Why Patanjali's Acharya Balkrishna may have to thank rise of 'pop patriotism' for Forbes rich list entry

Acharya Balkrishna, low-profile managing director of Patanjali Ayurved is going places making his presence felt in India’s top rich lists across the globe. He has entered the Forbes India rich list for 2016 and got into the top 50 with a ranking of 48. Balkrishna made his entry first in the Hurun India Rich list as a billionaire worth a whopping Rs 25,600 crore. In dollar terms, that would work out to $3.8 billion.

According to this Business Standard report, the Nepal-born Balkrishna is described as the ‘great scholar of Ayurveda, Sankrit language and Vedas’ and has 'rediscovered' the Sanjeevani buti on Patanjali Yogapeeth Ashram.

 Why Patanjalis Acharya Balkrishna may have to thank rise of pop patriotism for Forbes rich list entry

Acharaya Balkrishna, MD, Patanjali Ayurved (left) and Baba Ramdev

His unique inventions and scholarly skills aside, in June 2011, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) slapped a case on Acharya Balkrishna. He is accused of a slew of irregularities ranging from his scholarly background – most of his degrees are fake, to documents -- his passport too is fake.

Genesis of brand

Balkrishna met with the yoga guru clad in orange robes, Baba Ramdev in a gurukul in Haryana, and both set out on this business venture which has since spanned across India and is sending shivers down the spine of foreign and domestic MNCs that enjoyed customer loyalty for generations.

Both together set up Patanjali Ayurved in 2006, with an aim to “link the rising destiny of millions of rural masses on the one hand and many more suffering and leading unhealthy urban life style on the other”. At first, the company had less visibility and sales, too. However, in the last four-five years, the company has seen its sales soar, which has fuelled the meteoric rise of the personal wealth of Balkrishna. He holds more than 90 percent stake in the company and runs the operations as its managing director, while Baba Ramdev is its brand ambassador.

How did the fortunes change for Balkrishna and Patanjali? According to this report in Businessworld, the brand’s fortune changed in 2011 when the company made an effective strategy unlike MNCs and took the route of retail units with its health centres.

Strategy that worked

The low pricing of the products too played an important role in its success. Stating that profits are not its motive, Baba Ramdev took the high moral route when he told Businessworld: "Our profits are small because unlike multinationals like Coca Cola or Nestle, our main aim is not to make profit but to benefit others." But he is clear, as a PTI report states, of becoming the brand that he wants Indian customers to turn to as their first preference.

During a release of atta noodles from the Patanjali stable, Baba Ramdev said, "Patanjali atta noodles will soon oust Maggi as the top noodles brand in the country. Currently from about a 100 tonnes, our production of atta noodles will be increased to 300-500 tonnes,” according to a PTI report.

Besides waxing eloquent of the 'ayurvedic’ and natural-ness of their products, Baba Ramdev has used clever strategies using his accessibility to politicians. Recently, Baba Ramdev used the chubby cheeked Laloo Prasad Yadav as a model for his face cream who after that widely publicized TV show, started extolling the virtues of Patanjali products. According to this report in The Statesman, the guru was at Lalu's house to demonstrate his 'personal touch' — he was massaging the RJD chief 's face with a 'special' Patanjali cream, as the latter beamed, “I am a permanent brand ambassador of Ramdev’s Patanjali products.”

The company’s products are sold under the 'swadeshi' plank and even the Mahatma is invoked for the brand’s further success. Baba Ramdev said in an interview to Economic Times that he has urged shopkeepers to prominently display the company’s products as it will help “in fulfilling the dream of Mahatma Gandhi to promote Swadeshi”.

The face of the brand is yoga guru Baba Ramdev but the monetary aspect is in the name of Balkrishna who is listed as the MD of the company. According to this report in The Times of India, Balkrishna does not take a salary.

Harish Bijoor, Chief Executive Officer of brand and business strategy firm Harish Bijoor Consults Inc , feels Patanjali is disrupting the FMCG category just like Reliance Jio is disrupting the telecom sector.

"Patanjali has catapulted to fame with its Ayurveda story. The yoga shibirs that Baba Ramdev has held has helped the firm. He is the famous face associated with the brand and monetary face is accorded to Acharya,” says Bijoor reasoning why it is that Balkrishna appears on the India Rich lists.

Balkrishna is famously reclusive. The few times that he has granted interviews has been at the company’s headquarters at Haridwar at Sadbhavna which is actually a hospital, according to media reports.

Riding the wave of patriotism?

But the nagging question that comes to the forefront while analysing the company's - and Balkrishna's - rise, is this: Is their business strategy alone behind the rising popularity of their products? Hasn't the rise of the BJP and the Hindutva and the pop patriotism that goes along with it have their fair share in the firm's success?

Ramdev has vehemently denied any such links. Analysts too feel there is no reason to link the BJP and Patanjali's rise.

For one, Amnish Agarwal, Senior Vice President, Prabhudas Lilladher, says the BJP coming to power and the company being seen to have a meteoric rise after that is a misnomer.

“You cannot build a brand in a day or a short time. It picked up pace when it focused on its unique distribution system. Even assuming the government has helped the company, the government cannot force consumers to buy products,” Agarwal says. Also, the brand hasn’t done well across all its products except for a few niche categories, he points out.

But the connections are evident. Forbes, while listing Balkrishna as the 48th richest in India, notes that Ramdev is politically well connected. That too is not an exception. All business persons have political connections. But in the case of Patanjali, Ramdev, Balkrishna and the BJP there are striking similarities, especially when it comes to the ideology of swadeshi, which translates into pop patriotism.

This is evident in the aggressive advertisements the company releases (which anyway go against their stated not-for-profit motive). A case in point is the freedom ads that were released coinciding with 15 August, which seemed like an attempt to cash in on the prevailing sentiment of pop patriotism. Through the advertisement, the company exhorted Indians to come out of the clutches of the multinationals, even comparing them to the East India Company of yore - a symbol of colonisation. The ads showed how Patanjali as a brand conveniently married pop patriotism and business.

Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India and vice-chairman of O&M Asia-Pacific, had termed these advertisements as 'negative'. According to him, it was not appropriate to paint all MNCs with the same brush at a time when prime minister Narendra Modi is going all-out to attract global investors to India.

There are more proof of the ideological similarities of Patanjali and the Hindutva brigade. A recent Firstpost report said Patanjali and the RSS have come together to lobby the government to tax global beverages giants Coca-Cola and PepesiCo on the pretext that their products have excessive sugar content which is not good for health.

The truth is despite Baba Ramdev's assertions that the aim of the ayurveda brand is not to make profit, Patanjali has done just that. Balkrishna will have to indeed thank the rising pop patriotism for his good fortunes. And this goes against the very basis of a free market economy.

(Data support from Kishor Kadam)


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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2016 19:02:07 IST