India eyes profit in yoga’s soft power

The business potential of the globally popular ancient practice makes the newly created ministry easier to justify.

I dreaded it as soon as I came to know that Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, had decided to create a new ministry of yoga as part of a revamp of the cabinet.

Late on Sunday night, the Indian government announced that AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) which used to be just a department before, was now a separate ministry.

I felt that Western journalists would find it amusing and ask why emerging India needed of all things a ministry of yoga.

So I asked my producer quickly to punch some key words into Google search to come up with parallels in the world.

We were hoping that China had something similar to AYUSH as Indians seem to love competing with China in everything these days. India is already challenging the reality of “Made in China” with the clarion call of “Make in India”.

It turns out China has not given much importance to kung-fu, a martial-arts Chinese equivalent of yoga.

Our search could only throw up “kung-fu yoga” with Jackie Chan in an Indo-Chinese joint film production.

“Let’s look at Japan,” my producer suggested.

‘Cool Japan’ parallel

The closest thing to the Indian yoga ministry that we could find on the World Wide Web was a minister in charge of Cool Japan, whose job it is to sell a country increasingly known for its ageing population.

It was interesting, not to mention reassuring, to know that at least one other country was using a yoga-ministry-like idea in quest of soft power, but it did not help our cause much.

We knew it was a pointless pursuit to find something similar in Asia.

We drew some solace in the fact that yoga pants are a rage of sorts in the US, and in the thought that like everything else, if it has worked for the US it surely will work for the world.

However, by now our patience with online research was wearing thin.

So we decided to draw on our own experience to justify the creation of the AYUSH ministry, meant to promote alternative therapies as part of the Modi government’s broader mission to raise the global appeal of home-grown Indian remedies.

India faces daunting challenges in the health sector. New patent laws have made life-saving modern drugs and medical treatment out of reach for millions.

It was only prudent of Modi, as the leader of a country hobbled by huge budget deficits, to focus on preventive healthcare for 1.25 billion Indians.

Economic rationale

People who practise the ancient Indian art of yoga vouch for its long-term efficacy. There is little doubt that popularising it as a way of life will help India reduce healthcare and medical-insurance expenditure.

A report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2013 said private healthcare sector accounts for 93 per cent of hospitals and 85 per cent of doctors in India.

Modi, who boasts of being a businessman at heart, wants India’s private health sector to cater for affluent medical tourists from abroad, but places his trust in cheaper homegrown remedies to rein in public-health expenditure.

As a smart politician, Modi also could not have been blind to the botched rollout of US President Barack Obama’s costly healthcare plan, which landed him in huge trouble both with Republican legislators and the electorate.

New Age Indian gurus such as Baba Ramdev have created multimillion-dollar business empires through yoga centres, traditional treatments and TV shows.

Clearly, there is a lot more economic potential in yoga than just yoga pants.

Yoga today is serious business, so it makes sense to have a minister looking after “yoga affairs”.

It also makes India’s new AYUSH ministry easier to justify to the rest of the world, unlike some of the ancient, even mythological practices that Modi had highlighted in recent speeches, only to elicit quizzical reactions from Western editorialists.