The Backroom Operative Spreading Conservatism Across India
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he could keep India’s prime minister in power even if the BJP falls short.
It was winter, and a political win seemed so near yet so far. But Ram Madhav’s smile remained intact as he made visit after visit to Srinagar in Kashmir in December 2014. His Bharatiya Janata Party had just won more seats than ever before in the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature, though it was still well short of a majority. Madhav would transform the loss into an unprecedented triumph.
Over three months, Madhav, 54, a backroom political operative with no mass appeal, carefully stitched together the most unlikely of political alliances between his Hindu nationalist party, which had dominated the Jammu region, and the People’s Democratic Party, which had won all its seats in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region. The government they formed in March 2015 brought the BJP to power for the first time in India’s only Muslim-majority state.
It was the first of a series of stunning political victories Madhav has engineered through alliances that have let the BJP taste power where the party had little presence, a practice that could hold lessons for global conservative movements as they seek to expand. The two keys: Be flexible and think local.
Madhav told reporters that the party “did not let any national issue hijack our agenda of keeping local issues at the top.”
In the northeast, where there’s a significant Christian, tribal and Indo-Mongolian population, the BJP never controlled a state government until 2014. Now, it rules in five out of the region’s eight states — Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh — after winning elections where the behind-the-scenes negotiator and alliance broker was, in each case, Madhav. And though the alliance with the PDP crumbled in 2018, it helped the BJP deepen its roots in a state — Jammu and Kashmir — that appeared perennially out of reach.
“Ram Madhav was the one responsible for making that alliance work in the [Kashmir] valley,” says Ishtaq Wani, spokesperson for the state BJP. “I remember he worked extensively with Mehbooba Mufti [the PDP president] on the agenda of development and made it work.” Madhav’s staff did not cooperate with interview requests.
Emphasizing local concerns over broader conservative themes has been central to Madhav’s success. After he led the BJP’s campaign strategy for its win in Assam in 2016 — the Congress party had ruled the state for 15 years — Madhav told reporters that the party “did not let any national issue hijack our agenda of keeping local issues at the top.” That approach enabled the BJP, which has campaigned for a beef ban nationally, to allow the meat in the northeast, where it’s a staple food.
Born and raised in Andhra Pradesh, Madhav graduated from the University of Mysore in Karnataka with a degree in political science. His association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing organization that is the BJP’s mother ship, started when he was a teenager. In 2014, when Narendra Modi was elected, Madhav became one of the national secretaries of the party. Many of his colleagues call him “shrewd” and a “great conversationalist.” Critics say his influence is overrated.
A professor from the government-run Shaheed Bhagat Singh College in New Delhi, who has studied the BJP’s growth in the northeast but requested anonymity for fear of retribution from the ruling party, says of Madhav: “He is just somebody who BJP implanted in J&K and the northeast. He is an RSS ideologue with no original ideas of his own.” The professor added that Madhav “doesn’t even know the region very well.”
Madhav is soft-spoken, but his calm exterior — a smile rarely leaves his face beneath a curly mop of hair — has also given way to controversial and provocative statements. In 2015, he threw shade at the vice president of India at the time, Hamid Ansari, for missing the International Yoga Day celebrations. It turned out Ansari was not even invited to the event and couldn’t have been, per protocol, since the prime minister was the chief guest. The Modi government had to apologize for Madhav’s criticism. On another occasion, he called for the unification of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — referred to as Akhand Bharat (Unified India) — and his PR team had to run pillar to post to do damage control. Madhav later apologized and said his comments were taken out of context. He has also faced accusations of undermining electoral mandates — in Manipur, the BJP came to power in 2017 by allying with smaller parties, even though the Congress was the largest party in a hung house.
But he remains Modi’s go-to person in arenas that haven’t always been friendly for the prime minister or his party. Harinder Gupta, Madhav’s party colleague in Jammu and Kashmir, calls him a “seasoned player” and credits him with the alliance between PDP and BJP: “No one person could have done what he did.” The successful Madhav-led BJP strategy was to take on the regional parties’ campaign planks, says Nani Gopal Mahanta, a political science professor at Gauhati University. “Madhav has played a big role in helping shape BJP’s face in the northeast states,” he says.
Beyond India, Madhav has helped spotlight Modi as an international figure to reckon with. Before 2014, the U.S. had barred Modi from receiving an American visa following his inaction during the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, where he was then chief minister. Though the U.S. reached out to Modi in early 2014 when it became clear he was a front-runner for power, an image makeover was needed. Madhav made three visits to the U.S. to organize a massive public rally for Modi at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in September 2014 during the PM’s first official visit to the country. It was the first of several such giant diaspora rallies — including in Sydney and London — that helped establish Modi as an ally for international partners keen to tap into Indian-origin votes in their own countries.
It’s at home, though, where Madhav faces his next big test. If Modi and the BJP fall short of the halfway mark in Parliament after the 2019 elections — as is widely expected — Madhav will be working behind the scenes, bearing a smile and a flexible approach, to win over partners and cobble together a government once again.
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