Ram Madhav, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national general secretary, is a man of many interests and persuasions. He has a deep interest in strategic affairs and geopolitics, interacts closely with the diplomatic community and public intellectuals, heads India Foundation, which has emerged as a front-ranking think tank that also formulates actionable policies for the government, and is a prolific writer and columnist.
Madhav, 53, became a full-time worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at a young age of 17. He held several key positions in the RSS and was the national spokesperson of the organisation for 13 years till 2014, before he was seconded to the BJP.
Madhav is the party’s key person in Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast India.
He spoke extensively to Swarajya over two sessions at his India Foundation office and at the BJP national headquarters. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
You played an instrumental role in scripting the BJP's spectacular electoral success in Assam. How was the BJP's approach towards the Assam polls different from its earlier campaigns in that state?
In our nationalist discourse, two regions have always held a huge emotional resonance for the Sangh – Kashmir and the North East. As an RSS functionary, I remember, and more so since I was associated with drafting resolutions, that not a single year went by when we had not passed resolutions on these two regions at our annual meets.
Naturally, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, he turned his attention to these two regions. I won't call them problem areas at all; they instead present many challenges and opportunities too.
The BJP was viewed by people in the northeastern states, where we had very little electoral strength, as a party of Hindi heartland. They (people of these states) felt the party (BJP) doesn’t belong to them. The challenge was to convince them that the BJP is a pan-Indian party and also belongs to them. We had to convince the people of Assam that the BJP is their party.
The Assam elections came at a difficult time. We had suffered two setbacks in Bihar and Delhi. Assam was going to the polls with four other states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry – where the BJP has traditionally been a marginal electoral player.
So we built our campaign on Assam around very local issues. The Congress understood this very well and tried to shift the campaign on to national issues. We told our workers in Assam not to fall into the trap laid by the Congress. So we firmly kept the contest as a Sonowal versus Gogoi one. We succeeded in projecting ourselves as a viable alternative in Assam by talking about very local issues. Besides Prime Minister Modi’s personal appeal, Sarbananda Sonowal’s clean image and Himanta Biswa Sarma’s dynamic campaign have also helped us.
The election results were surprising to us; we had just four MLAs in the outgoing assembly. The verdict was overwhelmingly in our favour, and we are now working to meet the expectations of the people of Assam.
The BJP is making inroads into other northeastern states as well, which were Congress bastions. The Congress's model in the North East has typically been co-option of power elites in those states and who in turn ran a patronage network. What is the BJP’s template and how can the BJP make a difference there?
In terms of addressing the issues of the North East, it is always good and advantageous to have national parties’ strong presence. I am not playing down the importance of regional parties – they also have a nationalistic outlook. Our approach towards regional parties in the North East is different in the sense that we are not competing against them; instead we are aligning with them and mobilising them to join the grand national coalition that the BJP has initiated. It is important to make the regional parties of that region an integral part of this alliance. We have thus formed the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) that is best suited to address the issues and aspirations of the North East.
The BJP is already in alliance with regional parties. In Assam, we are in a happy alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front and the Asom Gana Parishad and we are the senior partner in that alliance. In Nagaland, for instance, we are aligned with the Naga People’s Front and we are a junior partner in that alliance.
The BJP is known as a party with a strong commitment to national integrity, and by making regional parties of the North East constituents of our grand alliance, we are promoting and cementing a greater and concrete integration of the North East with the rest of the country.
The BJP is closely identified with the idea of Hindutva. As such, how difficult is it for the party to gain currency in the Christian-majority states of the North East like Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya?
We have consciously built a strong local leadership in the Northeastern states. The BJP has to be seen as a party of all people across all regions – that is our mission. We are really promoting unity with diversity. We are absolutely committed to protecting national unity at one level, while at another level we are also committed to preserving and respecting diversity because that is what strengthens national integrity. This is our approach. We’re trying to accommodate the sentiments of the people of the North East, address their lifestyle issues and respect their diversity.
Many Christians in the North East do look upon the BJP as a Hindu party. We are trying to change that outlook and have been successful to some extent. It will take some time, but we will do it. They (the people of that region) have some doubts and questions, like on our position on beef. We have explained the legal aspects of the issue, the Constitutional protection to cows, the importance of milch cattle, etc, to them. Beyond that, we don’t interfere at all with their lifestyle issues. But it is a tightrope walk for us.
We have excellent leadership in the North East, like in Arunachal, Manipur and Assam. We have good leaders coming up in Nagaland, Tripura and other states of that region.
Tripura will go to the polls a few months from now. What are the BJP’s prospects there?
The CPI(M) has ruled Tripura for close to 25 years, but the state has remained largely backward and underdeveloped. There is a lot of unemployment. And all this is primarily due to the misrule of the CPI(M).
Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has a good image outside the state. There is a perception outside Tripura that he is a good CM (chief minister). But that is at sharp variance with the reality. Sarkar has manipulated the electoral machinery in such a way that his party has been winning elections for many years. Had it not been for this manipulation, he would have lost the elections last time (in 2013) itself. People of the state are angry with the CPI(M).
The BJP is highlighting the failures of the Manik Sarkar government and his misdeeds. We are tapping into people’s anger and promising good governance, development, employment generation, etc. We will also ensure that there is no manipulation of the electoral machinery. People’s anger against Manik Sarkar is being channelised to the BJP’s advantage and people are now looking at the BJP as a good alternative to the CPI(M).
Over the last few months, a large number of leaders of non-CPI(M) parties like the Congress and the Trinamool Congress have joined the BJP. They include sitting MLAs (six of them), former MLAs and ex-ministers who have mass support. They are joining the BJP because they see the BJP as the only party that can fight and dislodge the CPI(M) and do good for Tripura. So the BJP is gaining strength in Tripura and we are going to win the elections there.
Do you think a space exists in Bengal politics for the BJP to effectively challenge the brazen communalism and culture of violence that prevails there currently?
Due to a peculiar demographic combination, the Trinamool Congress has been winning elections. But the challenge goes beyond electoral politics. Bengali society has to realise the grave danger it faces. It has to realise that the Bengali identity is at stake. The demographic change and other developments in Bengal have serious implications for Bengalis and Bengali society. The society has to realise those implications and the danger they pose.
The BJP is articulating those dangers. Things cannot be changed in a day, and the BJP is also trying to grow in the state. It will take time. But Bengal faces a great danger today.
You played a key role in the formation of an alliance with the PDP in Kashmir. How difficult was it to form that alliance and how is it working?
No alliance is easy. Take the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Both parties have the same worldview. But is it a comfortable alliance?
But the BJP-PDP alliance is a historic alliance and will remain in the history of the subcontinent as an important development. The PDP, which had been perceived earlier as pandering to separatists at times, allied with a staunchly nationalistic party like the BJP. That in itself is a major development and marks a paradigm shift in the politics of the state and the outlook of the PDP. The alliance presents a historic opportunity for Kashmir. We have different views on some issues, like special status for Kashmir and Article 370. But the redeeming factor is that both are committed to India, to national integration. Both have zero tolerance towards separatism and terrorism.
But this alliance has also led to some sections in Kashmir feeling threatened and marginalised. They feel that if the BJP can run the government in alliance with the PDP for the full term, their separatist agenda will be in shambles. So they are trying to bounce back, and that’s why you see the violence, the protests, the stone-pelting, etc, there. They have misled the people of Kashmir. We are clear that the misled people who pelt stones are not to be treated as enemies and at par with the terrorists. We have to distinguish between the two and deal with the situation accordingly.
What is the Sangh’s perspective on the language issue since it is being accused of a pro-Hindi bias?
We are committed to maintaining and respecting the Constitutional status guaranteed to all Indian languages as national languages. All these languages should be respected equally and there is no question of imposition of one language over another.
Let me cite an example. When Punjab was being created, there were a lot of Hindus in that state whose mother tongue was Hindi. The Sangh then advised them to adopt Punjabi as their mother tongue since they were to become residents of Punjab and it was only right that they spoke in Punjabi.
The problem arises when you start pitting one language against another. The Constitution in the early days should have resolved this contentious issue and not left it festering. All languages have to be respected and you cannot pit one against another.
Despite Sangh's commitment to the linguistic diversity of the country, does the perception that it stands for Hindi promotion largely stem from its antipathy against the English language?
I hold a slightly different view from many others on this. Every country has a peculiar character. India has, too. English is, anyway, Indianised now. For seven decades, generations of Indians have been exposed to English and you cannot change that. You cannot say suddenly that English has to go.
But having said that, no non-Indian language can reflect the innate value of our sentiments, ethos, etc. Each language is a product of a society’s culture, ethos, psyche and civilisational values. The nuances of an Indian language, the innate meanings and sentiments contained in an expression or a sentence get lost when translated in English. So Indian languages are best suited to express and articulate typical Indian sentiments.
You have also been actively engaged in foreign policy, geopolitics and related issues. Has there been a major shift in the way India has been conducting its diplomacy over the past three years?
There have been significant shifts even though, at one level, foreign policy is a continuum.
Two significant foreign policy changes have happened over the past three years. One is the expansion of the foreign policy doctrine. National security and economy had been the two pillars of that doctrine till three years ago. We have added three more pillars to make it five, which Prime Minister Modi had named the ‘Panch Amrit’. The first is ‘Samman’ – respect, honour and dignity of every Indian and that of the country. So an Indian stuck in Yemen knows the Indian government will get him back safely to his country. Families of Indians missing abroad have the same confidence.
The second is ‘Samvad’, or greater engagement with people of all countries. Earlier, the engagements were just G2G (government to government) and G2B (government to business). We have added G2C (government to community) and G2D (government to diaspora). G2C is the government’s intense engagement with the culture and people of different countries, with religious leaders, public intellectuals, artists and academics, etc, of other countries. Look at all the visitors from other countries who meet Prime Minister Modi or the range of people he meets when he goes to other countries. There are littérateurs, cultural figures, academics, professionals, religious figures and a whole range of people from different walks of life.
G2D is very important for us. The diaspora can be a great source of strength in our foreign policy. Earlier, the diaspora itself was divided on caste, language and state lines. It was a divided entity and not very effective. But now we have been able to unite them. Once they have been united and organised, they have emerged as a politically influential and strong political constituency. For instance, in the US, the Indian diaspora has been the biggest contributors to both the Republicans and the Democrats. But they had little political leverage earlier. Now, it is different, and they have a lot of political clout. India, their country of origin, thus benefits. They are Americans now, citizens of the US, and have to be loyal to that country. But we tell them not to forget their country of origin, their roots. And they respond very favourably.
The other pillars are ‘Suraksha’ or security, ‘Samriddhi’ or economy (these two existed earlier) and ‘Sanskriti’ or culture and civilisation. Earlier, culture and civilisation had no place in our foreign policy. But India’s strong point is its culture and civilisation. We are increasing our engagement with other countries and the global community based on our cultural thinking and civilisational ethos. Prime Minister Modi, as we know, wears his culture on his sleeves.
Another significant change is the introduction of a very important dimension to our foreign policy: the ‘Act East’ dimension. We had a very westward outlook and used to think the US is our natural ally. The Soviet Union was also to our west and formed part of the westward outlook. But now, we’ve started looking towards the east. And even when we look east, we’ll ultimately be looking towards the USA because the world is round. But, as Modi says, “I look east and see the USA via Southeast Asia, which is a very important region for us.” Earlier, the westward view involved looking at the USA via Europe, and that did not serve our needs and interests properly. When we look east, we also adopt an ocean-centric approach and, consequently, also look at our navy and thus realise the need to accord that force its due importance and strengthen it. Earlier, thanks to the westward approach, our focus was centred around our land forces. This is a very significant change in our foreign policy.
You are at the forefront of efforts to build a vibrant ecosystem of persons and organisations who share the same worldview and Indic values and views as the BJP. How is this grand project progressing?
The biggest challenge that the nationalist movement has faced till now has been the failure to articulate nationalist thoughts and ideals in a manner that would dominate the public discourse and reflect the thinking, the aspirations and the feelings of the masses. So far, the dominating public discourse in the country has been totally disconnected with the masses and has been the preserve of a section of the political, social and economic elite.
This is partly because the political system we have had till recently did not reflect the core nationalist and Indian ideology, and the jargon and intellectual articulation of the elite was never understood by the masses. And the nationalist-minded intellectuals lacked the skills of proper articulation that would establish a strong emotional connect with the masses.
So, we are reaching out to intellectuals and others who are nationalist-minded, who believe in Indian civilisational values, who want to frame the discourse in line with Indian culture, civilisation and ethos, and who are proudly Indian in their thoughts, actions and beliefs. We realised that there is this vast constituency of such people who need to be equipped to frame their articulation in an effective manner to reflect the thinking and aspirations of the Indian masses. Over the last five to six years, we have built up this vast constituency of fellow travellers who are nationalistic in their outlook and Indic in their beliefs.
Five years ago, for instance, the dominant public discourse was secular versus communal. Now it is nationalist versus the others. This has happened because we have utilised the opportunity we got to encourage, equip and organise this vast constituency of nationalist scholars and intellectuals who are now setting the public discourse.
The India Foundation that you co-founded with a few others has emerged as an influential platform. Where do you want to take it from here?
Much more than a ‘think tank’, we are a ‘do tank’. There has been enough of thinking, and now is the time to translate that thinking into actionable policy. India Foundation focuses on that; we tap the available intelligence and scholarship and formulate policies that are actionable and pragmatic and are a break from the past. We have our flagship events to tap into the ideas of scholars, intellectuals and subject experts.
Let me give you an example. India, in terms of strategic thinking and policies, has always had a land-centric approach. But it is time to have an ocean-centric approach because the countries around the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are important for us. So a policy shift in that direction is necessary, and India Foundation has been at the forefront in advocating this policy shift. Once India changes its focus and adopts an ocean-centric approach, ports, shipyards, sea lanes and the navy become very important. And that poses a challenge as well. India Foundation formulates relevant policies on this subject.
Another very important issue we deal with is global terrorism. India has suffered terrorism for the last three decades, and, in the process, has also acquired counter-terrorism capabilities. So India has to take the lead in not only battling terrorism but also sharing its counter-terrorism capabilities with the world. This is one important area that India Foundation works in.
As far as strategic affairs is concerned, India’s goals and objectives have to be completely restated. India was a regional player, but it now aspires to be a global player. The strategy to emerge as a global player at a time of changing power axis and the dynamic of terrorism has to be sound, and India Foundation is again at the forefront of formulating this strategy. It is high time India revisits its goals and changes its strategic priorities. India Foundation advocates this and formulates actionable and cogent suggestions on how to do this.
You have a lot of organisational responsibilities in the party – you look after Kashmir and the North East – and you also run the India Foundation; you write a lot and do many other things. How do you build and sustain such a work ethic?
I have always been fond of reading and intellectual activities. I have a deep interest in strategic affairs and have studied that subject extensively. That is close to my heart and so I pursue that interest of mine very seriously, not just for the sake of pursuing an interest but for the benefit of my country. I have a passion for acquiring knowledge so as to equip myself to serve my party and my country more effectively. I write a lot since that is the natural consequence of my interest in a vast range of subjects. Fortunately, I am a fast writer and can finish (writing) an article in an hour. And whatever work my party allocates to me, I do it sincerely and to the best of my abilities. All these take time, and I have trained my body so that five and a half hours of sleep is enough for me.
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