business to Ramdev’s Rs. 25,000 crore turnover from Patanjali Ayurved, and we begin to see that the primary business of Ramdev is neither religion nor Yoga. It is leveraging his image as a “Yoga guru” to become India’s latest billionaire.
In this trajectory, he was first helped by the Congress party through large grants of lands, then by the BJP which has not only given him even more land but also backed his business ventures through the Ayush and other ministries. The Haryana government is now buying his Coronil kits to distribute to people instead of providing them with proper healthcare, medicines and vaccines.
Ramdev’s business empire has been built on state patronage, free advertisements from the captive audience in his Yoga camps and his “performances” on TV, coupled with celebrity endorsements, most recently (February 19, Constitution Club) with Harsh Vardhan and Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari endorsing Coronil. While Patanjali's revenue comes from a large range of products—fairness creams, noodles, vegetable oils—the Ayurvedic component of his empire plays a key role. It generates very large profits that can then be used to sell other products cheaply. This cross-subsidisation is the foundation of his financial empire. Therefore the need for the hype to present these products as superior to allopathic medicines. Throughout his career, Ramdev has combined extolling magic remedies and herbal products along with Yoga as a cure for a wide range of diseases. He has even advertised ways by which women can conceive fair-skinned male children, similar to what Arogya Bharati, a wing of the RSS, espouses through its bogus garbh sanskar programmes.
His attack on modern medicine and advances in knowledge is not simply about selling his products. It is dangerous as it turns people away from vaccines and medicines that can help them. It is this propagation of mumbo jumbo as “ancient knowledge” combined with an appeal to a crude Hindu nationalism that makes Ramdev’s empire different from others selling bogus products, like the Fair and Lovely creams.
The coinage of allopathic versus homoeopathy was first made by Hahnemann, the founder of homoeopathy. He proposed that while the existing medicine system treated disease with its opposite—allos in Greek—homoeopathy could cure an illness by using a small amount of the same. This predates Pasteur’s germ theory, and at a stage when all existing medicines were based on some empirical evidence. Their theories—humour, pitta—had no understanding of what causes disease. To use allopathy and homoeopathy today, when we know what causes disease, and the different kinds of diseases, are meaningless. By this definition, vaccines would be homoeopathy and antibiotics would be allopathy!
Those who believe in nationalist medicines should be aware that variolation, a precursor to vaccination, was used in India, China, and the Arab world well before Jenner’s use of cowpox in vaccination. In variolation, a small amount of the smallpox virus was introduced into the body to give a mild disease to protect against future smallpox infections. Insteafadvd of rejecting vaccines as western allopathic medicine, we should talk about their actual origins. The battle today is over who will manufacture the vaccines. Do we manufacture vaccines in India indigenously, or will we stick to Coronil and let Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca rule the vaccine market?
Ramdev’s so-called nationalist plank is to hand over the lucrative market of modern medicines to Big Pharma while monopolising the indigenous medicine market. No need for medical oxygen, just ask Ramdev to teach you how to breathe. Need a cure for Covid-19? Take some herbal pills and oils from Patanjali; it will cure you the same way it can give people fair skin and help conceive super-male children.
Let us take the recent battle between Ramdev and the Indian Medical Association on Covid-19. Ramdev’s attack on “allopathic” or modern medicine is an attack on the doctors and health care workers who have fought this disease under very difficult conditions and for prolonged periods. It ridicules them and their sacrifices. Even worse, Ramdev’s cruel caricature of patients trying to breathe with severe lung damage shows his inability to empathise with patients. If people believe Ramdev that Covid-19 is not dangerous and the disease is simply because we do not know how to breathe, those suffering from serious infections will die. They need oxygen and other medicines so that the body can fight the disease successfully. That is why Ramdev is dangerous.
Ramdev says Covid-19 is not serious and can be prevented by boosting immunity through his herbal kit, cured with Coronil and breathing “properly” is a part of his marketing. He is selling his so-called herbal products, his televised Yoga classes and his Yoga camps, all of which help build the Patanjali business empire. If the Indian Medical Association gets upset and it causes controversy, he gets even more publicity equivalent to tons of free advertisement. In the world of the bhakts, anybody extolling the Indian and damning the “foreign” is a “true” nationalist. Even if it is based on fraudulent claims.
If Ramdev’s claims were only to sell his products we could have ignored them. Unfortunately, his claims are causing enormous collateral damage. They damage the morale of our frontline health workers who are risking their lives and sacrificing their family lives for a schedule that involves quite often 15-16 hours of duty. They, unlike Patanjali and Ramdev, are saving lives and sending our loved ones back to us. It is when the hospitals collapse under the huge number of cases that deaths mount. Belittling them with false claims and bogus information demands condemnation. The punishment is not charging him with sedition but hitting him where it hurts: a call to boycott his products.
The second damage Ramdev is doing is stoking anti-vaccine propaganda. All the vaccine trials have shown that vaccines protect against severe infections, drastically lowering the number of such cases among the vaccinated. It also significantly reduces the number of infections, therefore breaking the chain of transmission. It recognises that no vaccine will provide 100% protection, but will bring us close to herd immunity.
By promoting anti-vaccine views with bogus statistics of doctors dying despite being vaccinated, Ramdev is playing to his anti-science bhakt gallery. In the process, he is helping the small anti-vaccine camp in India which relies on WhatsApp university for its knowledge. If the anti-vaccine numbers grow in the country, we will be facing the same challenge that the US is facing. They are seeing a return of measles and a significant part of their population is unwilling to be vaccinated against Covid-19. If this happens, instead of restricting Covid-19 to small pockets of transmission, Covid-19 will be with us permanently. The virus will continue to mutate, requiring new vaccines.
Though Harsh Vardhan has delivered a gentle rebuke to Ramdev, the BJP government is the biggest backer of Ramdev’s Patanjali empire. Its Ayush ministry is increasingly becoming an extension of Patanjali’s marketing arm. The BJP government has given all kinds of concessions to Patanjali including land and banking support. Its atmanirbharta, as we wrote earlier, is without developing science and knowledge. Supporting Ramdev’s bogus claims is on par with BJP’s supporting garbha sanskar, Indian genetics and flying machines in ancient times. Mumbo jumbo science at its worst and doubly dangerous in Covid times.