The British public has been spared the sight of David Cameron leading us all in a group sun salutation – or a headstand – from the Downing Street rose garden or perhaps from the lawns at Chequers. In India, the homeland of yoga, people think it less strange when their leaders engage in activities that blend the physical and the spiritual, which is why there was no great feeling of amazement when the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, led a crowd of about 35,000 in a mass yoga session in Delhi.
All well and good, one might say – literally. The health benefits of stretches refined by centuries of practice and experimentation are well attested to – and almost certainly are a better alternative than the faddy diets that we go in for in the West.
At the same time, some in India saw another agenda at work, beyond a laudable desire to tone up the average Indian’s body. Members of the country’s large Muslim community, in particular, have objected, saying that Mr Modi has used the mass yoga session to push a specifically Hindu identity on all Indians, regardless of their faith. The government has denied this accusation, noting that the “Om” chant was pointedly excluded from the big warm-up in Delhi precisely to avoid controversy about coded religious messages.
It sounds like a storm in a herbal tea cup. But the problem is Mr Modi’s own backstory as a Hindu firebrand and the fact that he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat when an anti-Muslim pogrom erupted there in 2002.
Since Mr Modi became Prime Minister, he has been a more consensual national leader than many once expected. We must hope that he continues to keep his balance – in his politics as well as in his yoga.Reuse content