One of the most interesting dramas taking place in India hardly gets a reference on the political pages, though economic reporting tends to be hysterical about it. The latter reports about the rise of Ramdev's firm Patanjali to a major corporate status. The reports claim that Patanjali makes P&G nervous, its advertisement expenses signalling a new medical multinational.
In a few months, Patanjali has become a household name. This battle has to be seen in terms of the politics of knowledge and communication.
Ayurveda has been a medical system which knew its time was coming. Unfortunately, ayurveda was often presented in a reductive way as yoga which was only one aspect of a more cosmological theory.
Second, ayurveda became an extension to the spirituality industry where major gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar popularised it but as an extension of their spirituality.
When one looks at an "Art of Living" shop, one realises ayurveda is only part of its spiritual offerings. Ramdev is the first guru to make the transition from a symbolic presentation of a civilisational idea to an actual production.
The transition to Patanjali can be seen in three steps. First, Ramdev becomes a popular and a populist hero by advocating yoga and claiming that Western medicine, as practised by MNCs, was a con game adding to the inequality in our society.
Second, this argument acquires a different pace as he hyphenates politics with spirituality. He talks openly of the politics of medicine and makes it a part of the wider BJP wave. Third, he moves from politics to production and creates in Patanjali a household name to rival the likes of P&G and Hindustan Lever.
The way he does it is fascinating. First, he plays on the civilisational unconscious which sees the indigenous as a part of wider authenticity. Second, he merges the middle class consumerism with traditional values by merging a way of life and a lifestyle consciousness. He suggests health is a way of life and then emphasises the contemporaneity of ayurveda. Third, he widens Patanjali to include consumer goods, cosmetics, food supplements, medicalised candy and medicines. Instead of an overdramatised single product, what we have is a spectrum of fascinating goods.
Added to this was the sense of anxiety, the antics of MNCs. The vagaries that befell Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Ponds and Nestlé destroyed the immaculate trust of consumers. The MNCs also made a mistake by attacking Ramdev's scientific credentials, claiming that many of his products could not stand standardisation tests. Ramdev anticipated this by insisting on highest production criteria. But to mere idea of standardisation, he added the trust offered by heritage. People buying his products often sound patriotic.
A visit to the Ramdev's shop gives a wonderful sense of plurality. There are no discount offers, salesmen look like ordinary people with none of the peddler antics one associates with malls. In the age of modernist anxiety, a housewife finds a refuge of authenticity, holding herbs that her grandmother talked about.
Ramdev's overall strategy has a logic which is implicit in the philosophy of ayurveda which reads the world into microcosms - the body - and macrocosms - the world. Mediating the two is medicine. His advertising style also follows an ayurvedic grammar, focusing both on the discipline and the concreteness of the body and on the wider ecology of religion, spirituality, ethics and well being.
Unlike commodities from MNCs, Ramdev does not need stars. His asceticism confronts the exotic and sexual feel of cosmetic and lifestyle advertisements.
His message is clear - you do not have to be a model to use my goods. His products do not belong to the domain of conspicuous consumption. His treasure is in the everydayness of goods easily accessible, available and affordable. In fact, Ramdev becomes both paradigm and exemplar. He is the model.
However, Ramdev understands the power of advertising. He knows he needs advertisement to break the mental link between Maggi and Nestlé. In turning this generation organic, he has to convince them that ragi can be fashionable. In that sense, Ramdev's ads, which are tactically undistinguished, tacitly convey an understanding of the modern world. He wants to convey that the idea of heritage can create the ecology for a new consumerism.
Yet, Ramdev's attempt to create Patanjali goes further. India as a nation has known about the rapacity of MNCs, especially with CIPLA's courageous role during the AIDS crisis. The battle of generics against patented products is a battle India has fought for decades.
Ramdev's Patanjali adds that same David and Goliath quality with David being part trickster. Finally, Patanjali has been able to get its script right. It is projected both as a fable and as a business case study, encompassing ethics and economics in one stroke. As a study in communication, it is impressive and generates hope for future battles around health and democracy.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)