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Meet India's political yoga star Swami Ramdev
June, 04th 2011

INDIAN yoga star Swami Ramdev is an eccentric nationalist famed for his televised breathing exercises watched by millions, as well as his hardline politics.

Swami Ramdev, who has erected a huge tent in the capital where he plans to fast in front of thousands of followers from today, has vowed to stop eating unless Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accedes to all of his demands.

Mr Singh sent four ministers to greet the TV star when he arrived in the capital on Wednesday and he has personally written to the man known to millions as "Baba" in an effort to avert another challenge to his authority.

The standoff is front-page news, with The Indian Express headlining, "To prevent the fast, government works hard on Baba menu", adding that ministers were preparing a last-ditch response to Ramdev's "bewildering" demands.

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Mr Ramdev overnight said consensus was emerging with the government on most points but they remained at odds over "one or two."

"All castes, all types of people, are taking part together in this movement," he shouted to applause from the crowd, some of whom demonstrated yoga poses in the carpeted tent set up in a park.

Anger about corruption has been at fever pitch in India for the past year after a series of scandals involving the government and the ruling Congress party, notably a $37 billion telecom scam that resulted in a minister's arrest.

Childhood of yoga

The wiry, long-haired guru, born to illiterate peasant parents in the northern state of Haryana in the 1960s, says he began practising yoga at the age of nine and was able to overcome partial paralysis of his body.

Since then, the man also known as "Baba Ramdev" has built a global yoga empire that stretches from India to a remote island in Scotland, with declared revenues since 1995 of 11 billion rupees ($220 million).

Using the platform of his daily appearances on the country's top religious channel Aastha TV, he has increasingly entered politics, challenging the government on corruption, gay sex and modern medicine.

"I've become so powerful, I can uproot a government. I don't have financial or legal power, but in a democracy I have the power of the people," he declared in an interview with Indian magazine Tehelka last year.

Fighting 'black money'

He said 12 months ago that he planned to start a political party to contest every parliamentary seat in the country, but has since backed away from the idea, insisting he prefers to work from outside the system.

His current campaign is principally against so-called "black money" -- cash stashed in foreign bank accounts that he wants the government to investigate and repatriate.

Other bugbears include Indians sending their children overseas for education, foreign technology, Western medicine, industrially produced food and the use of English in India instead of local languages.

He also is demanding the death penalty for corrupt officials.

Controversial views

In the past, the strict vegetarian has called for the death sentence for people who slaughter cows, which are considered sacred by Hindus, as well as for rape and adultery.

Currently, India has the capital punishment for the "rarest of rare" crimes and sentences are rarely carried out.

Mr Ramdev has stirred controversy over his claims to be able to cure AIDS and cancer, as well as reverse homosexuality -- something he describes as a "congenital defect".

"Such tendencies can be treated by yoga, pranayama (breathing exercises) and other meditation techniques," he said in a July 2009 petition challenging a landmark high court ruling which legalised gay sex in India.

The guru, customarily seen in saffron robes open at the chest, draws support from yoga fans and hardline right-wing Hindu groups, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which has called on members to back his latest protest.

The yoga master -- famed for his moves, including an ability to roll his stomach and walk on his hands -- made his first overseas trip in 2006, visiting Britain and the United States to host seminars with his followers.

In September 2009, hundreds turned up to hear him speak when he visited the tiny Scottish island of Little Cumbrae which two of his devotees reportedly paid 2 million ($3.07 million) to buy and turn into a yoga retreat.

Wealthy, fighting corruption

His wealth has raised eyebrows in India, especially in recent months as he has sought to fight corruption.

A senior member of the ruling Congress party, Digvijaya Singh attacked Mr Ramdev on Thursday, saying he was a businessman, not a yoga guru.

"Even to teach yoga, he charges 50,000 rupees from those who sit in the front seats, 30,000 rupees for the backseat and 1000 rupees for the last seat. What else is this?" Singh said, the Press Trust of India reported.

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