Yoga guru Swami Ramdev launches mass hunger strike against Indian corruption

HE famously visited Scotland two years ago to meditate on the tiny island of Little Cumbrae. But now, India's most popular yoga guru has begun what may be his last spiritual act - he is fasting to death.

Yesterday, the saffron-robed and bearded Swami Ramdev, who rose from an illiterate rural Indian family to host a daily television show that pulls in 30 million viewers, launched a mass fast to the death in an attempt to force government reforms in India, including the death penalty for corrupt officials.

Ramdev, who claims to have been paralysed as a child and to have cured himself through the power of yoga, has also demanded that the Indian government pursue billions of pounds in illegal funds abroad and the withdrawal of high denomination bank notes.

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Talking to thousands of his followers in a tent the size of four football pitches in New Delhi, he said yesterday: "We are not deviating… Our issues are black money, corruption. And we have to stay firm. Nothing is impossible, everything is possible and we are not going to be defeated."

Ramdev is viewed in India as tapping into the increasing anger over government corruption and in particular towards unpopular prime minister Manmohan Singh. Scandals including the disastrous Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year and a telecoms scam that is believed to have cost the government 20 million have left many Indians feeling alienated by their leaders.

In response to Ramdev's fast, yesterday similar hunger strikes took place in a number of cities across India including Orissa and Mumbai. Such is the concern over his influence over his millions of followers that four government ministers, including finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, tried to persuade him to stop. Negotiations have so far been fruitless.

In 2009 Ramdev came to Scotland after the UK arm of his Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust bought the island of Little Cumbrae on the Firth of Clyde with the aim of turning it into a yoga retreat. Ramdev visited the island later that year in his orange robes and trademark long flowing beard, to give it his blessing.

While many of Ramdev's followers are poor, others are well dressed professionals, and foreign tourists and villagers travelled hundreds of miles to see him yesterday.

His campaign and others like it have underscored how India's traditional political parties are struggling to deal with the growing anger of middle-class Indians.The popularity of Ramdev and his hunger strikes suggests the parties have left a political vacuum that figures like Ramdev can fill.

However, few expect Ramdev will die for his cause, with commentators in India believing a deal will be forged that will give him enough to claim moral victory and possibly help the launch of his political party for 2014 elections.

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