Power of yoga or strength of diplomacy?

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Narendra Modi’s call to celebrate yoga day on 21 June has people around the world bending over backwards. Analysts call it the Prime Minister’s biggest India branding exercise

People started stirring well before the sun rose over India’s capital New Delhi on 21 June.

They crept from air-conditioned sanctuaries of bungalows in Lutyens’ zone and apartments in the sprawling suburbs around.

In the sticky dawn air they made their way to Rajpath – the ceremonial boulevard in the heart of the city, which six months ago saw a throbbing display of military muscle and missiles to mark Republic Day.

Today, the missiles were tucked away.

What was on display instead was far gentler, but still packed a visual punch: some 40,000 students, bureaucrats, police and everyday Indians gathered to perform a yoga routine as part of the world’s very first International Day of Yoga.

Amid it all, unexpectedly, was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stretching and bending on the bitumen alongside the common man. Pausing every now and again to wipe his sticky brow with a tricolour scarf.

Officials had said Modi, who first proposed an International Yoga Day while speaking at the United Nations last year, would not join in the planned yoga routine and would instead sit and watch from a stage.

But after delivering a speech announcing the arrival of a new yoga era, Modi abruptly marched down to join the masses sitting cross-legged on yoga mats, stretching down Rajpath as far as the eye could see.

Chaos ensued as hundreds of sweating journalists rushed to follow, wielding elbows like swords to angle for the best spot.

For a moment the Prime Minister’s security guards were overwhelmed and Modi was mobbed – they may be trained to tackle terrorists, but few could hold back a stampede of infamously pushy Indian hacks, especially when the country’s Prime Minister is so tantalisingly close.

Eventually a human chain of guards corralled the reporters and to the crowd’s delight, Modi took his place on a mat to lead the 35-minute routine.

A biography on Modi claims the Prime Minister rises each day at 5am to practice yoga and he’s credited the practice with giving him unwavering energy on scant sleep. “Whenever I feel tired, I just practice deep breathing and that refreshes me again,” he once told fans on Google Hangout.

When Modi suddenly sat on a mat for all the world to see, it was a chance to judge if his words rang true. Just how flexible was the 64-year-old? Turns out, quite. A backbend saw him comfortably arching, face raised to the heavens. During the breathing exercises he could be heard exhaling forcefully, from a distance of some 10-metres away.

Of course, International Yoga Day is not just about yoga – a practice believed to have originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, 3000 to 6000 years ago.

Foreign policy analysts say the event is a well-aimed exercise in soft power diplomacy targeting the West, which long ago fell in love with yoga and set about commercialising it.

Vivan Sharan, a Partner at Koan Advisory Group and Visiting Fellow at Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation, dubbed Yoga day as a “branding exercise,” saying it served to enhance India’s “projection as a regional and global power.”

“The International Day of Yoga must now be neatly placed within India’s soft power projection, as well as its larger economic and political aspirations,” Sharan wrote. “For those who see India as a rapidly developing emerging economy, yogic traditions represent an opportunity to achieve nirvana in a capitalist dystopia.”

A good chunk of Modi’s rein has been dedicated to foreign relations, making official trips to Australia, the United States and Europe, among many others, to promote India as a country eager for foreign investment. It comes after he rose to power last year promising to boost India’s economy and bring “ache din” or good days to the country’s millions living in poverty, many still without electricity.

International Yoga Day was celebrated around the world, including in Australia, where Brett Lee stretched out his cricketing muscles alongside the Consul General of India in Australia, Sunjay Sudhir, at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

In Delhi, the event wound up with Modi holding his open palms over his face, in the standard yoga practice. He went for a quick wander to greet the crowd, being briefly mobbed again, and then was gone, marching back up Rajpath and off to get on with the business of ruling the country.

No sooner had he left than a sweeping gust of wind sent yoga mats scattering; a rainstorm rolling in, bringing momentary relief to the relentless summer heat.

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