India took a significant step to the right with the state-sponsored carnival of the first International Day of Yoga, which was held on Sunday in New Delhi.

Yoga has nothing to do with politics, and cutting across religion, culture and nationality it has had practitioners, many of whom might even make claim that it helped them calm the mind and tone up the body. The active practitioners, however, are a small minority in India.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to project yoga as India’s official cult. Modi made a high-profile attendance at the event in Delhi on Sunday where some 37000 people practiced yoga on a main avenue that was closed to traffic.

Modi in Delhi
Modi in Delhi

The Hindu fundamentalists claim that the event had nothing to do with religion, but only a moron will fail to discern the state-sponsored yoga campaign’s strong religious bias. The event was carefully choreographed so that Modi hogged the limelight as the torchbearer of the Hindu culture.

The cult of yoga blended with Modi’s cult of personality and the symbiosis was nationally televised.

Amidst the people who gathered at the Sunday carnival, mostly novices in yoga, Modi looked – and behaved – like a pro, even correcting the asanas (postures) of school children who were of course overawed by him. India has never had a prime minister who took on the incarnation of a yogi!

But a yoga instructor from the Hindu heartland who teaches my friend told her after watching Modi on television that his mastery of yoga is imperfect shows lack of practice. The pretender’s role comes naturally to India’s politicians.

It is entirely possible that, as Markandey Katju, a distinguished former Chief Justice of India, noted, Modi keeps inventing such stunts to keep the game going for his non-performing government. First it was the campaign Modi launched to clean the Ganges of its mountain-load of filth, a campaign that tapped into the Hindu’s spiritual regard for the holy river, but packaged as a secular drive for clean environment.

Katju wrote, “This Government obviously believes in stunts. ‘Vikas’ (development) has been put in the cold storage. Next drama?”

Ideally speaking, Caesar should be content with the things that are already his, and should leave to God things that are God’s. Modi cannot complain. He has done exceedingly well as Caesar.

He has aggrandized power in an unprecedented way, ignoring cabinet ministers and disregarding the cabinet system of government, taking all major decisions and most minor decisions himself. A former deputy prime minister and respected elder statesman belonging to Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), L. K. Advani warned publicly last week against the arrogance of power and about the lurking threat posed by authoritarianism to India’s democracy.

The real danger lies somewhere else, though. The Modi government is using yoga as a cult to regiment Indian society. Sunday’s carnival is the latest act in an invidious campaign by the Hindu fundamentalists, which began with Modi’s ascendancy to power, aimed at making India a “Hindu nation.”

The entire Indian bureaucracy was directed to hold rehearsal for days to prepare for the carnival on Sunday. Modi’s ministers fanned out to remote corners of the country to register their presence in the local carnivals.

But Modi is a clever politician. Propagating yoga in this vast country of 1.3 billion people also gives the perfect pretext for the government to fund the activities of institutions and individuals involved in this field. Needless to say, the Hindu nationalists who are the foot soldiers of his political party, mostly run such entities.

Cynics may say that in reality all that is happening is that yet another layer is being added to the thick blanket of hypocrisy that already envelops India’s public life.

Yoga demands mental and physical discipline, but, Modi’s party colleagues and ministers who have plunged into yoga are not exactly the paragons of virtue.  Serious allegations of impropriety and abuse of power and outright corruption have surfaced recently about some of Modi’s colleagues.

India would have been a far better place to live if only these con artists actually begin practising yoga and discover for themselves a moral compass at some point in their adult life.

Indeed, it is a cruel joke to preach yoga to the hundreds of millions of Indians who have no hope on earth left. Some two hundred million Indians – yes, 200 million – do not even get around to eating one square meal per day. Nonetheless, the government estimates that India’s “soft power” will get a boost by propagating yoga abroad.

Of course, there is also that inevitable “China angle” in everything that India does. It tickles Indian vanity to no end that China’s armory of “soft power” has nothing to match yoga.

But then, there is a contrarian opinion possible, too: at some point China might simply do reverse engineering and itself become the world’s number one yoga-exporting country. The mats, which were used in Modi’s carnival in Delhi on Sunday, were actually made in China.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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