Freedom's flexible friend: The Yoga Guru on a crusade to end corruption

India's most famous holy man is to fast until his country's 'black money' economy is tamed. Andrew Buncombe reports from Delhi

In the language of north India it would have been called a tamasha, and it was certainly quite a performance.

In a third-floor suite of a Delhi hotel, a pair of cabinet ministers pleaded with a holy man dressed in saffron robes, urging him not to launch the hunger strike he had threatened. A few miles away, under awnings set up to ward off the worst of the summer sun, supporters of the holy man were wondering where their guru was, firm in their commitment to join him on the supposed fast-to-death.

Swami Ramdev is probably the most famous holy guru in India. From his base next to the Ganges in Haridwar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, he controls a yoga and meditation network worth £150m. Every day, his early morning television show attracts up to 20 million viewers in India alone. Two years ago, he paid £2m to buy the Scottish island of Little Cumbrae to establish a spiritual centre.

So when the guru vowed to hop into a private jet, fly down to Delhi and lead a hunger strike in protest at widespread corruption in India and the amount of undeclared "black money" stashed in private bank accounts abroad, the government jumped into action. Some of its most senior figures, among them the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, were dispatched to the airport to greet the guru and whisk him off to the VIP lounge for talks. When they failed to make a breakthrough, more talks were arranged.

But it seems that the guru is not for turning. After five additional hours of negotiations yesterday afternoon at the Claridges Hotel, talks that were supposed to be secret, Mr Ramdev swept away in an entourage of vehicles, his destination the Ram Lila field on the edge of the old city, where hundreds of his supporters awaited him. The government confirmed that it had been unable to reach agreement with him on a list of demands he had handed over.

"If black money is brought back to this country, no one will go hungry, no one will be without a livelihood. Our currency will be stronger than the dollar or pound," Mr Ramdev declared as his supporters waved orange banners. "Our country's pride will rise. A country that was known for its good values is now the leading country when it comes to corruption and poverty, lack of education, population density, hunger and poverty. This is of deep anguish to me."

He added: "The same country that was the pinnacle of discipline and knowledge of science and maths, geography, the country that taught others to live, has now become a country of vice. We will restore its lost glory."

One of Mr Ramdev's supporters, Kalu Ram, said he had cycled all the way from the state of Gujarat, some 600 miles away, to join the protest. It took him eight days. "I am very worried about the level of corruption. I have to deal with it every day," said the 67-year-old Mr Ram, who works as a cook. "Sometimes I feel I could be like Nathuram Godse [the Hindu nationalist who assassinated Gandhi] to get rid of corruption in India."

The panic of the Indian government underlines a striking vulnerability within the administration. Earlier this year, when a social activist called Anna Hazare began a similar fast in the centre of Delhi, an act that triggered protests across the country, the authorities were quick on their feet, agreeing to his demands for an anti-corruption body but then tying up the matter in bureaucratic wrangling.

Mr Ramdev, though, is seen to be a potent threat. While some of his demands, such as the promotion of education in Hindi rather than English and the scrapping of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, may seem eccentric, other demands strike a nerve with India's growing middle-classes who are increasingly fed up with the rot of corruption that exists in India. He has called for all illegal money held overseas – some estimates have put the total at £280bn – to be nationalised and has asked that information about income tax be part of a right-to-information act.

Over the years Mr Ramdev has often held controversial positions. Several years ago he sparked trouble by suggesting that yoga could cure cancer and counter the effect of Aids. He has spoken out against gay people and believes corrupt officials should receive the death penalty.

Despite that, Mr Ramdev is dangerous politically. His position as a religious leader has enabled him to attract support from the Hindu right, including movements linked to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Last year, Mr Ramdev announced that he was setting up his own political party, the Bharat Swabhiman, and that he intended to field candidates in every constituency in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

There are even members of the coalition government who have not missed the irony of ministers scrambling to halt a self-imposed fast in a country where millions go without enough to eat every day. For all the stories of 8 per cent growth and a new, aspirational middle class, 48 per cent of children under the age of five are malnourished.

"We have got one in four hungry in India. We are not bothered about these hungry people, but we are bothered about someone who is going to go hungry for three days," said Dinesh Trivedi, a minister and member of the Trinamool Congress party.

Quite where the stand-off will end is unclear. The government insists it has not given up trying to dissuade Mr Ramdev from fulfilling his threat. "We do not think these issues can be resolved today ... but we are happy with the progress," said Kapil Sibal, the telecommunications minister.

Mr Ramdev, on the other hand, is equally insistent he is going ahead with his fast, starting this morning. He predicted last night that many more would join him. "Many asked me, 'Baba, how many will join this protest in this heat?' I said, 'Those will come who love their motherland. No one can stop them. Not the sun and not the heat'," he said.

"Those who will not be able to come can, in their hearts, support this movement. If you get lemon with water, I will get only water. This time we will write history."

Celebrated Swamis

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Disciples would pay up to £1,500 to learn from the man who famously brought spiritualism to The Beatles, led the Transcendental Meditation movement and exported the yogic flying technique across the globe. He died at a Dutch retreat, aged about 91, in 2008.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

The self-styled "humanitarian leader, spiritual teacher and an ambassador of peace" founded the Art of Living Foundation to promote world peace in 1982. He is particularly popular among India's middle classes and trademarked the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique, which he claims has helped millions of people all over the world to alleviate stress in the past three decades.

Mata Amritanandamayi

Commonly known as Amma (mother) or the "Hugging Saint", Mata Amritanandamayi claims to have hugged more than 26 million people to spread her message of love and healing.

Sai Baba

Some believed he was a deity, others believed he was a fraud. But the controversial guru counted several former Indian prime ministers among his millions of international followers, and tens of thousands turned out to pay their respects when he died in April aged 84.