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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.

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The knives are out in the Congress Party — and fingers are being pointed at Rahul Gandhi’s lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s aide in the National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Sonia Sarkarand Smitha Verma look at the rumpus

Success, as the wise man said, has many fathers; failure is an orphan. The Congress party’s electoral debacle is a case in point. Nobody wants to take the blame for its worst ever performance in a general election, but quite a few are ready to point fingers at others. Milind Deora has blamed advisors of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for the defeat; former sports minister Jitendra Singh has accused Deora of not speaking out when he was a minister. And quite a few stalwarts have blamed outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The knives, indeed, are out.

But nobody, perhaps, is being blamed as much as Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant Madhusudan Mistry, and party president Sonia Gandhi’s vocal aide in the controversial National Advisory Council (NAC), Aruna Roy. Mistry failed miserably as the man in charge of Uttar Pradesh. And though Roy resigned from the NAC last year, many see her support for programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Assurance (MGNREGA) scheme as one of the reasons for the Congress’s downfall.

So who is Madhusudan Mistry?

In the Congress, the voice against Mistry is getting shriller by the day. The former Sabarkantha MP, who lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara, has been described as the “poor man’s Amit Shah”. Mistry did everything that Modi’s aide did — travel across UP, work on his laptop for long hours and weigh would-be candidates.

“But if Shah did everything right, Mistry did everything wrong,” a party watcher says. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally won 73 seats out of 80 in UP, the Congress won two.

Mistry, 69, doesn’t want to talk about all this. He is at home, recovering from sunstroke and diarrhoea. “We will speak (of the defeat) within the party. We will resolve our problems,” says Mistry, who is meeting Gujarat party workers on May 31.

The Rajya Sabha MP impressed Rahul Gandhi with his performance in Parliament. “He had cent per cent attendance. He is also extremely good at composing drafts and has a good grasp of social issues. Rahul liked these qualities and made him a part of his core team,” an observer says.

His entry into the Congress, however, was through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela. Mistry, who ran a non-government organisation called Developing Initiatives for Social and Human Action (DISHA) in Sabarkantha focusing on tribal rights, was addressing a tribal rally when Vaghela, who was then in the BJP, spotted him.

Later, when Vaghela left the BJP to set up the Rashtriya Janata Party, he made Mistry its president. When Vaghela joined the Congress in 1998, so did Mistry. He fought and won from Sabarkantha in 2002, reclaimed it in 2004 but lost the seat in 2009 by 17,000 votes.

Some Congressmen whisper that he has connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On Twitter, Mistry has denied this. Some accuse him of converting tribals into Christians, which again Mistry has denied. At a public meeting, he took out a string with beads around his neck to show that he was a Hindu.

The father of four lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara. Mistry is proud to be a jholachhap and maintains a simple lifestyle. “He is so simple that he eats sitting on the floor. Looking at him, nobody can gauge how big he is politically,” an aide says.

A Gujarati OBC, he was brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. He worked as a mason when he was in school, and then as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. After doing a course on moulding from the Indian Technical Institute, he won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started DISHA.

But the problem, the Congress watcher says, is that he likes to cash in on his “self-made image” which irks others. “And he harps on the fact that he has no old connections with the party, which many members have. Gandhi appreciates this, but the veteran party members don’t.”

Mistry was put in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, which the Congress-led front won. In 2013, he looked after the Karnataka elections, which again the Congress won. But some argue that Kerala anyway has a strong Congress presence, and Karnataka was going through an anti-BJP wave.

His failure in UP has elbowed out his successes. A party member says that one of the reasons behind the failure is his inability to handle people. “He doesn’t like people crowding his office. He doesn’t entertain calls at odd hours. He doesn’t even chat with party workers over chai and samosa.”

A small section, however, speaks up for him. Other Congressmen, it says, are irked by his rise in the party and closeness to Gandhi. “He is also very straight forward. His intentions are good but he can’t perform,” a Congress MLA says.

Mistry replaced Narendra Rawat, who had won the primary held in Vadodara. “Mistry told everyone in Gujarat that it was his lifetime wish to fight against Modi,” a Congress leader says. Modi defeated him by over 5,70,000 votes.

And then there was Roy.

This time last year, in one of the thickly-carpeted rooms of the NAC office in a sprawling bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi, a resignation letter was discussed in hushed tones. Just before the advisory board convened its 30th meeting, NAC chairperson Gandhi was handed over the letter. And Aruna Roy, social activist and anti-corruption crusader, walked out of the organisation for the second time since its inception in 2004, saying that she did not wish to be considered for another term.

Earlier this month, it held its last meeting.

Roy’s detractors believe that she contributed to the Congress defeat. MGNREGA, spearheaded by Roy among others, offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. And it led to an estimated two per cent rise in inflation — which rattled the middle class.

Not everybody is convinced of this. “How can you blame the NAC or Roy for the downfall? If anything, their advice was heeded in the UPA’s first term and not in the second one,” argues social activist and Roy aide Nikhil Dey.

Roy, 67, became a part of the Gandhi coterie when she was inducted into the 12-member body comprising former civil servants, activists and academics. It was often called a parallel or kitchen cabinet run by Sonia Gandhi.

“The NAC wielded extra-constitutional power, superseding the Cabinet, contributing to the perception that the Prime Minister wasn’t really in charge,” says Nitin Pai, who runs the think tank Takshashila Institution in Bangalore.

Roy and Sonia, says a former NAC member, shared a comfortable working relationship. “The chairperson always listened patiently to her and gave her inputs much credence.” But Roy quit the NAC in 2006, accusing the government of moving away from its common minimum programme. She returned to the NAC in 2010. “She and (academic) Jean Dreze were forever threatening to resign when things didn’t go their way,” a detractor says.

Gandhi, who relied on Roy, was “hurt” when she resigned last year, the former member says. “The chairperson wrote a nice parting letter to Roy highlighting her contribution but was greatly disappointed when Roy went to the media about her displeasure with the NAC,” he says.

Even as a section of economists rails against Roy, the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner is looked upon well in the social sector for her crusade against corruption. A Tamilian, she joined the IAS in 1968 but quit the bureaucracy in 1974 to follow in her husband Sanjit “Bunker” Roy’s path of social work. In 1983, she set up the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS) in Rajasthan for empowering farmers. From there she started a movement for the public’s right to scrutinise official records that laid the foundation for the Right to Information Act.

In 2011, Roy — whom political analyst Swapan Dasgupta describes as the “Queen Bee of India’s jholawalas” in one of his columns — figured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people. But her background as a former IAS officer and the fact that she knew almost every senior bureaucrat riled a section in the Congress. Some say she particularly ruffled feathers when she referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by his first name at meetings.

MGNREGA has its share of vocal critics, too. They believe it’s a waste of money as people are paid for little or no work. “It wasn’t implemented well and it failed to create rural assets,” says economist Narendra Jadhav, member, Planning Commission, and former NAC member.

“There was often disagreement within the NAC. You had to come up with really good arguments to counter Roy because she held a strong viewpoint,” says Ashis Mondal, an NAC member in its second term.

Roy, back with MKSS, rubbishes the allegations. She doesn’t want to talk about her relationship with Sonia but is scathing about MGNREGA opponents. “There is a rich farmer-industrialist-contractor lobby opposing it. They are backed by economists who want no expenditure to be incurred on the development of the poor,” Roy adds.

The alumna of Delhi University is preparing for her next role. She is keeping a close watch on what the new government does with MGNREGA and warns of a backlash if it is disbanded.

But that’s for the new government to work on. For the Congress, the defeat marks the end — and start — of an era. After the blame game, work may start.

  • *Till 1.1.2013

Career Graph

  • Under fire: Madhusudan Mistry (top) and Aruna Roy

 Rajya Sabha MP Madhusudan Mistryis said to be close to Rahul Gandhi. The former MP from Sabarkantha lost to Narendra Modi from Vadodara.

 Was in charge of UP for the Congress. Earlier, he’d been in charge of the 2011 Kerala state Assembly elections, and of the Karnataka elections in 2013.

 Entered the Congress through former Gujarat chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela.

 Lives in a two-storey house in Vadodara and maintains a simple lifestyle.

 Brought up by his grandmother, a vegetable seller. Worked as a mason when in school, and as an office peon, a clerk and a colour mixer. Won a scholarship to Ruskin College, affiliated to Oxford University, for a diploma in development studies. After working for Oxfam, he started an NGO.

 Former NAC member Aruna Roy is being blamed for MGNREGA, which offered 100 days of guaranteed wage-employment in a year to a rural household. Critics hold that the jobs programme helped fuel inflation.

 The Ramon Magsaysay Award winner joined the IAS but quit to join her husband “Bunker” Roy in social work in Rajasthan.

 Figured in Time magazine’s 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.


Rahul Gandhi smiles at the world from huge billboards lining the dusty and pot-holed roads of Amethi. But there is a stranger in town who vows to wipe out the smile. And that’s a little known poet called Kumar Vishwas.Kumar is likely to be fielded from the Gandhi pocket borough by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2014 general election. And the 43-year-old outsider is doing all he can to strike a chord in the heart of the eastern Uttar Pradesh town. “I have come here to listen to you,” he says, addressing some 300 people in the Salon area of Amethi.

While Gandhi has been busy addressing Congress members in Delhi, Kumar is canvassing hard in Amethi. He starts his day at seven in the morning, and his cavalcade of four cars — with Vishwas in a white Scorpio — weaves its way through the town, stopping every now and then to address meetings in a constituency that Gandhi has won twice, and which was earlier represented by his uncle, Sanjay, his father, Rajiv, and later, his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Kumar’s plank is that of lack of development. “People of Amethi are angry with Rahul Gandhi because there has been no development here,” he says.

Indeed, the people do have a litany of complaints. Amethi — which comprises the five Assembly constituencies of Tiloi, Salon, Jagdishpur, Gauriganj and Amethi — has an average literacy rate of 39 per cent, far lower than the national average of 59.5 per cent.

Though there are six government colleges in Amethi, no new college has come up in the 10 years since Gandhi’s first election from Amethi in 2004. A new extension campus of the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Allahabad, has been opened, but locals complain that it doesn’t help them.

  • Winning turf : Sunita Kori (left) with Kumar Vishwas

“Admissions take place in Allahabad. And there is no reservation for us,” Deepak Sharma, a 23-year-old unemployed science graduate, rues.

As Kumar meets people in village corners, they crowd around him to complain about unemployment. In recent years, factories of LML Vespa, Usha Rectifiers and Samrat Bicycles have shut. Only a few companies remain, notably Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Associated Cement Companies Limited and Indo Gulf Fertilisers.

It was only last year that the foundation of the 67km-long Unchahar-Salon-Amethi rail line was laid by Rahul Gandhi. Last year, he also announced the setting up of 140 food processing units in the Jagdishpur Industrial Area and a paper mill in Amethi. But the locals are not sure if they will get jobs.

“With no new projects, we don’t even get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. So what will these government investments do for us,” Mohammed Arif, a resident of Bhadar village, asks.

Kumar is making the most of the resentment. “Do you see any development in your village,” he thunders. “Where are the roads? Where is electricity? Don’t you think you should question your parliamentarian?”

You can see that the people are drawn to Kumar, who peppers his speeches with colloquial Hindi words and barbs, and bits of poetry. He makes fun of the dynastic rule of the Gandhi family by referring to Rahul as babua (a nickname for small boys) and Yuvraj (Prince). “You may not be able to meet your Yuvraj but I will be there for you. I will be your slave,” he says.

Though new to politics, Kumar, clearly, is a shrewd politician. He praises Rajiv Gandhi — for the people of Amethi still hold him in reverence — while pulling down his son. And he knows that in Amethi, Muslims account for 13 per cent of the total 12 lakh votes. His mission now is to assuage the fears of Muslims, perturbed by his anti-Islamic remarks of 2005.

Of course, a lot of his rhetoric is borrowed. He uses the message of an old poster for secularism by pointing out that Ramzan, the Muslim period of fasting, starts with the name of Ram, while the Hindu festival Diwali, ends with the name Ali.

The Dalits, comprising 28 per cent of the total vote, are another constituency he focuses on. He visited Sunita Kori, a Dalit woman with whom Gandhi had shared a meal in 2008, and in whose house he had spent a night. “Rahul Gandhi ate at a Dalit’s house and advertised it widely. But did he invite any Dalit to his house,” Kumar asks.

It looks like a clever political strategy to call on the woman Gandhi had charmed. But Kumar insists that it was just a coincidence. “When I was passing by the village, someone pointed out Kori’s house. So I stopped to see how she was doing,” he says. “I was very surprised to find that she was living in a pathetic condition. She neither has a roof over her head nor does she or her husband have a job. I have promised her that we will pool in money to put an asbestos roof.”

Kori seems impressed by Kumar, and disillusioned by Gandhi. A mother of three, she managed to meet Rahul only after repeated attempts last year. “But I was shocked that he didn’t even recognise me. Nor did he offer any help,” she says.

Qattar Singh of Salon is not charmed by Gandhi either. He points out that one of the major problems that the people of Amethi face is that Gandhi is inaccessible. “He comes and goes. But we never get to tell him our problems. His security officers never let us go near him,” Singh complains.

But Amethi has its share of Gandhi family loyalists too. “If anyone can do any good to Amethi, it is the Gandhis,” says Radhey Shyam Tewary, a history professor in Amethi’s RRPG College.

Local Congressmen are doing their bit to counter Kumar. He was recently attacked by his political opponents for praising Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in a symposium a few years ago. “In poetry sessions, we often say good things about the chief guests. I was not political when I said all this,” Kumar replies.

The man from Pilkhuwa in Hapur, however, misses being a poet. “I used to do political satire in my shows. I would make fun of Atal Behari Vajpayee and even Manmohan Singh but I have stopped because it might lead to controversy,” he says, popping peanuts into his mouth, while his car takes him to the interiors of Amethi.

There is nothing to show — even physically — that the constituency has powerful patrons. The town is crowded like most small towns, and the villages — with thatched huts — look like time has passed them by.

He hops out of his car near one such village. A small child calls out his name, and Kumar stops. “Tell your parents not to vote for Rahul Gandhi because he has not done his homework,” he says, as the crowd bursts into loud cheers.

It doesn’t look like he has stirred up a wave in Amethi, but he may have converted some voters. “We voted for Rahul because we didn’t know anyone. Now we have an option,” schoolteacher Satyam Piyush, 23, says.

But senior Congress leaders such as Rammurti Shukla hold that the charm of Kumar will vanish in no time. “People gather to listen to his poetry. At the end of the day, they will vote for the Congress,” Shukla says. “Kumar should understand that it is a political battle and not a mushaira (poetry session).”

The going has not been all that easy for Kumar. Eggs were hurled at him at some meeting. Somewhere people threw ink. But Kumar is not giving up the battle. “If I want something in life, I make all the effort to get it. It will happen this time too,” he says.

( This was published in The Telegraph, January 19, 2014)



    • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
    • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
    • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...