Yoga guru's political foray has India in a roil

For years, the wildly energetic man with the cascade of black hair has contorted his body through a series of complex yoga poses, drawing millions of people across India to gather in front of their televisions to follow his every move.

His promise: health and happiness.

Now the charismatic and controversial yoga guru Baba Ramdev is spinning that popularity to fuel a political movement that he says will root out India's endemic corruption.

The saffron-robed and bearded Ramdev started an indefinite hunger strike in the Indian capital Saturday that critics say undermines the country's democratic institutions, but that he says will last until the government agrees "100 percent" to his long list of demands.

Tens of thousands of his followers also went on hunger strikes across India and in several cities in the United States, Europe and Africa, Ramdev told cheering supporters in New Delhi.

"You can drink water," he advised them.

Ramdev chanted Hindu religious hymns and performed yoga exercises before starting his hunger strike.

He vowed to battle the pervasive culture of corruption in a country where everything from getting a driver's license to setting up a business involves paying bribes.

"There is a powerful anger in the people of this country. They want urgent action," he said.

Ramdev told his followers later Saturday that the government had agreed to his demands and he was waiting for a written assurance before ending his protest.

His demands include immediate steps by the government to bring back millions of dollars illegally stashed abroad by Indians and the imposition of tough penalties on those who continue to put their money in safe havens.

Kapil Sibal, a government negotiator, said he would soon give Ramdev a written assurance. But later he criticized the guru for continuing the protest despite an agreement with the government.

It is the second major hunger strike in recent months by an activist against corruption.

Anna Hazare, 73, ended a four-day fast in April that inspired a nationwide movement against graft. He agreed to end the strike after the government pledged to form a committee including members of civil society to improve laws against bribery, fraud and other crimes of public office.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said he hopes the anti-corruption measures can be introduced in Parliament during its "monsoon session" starting June 30.

The government has been reeling from a spate of very public corruption scandals involving telecommunications licensing and irregularities in staging last year's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

In a country bursting with religious gurus and spiritual healers, Ramdev — part Dr. Phil, part televangelist — has transfixed India with an ostensibly simple message of finding fulfillment through the ancient Indian practice of yoga.

The holy man burst into the national imagination in the early 2000s, expounding the health virtues of yoga.

Thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of people were drawn to his message of physical fitness. But as his followers grew, so did his message.

He began to speak of ending dependence on expensive Western medicine, and the wonders of a vegetarian diet. He claimed that by using yoga he could cure everything from cancer to homosexuality, which he called an addiction.

Ramdev quickly became a television phenomenon. His daily TV appearance — where he chants sacred Hindu verses before launching into yoga poses — reportedly draws tens of millions of viewers, making him one of the most-watched people on television in the nation of 1.2 billion.

His ashram, the Patanjali Yogpeeth, a sprawling complex in the northern Indian pilgrimage town of Haridwar on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, includes a yoga center and a hospital that works on the principles of Ayurveda, a centuries-old traditional Indian school of medicine. It also manufactures and sells herbal medicines. The ashram runs dozens of yoga centers and shops selling herbal products in the United States and Britain.

Followers plaster his photograph on their cars, pay thousands of rupees (hundreds of dollars) for front-row seats at his appearances and are known to light incense sticks in front of their TVs during his shows.

And in keeping with his rockstar-like status, he evens owns an island.

In 2009, two Scottish devotees of Indian origin gave him Little Cumbrae, a rocky island off the west coast of Scotland.

That was the year Ramdev began expanding his focus from the health of the body to include the body politic.

In a country deeply frustrated with official corruption and government mismanagement, he promises "hope, sanity, order," says sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan.

India was ranked 87 out of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index last year.

Ramdev — the term "baba" is a title meaning father or wise man — was born in a northern Indian farming village. His official biography doesn't mention his age, and news reports say he's anywhere from 36 to 45 years old.

He arrived in New Delhi after nine months spent traveling across India to garner support for his anti-corruption movement. He wants the death penalty for corrupt officials and demands that the government recover billions of dollars of so-called black money from overseas tax havens.

For his followers, he is someone who can almost magically make both physical and social problems go away.

"He has healed the minds and bodies of hundreds of thousands of people and now he takes on the challenge of changing this country," said Shambhu Prasad Ganeriwala, a retired office worker who spent 36 hours on a train traveling to New Delhi from the southern city of Chennai.

Critics says the guru, whose real name is Ramkishan Yadav, is an opportunist trying to cash in on his popularity to subvert elected politicians. Many also question how he has amassed a fortune in donations — a fortune thought to total many millions of dollars — with little accounting of where it came from or whether proper taxes have been paid.

The country's main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has thrown its weight behind Ramdev's hunger strike, leading some to charge he is a front for the party.

Ramdev denies all allegations of financial wrongdoing. He insists his political movement is simply a way to channel India's simmering rage, and that he has no political affiliations.

Religious and spiritual leaders have always been a part of India's political landscape, advising leaders on everything from auspicious dates to launch election campaigns to the correct precious stones to wear for good luck. But before Ramdev, none had ever positioned themselves at the forefront of a political movement.

Sociologist Vishvanathan says Ramdev views himself as a modern-day prophet, allowing him to make extreme demands — like the death penalty for corruption — that are eagerly embraced by his followers.

"He's saying if I have God behind me, why do I need the Parliament?" Vishvanathan said.