Ram Madhav is emerging as BJP’s firefighter

Ram Madhav is emerging as BJP’s firefighter

By PRIYA SAHGAL | NEW DELHI | 26 September, 2015
BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav in a meeting with BJP Mahila Morcha delegation at the party office in New Delhi on 19 September. PTI
It is the combination of pragmatic political sense and the trust of those who matter that makes Ram Madhav an indispensable member of Team Narendra Modi.

It is interesting but not surprising that the first clarification for RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's comments on asking for a relook at reservations came not from BJP spokesmen or the RSS headquarters, but from the Twitter handle of Ram Madhav. "The RSS clarifies that Shri Bhagwatji has not made any comment on the existing reservation system" tweeted Madhav. And in 140 characters, he put a lid on a controversy that was threatening to impact the party's backward vote in the impending Bihar elections.

It's not that Ram Madhav, RSS pracharak on deputation to the BJP, acted without first consulting the powers that be. He has the necessary access — both with the Prime Minister's Office and the RSS headquarters — as well as the political savvy needed for damage control. It is this combination of pragmatic political sense as well as the trust of those who matter that makes this first-time general secretary an indispensable member of Team Narendra Modi. For Ram Madhav himself will be the first to tell you that "the more RSS is hit, the weaker the BJP will become". What is left unsaid is the fear that the Modi government should not become the A.B. Vajpayee government. It is this understanding that has made Madhav the de facto sounding board for the party's crisis management group of spokespersons that voice the BJP response to any situation.

It was in July 2014 that Madhav was sent on deputation to the BJP. But even before this, he had already acquired a national presence appearing on television as the RSS spokesperson, articulating the organisation's somewhat rigid views, speaking rationally in a language understood in our metros' drawing rooms. His rise in the BJP has been rapid for almost instantly he was promoted to general secretary handling the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. But more importantly, he has become Modi's Go-To Man in organising the PM's interactions with the Indian diaspora.

It was last year that the PM wowed the West with his Madison Square Garden moment. The spadework for this was done by Ram Madhav during three trips to the US, tapping into the network he had built as a pracharak. Originally conceived as a one-off, this has since been duplicated in Sydney, Shanghai, Dubai and now the West Coast. Apart from showcasing Modi's Visa Power and global charm, there is also a sound rationale behind these events. According to an organiser, "Both Modi and Ram Madhav have observed how Israel uses the powerful Jewish lobby in the US to lobby for their homeland. So why cannot we do the same? The Indian diaspora is roughly 25 million across the world." BJP sources claim that realising the potential of these gatherings, as many as 14 US lawmakers have pitched in to organise Modi's interaction with the Indo-American community during his visit to the West Coast.

Ram Madhav keeps it simple. He attributes these "Modi-Wows-the-Diaspora" events to the BJP's "Panch Amrit" (five nectars) foreign policy that was articulated at the national executive in Bangalore recently. "Samman (dignity), Samvad (greater engagement), Sanskriti-Sabhyata (cultural and civilisational linkages) were part of the five pillars of our policy resolution," he points out. "Outside the purview of hardcore government engagement on foreign policy, such interactions are useful tools for diplomatic engagement. The PM's popularity helps in creating a community unity and helps the diaspora connect with their homeland. It should not be seen as a partisan event." A party worker claims that the Kerala Muslim Congress was peeved at not being invited to organise the PM's Dubai event. Despite all the talk about being non partisan, both the BJP and the congress are all too aware of that the 2.6 million Indians living in West Asia have their roots in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Two southern states that are going to the polls in 2016.

Moreover, do not be fooled by the suave sound bites, the telegenic FabIndia kurtas, the smartphones and latest iPad. At heart, the 51-year-old Ram Madhav is still the bal pracharak, who at a young age carried messages to and fro from RSS leaders underground during the Emergency. In the BJP, he has learnt to give the right spin to some of the RSS hardline statements, but that does not tone down his inherent ideology. "There is a difference between being modern and being western," he tells The Sunday Guardian. "I may be wearing a kurta pyjama but I am sufficiently liberal, democratic and open to criticism. In that sense, I am modern. But at the same time, being modern should not be confused with being westernised. The two are not synonymous. Look at China, it is modern. But do you see a KFC or a McDonalds there?"

And like the equally modern Modi, he is quick to grasp the importance of social media. He knows the power of Twitter — both to convey a message and a snub. Recently, his putdown to Rahul Gandhi went viral. This was in response to Rahul Gandhi's statement that the "RSS promotes mediocrity". Madhav immediately shot back with a tweet: "RSS leaders are upset with Rahul's comment. They say, we never promoted him." As a putdown, it has its Modi-sque touch. Not surprising then that Ram Madhav's followers on Twitter have reached 216k, outdoing Rahul Gandhi's official Twitter handle @OfficeofRG of 188k followers.

Being audacious may not be something that he learnt in the RSS, but in Modi's BJP it is paying him rich dividends. For he could not have crafted the politically antithetical BJP-PDP alliance without the PM's backing. According to Madhav, despite the many differences, the alliance is solid. "The differences are not with the alliance, but over issues. These can be sorted. There is a CMP (common minimum programme) in place," he says.

Again it was as a pracharak that Ram Madhav built ties in the Valley and a credibility that helped persuade the separatist leader Sajjad Ghani Lone to be a minister in the BJP-PDP government. In a pensive moment, he recounts one of his earlier visits to the Valley in 2002 when, like all RSS leaders visiting the area, he asked for a security cover. The local police told him that if they gave him a cover he would immediately be identified as someone who needs protecting. Without a cover, he would be seen as a liberal and accepted easily. It's a lesson Madhav remembers. As he does his interview with Jagmohan, the former Governor of J&K. At the time, he was editing Jagriti, a Telugu weekly. During the interview, Jagmohan explained the psyche of the Valley: the Kashmiri people will support the Centre, but they need the assurance that when they are attacked, you will protect them. The headline that Ram Madhav gave to his story was: You need a stern state.

His place in current day BJP is assured because he has a good equation with the rest of Team Modi — be it party president Amit Shah or Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. This helps in his task to act as a buffer between the BJP and the RSS. As he says, "I am not a hardliner, or a softliner. I am a pragmatist." And isn't that what realpolitik is all about? His other interest: geopolitics also appeals to Modi, who has been sending Madhav as his unofficial ambassador to the rest of the world, be it to China, Israel, Sri Lanka, Nepal or to the US.

Certainly the boy from Andhra Pradesh, named after Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS, has adapted to his new role with an almost instinctive ease. And an ever present affable smile. Both have stood him in good stead.

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