Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is a changed man after his sabbatical last year. He may soon become the head of the party, former minister Jairam Ramesh tells Sonia Sarkar
Ravi Shankar’s sitar notes waft in the air. I am early for my appointment, but Jairam Ramesh is already in his study at his residence in central Delhi. The former Congress minister may give the impression that he has all the time in the world for you. But he has been busy.
“You have to do a lot of work when you are in Opposition,” he says.
Last week, Ramesh filed a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for passing the Aadhaar Bill as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. A money bill does not need to be passed by the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling NDA is in a minority and where Ramesh, as a member, had suggested amendments. The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, got passed after all recommendations from the Upper House, primarily suggested by Ramesh, were rejected.
“The government declared it a money bill, which was a fraudulent declaration. I have challenged this,” the Congress spokesperson says.
Ramesh’s recommendations related to privacy. He argued that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory and should only be used for subsidy and welfare programmes.
His criticism of Aadhaar is ironical because it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which launched the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) with much fanfare in 2010. The project, which promised to give every citizen an Aadhaar number, got mired in controversy, with many holding that it violated a person’s right to privacy.
A swanky office was built in central Delhi for UIDAI during the UPA rule. The former Infosys head, Nandan Nilekani (who later fought on a Congress ticket from Bangalore and was defeated), was made its chairman.
But Ramesh distances himself from the scheme. “Neither (former Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh nor (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi nor I created any hype around Aadhaar. The only person who created the hype around Aadhaar was Nilekani,” the former rural development minister says.
Ramesh is one of the most vocal leaders of the Congress. Political watchers describe him as a good communicator, always articulate and often provocative. “Communication is also visual these days, not just oral. It is not about your words but also your body language that matters,” he explains.
It would seem that the mantra has dawned upon the Congress rather late. The party has often been criticised for not managing to communicate its policy to the people, unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, which excels in coining slogans.
“Narendra Modi has certainly brought a greater awareness of marketing, networking and communication into the political class,” Ramesh says, adding that he gives full marks to the Prime Minister’s “packaging” skills. “Whether it is Digital India or Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna or Aadhaar or the Swachh Bharat mission, he has re-packaged all our schemes well,” he says.
Ramesh, who was also minister of state for drinking water and sanitation, refers to the Swachh Bharat mission, which, as Nirmal Bharat, was one of the planks of the UPA government. He believes that when issues such as hygiene and cleanliness are taken up by a prime minister, they get “sanctity”. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, did not bring them up.
“When I was the minister, I said that India needed more toilets than temples, but I could not get my PM to talk about it,” Ramesh laments.
But Modi’s biggest failure, he adds, is that he has not brought business to India as he had promised. “There is disappointment and disenchantment, if not disillusionment, among people in the business community who voted for Modi. But the Prime Minister has to outgrow Twitter and Instagram to know the reality,” he says.
He describes Modi as “a ‘ dramebaaz‘ prime minister and not a ‘gravitas’ prime minister”, and maintains that India is now marching to an “illiberal” democracy. “The core of democratic structures – debate, dissent, discussion, compromise and negotiation – is slowly disappearing,” he says.
Ramesh himself grew up in what he refers to as an “ecumenical Hindu family”, learning Sanskrit from the age of nine. His father, a Vaishnavite and a Shankaracharya devotee, taught in engineering colleges, and he grew up in campuses in Roorkee, Bombay and Ranchi.
He recalls that when he was in IIT Bombay, where he studied mechanical engineering, a professor had urged him to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “But I refused,” he says. “I am not an RSS Hindu. I’d rather not be a Hindu if the RSS is going to tell me what a Hindu is,” he says. “This is not Tagore or Gandhi or Vivekananda’s Hinduism. This is bigoted and convoluted Hinduism.”
Ramesh is not a known follower of the silence-is-golden school. During the UPA rule, he had upset Prime Minister Singh when, in Beijing, he criticised his government’s “paranoid” attitude towards Chinese companies and investments. In 2007, he kicked up a row after he asked the then culture minister, Ambika Soni, to resign over a government affidavit to court saying that Ram was a mythological figure.
“I shouldn’t have said publicly what I said,” Ramesh admits. “Now I have learnt not to answer every question.”
He is certainly more careful than he was earlier, but still tends to speak first and regret later. He refers at length to a senior Congress leader’s attire, and then texts me after the interview, earnestly requesting me to drop those lines.
His own attire is eye-catching. Ramesh is usually to be seen in well-cut kurtas and churidars. The most striking feature is his wavy white hair that touches his neck. He doesn’t look his 62 years, and old friends recall that he looked young for his age even when he returned from the US after higher studies and joined the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices.
This was followed by stints on the advisory board in energy, ministry of industry and the Planning Commission. Perceived to be close to P.V. Narasimha Rao, he worked for three months in the Prime Minister’s Office in Rao’s government, after which he was sent back to the Planning Commission. Almost 26 years later, Ramesh says he still doesn’t know why that happened.
“That remains a mystery to me,” he says.
In his book To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, out last year, Ramesh writes that there was speculation that he was too open and accessible and couldn’t work self-effacingly. Others speculated that [godman] Chandraswami was not happy with his presence in the PMO. Some said Rao would not “stomach” anybody whom he saw as “Rajiv’s boys”.
<,>R<,>amesh was also seen as one of Rao’s blue-eyed boys. In fact, through his career, he has had people who’ve mentored him to success. Among the first was former civil servant and diplomat Abid Hussain, who introduced him to the Planning Commission in 1986. He met Sam Pitroda through Hussain, and Pitroda introduced him to Rajiv Gandhi, for whom Ramesh wrote election speeches.
Another adviser was former home minister P. Chidambaram. But the two, it is believed, fell out during the UPA’s second stint.
“We had differences. As finance minister, he had a role to play, and I also had to take care of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, rural roads and Indira Awaas Yojna. We were prisoners of circumstances,” he says.
Some whisper that Ramesh has risen in politics because of his acute networking skills. He laughs at that. “How could you say that when I don’t socialise or go out? Life has been good to me. I have been at the right place at the right time.”
And when you are a Congressman who is close to the Gandhi family, you are, of course, at the right place all the time. He has worked closely with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and is seen as an adviser to the party vice-president, Rahul Gandhi.
“Sonia Gandhi is a remarkably private person who has been thrown into the whirlpool of Indian politics which is a horrendously public enterprise,” he says. “The poker-faced serious personality one sees in public is different from the real Mrs Gandhi, who has a remarkable sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself.”
Rahul Gandhi, he adds, is “a friend and colleague, who gives me the freedom to talk”. After his sabbatical last year, when he took a 56-day break from politics, Gandhi is a “transformed man – visible, vocal and active”.
The Gandhi scion, he adds, may soon take over as the president of the party. “We hope it will happen in 2016,” he adds.
We move on to the elections in West Bengal, where the Congress has formed an alliance with the Left parties. What made it strike a deal with a sinking ship?
“The Left is not a sinking ship. The Buddha babu-led Left is very pragmatic,” he says, referring to former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “Between the Left and Trinamul, the Left is more predictable; Mamata is mercurial.”
A Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh, Ramesh’s tenure in the Upper House will end in June this year. Sections in the party are said to be opposing the half-Kannadiga and half-Tamil MP’s bid for re-election. “If the party wants me, it will have me. If the party wants somebody else, the party will have somebody else,” he says.
Like Rahul Gandhi, Ramesh is a changed man – he is being careful with his words.