The rural development minister is desperately trying to regain his place in the headlines
The rural development minister is desperately trying to regain his place in the headlines.
Those who lived by the headlines, pine on the sidelines. It has been three months since Jairam Ramesh was banished from his headline-a-day environment ministry to rural development. He has been working hard to turn a staid ministry into a high-profile media event. He hasn’t had much luck. Most times, headlines elude him. Other times, they have been snatched away.
Ramesh was asked to receive visiting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when she made a lightning 15-minute trip to the Tin Bigha corridor on October 20. Eager to grab a moment for himself, he had even prepared a speech in Bengali, written in the Roman script. He was informed at the last minute that Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad would be sent instead. Apparently, the Prime Minister’s Office wanted a ‘senior’ min- ister to welcome the dignitary.
His lack of seniority notwithstanding, Ramesh has had a remarkable rise in the Cabinet. From a first-time minister in UPA 1, he has made it to Cabinet rank in UPA 2. In the environment ministry, it was easy to make sure that he was not ignored. The question of seniority never came up as he took on half his Cabinet colleagues and Page Three industrialists. There are not that many high-profile visitors to his new office as there were in his old domain. Neither are the skirmishes as entertaining.
“Jairam has been given more responsibility where his talent will be better utilised ”
“Jairam has been given more responsibility where his talent will be better utilised,” Manmohan Singh had said soon after he shifted Ramesh to the rural development ministry with a Cabinet upgrade. The Prime Minister is not known for his enigmatic one-liners but when it comes to Ramesh, he makes the effort. He did not expand on the exact nature of Ramesh’s talent. Instead, by sending him to a ministry that is responsible for some of Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s favourite projects—the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill and Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( MGNREGA)— Manmohan has cleverly ensured that Ramesh is now a part of Rahul’s in-tray.
Even if the articulate Ramesh doesn’t make it to the headlines, he does gets A for effort. He painted his new office green, installed a glass door to replace the wooden one. But few noticed. He then resorted to an old favourite
trick, which is to jump into the debate of the day—especially if it’s a cause that either Congress President Sonia Gandhi or her son Rahul espouse. At an awards function recently, he made his views on the RTI Act known. “Some ministers feel they spend too much time handling RTI. That is no excuse for its dilution,” he said, blithely taking on the Prime Minister who has hinted at the possibility of a rethink. Unfortunately for the rural development minister, his views on RTI did not get as much media attention as some of his other colleagues in better placed portfolios.
Team Anna was keen that Ramesh be part of the Government team during the dialogue in May-june. But he was kept out. That didn’t stop him. On August 23 during the Ramlila crisis, he took most of his Cabinet colleagues by surprise by announcing that he would be working on a Public Services Grievances Redressal bill. This was one of the demands of Team Anna but it fell within the purview of another ministry, the ministry of personnel. Ramesh said that while he had not been asked to draft this, he was drawing on his MNREGA experience, all of 42 days, to do so. And if the Government did not find use for his draft, he would implement it to check corruption in his ministry. There is a reason why so few of his colleagues see him as a team player.
Ramesh knows whom to please. Aware of the importance Rahul gave to the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill, he had the legislation ready in record time—two weeks after he took office on July 12. He has also taken on Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and dashed off a letter to her complaining about corruption in the state-run MNREGA schemes.
He knows all the moves. But without the media glare, all he is doing is winking in the dark. Another ploy was to put the draft bill on the website. This got him the approval of civil activists who complain that most bills go straight from the ministry to Cabinet to Parliament. Usually it’s available for public viewing only at the Standing Committee stage. “He has energised the ministry. In MGNREGA, he’s not undertaken a whole lot of new things but he is making an effort at those that are doable. The real challenge is ensuring those are fully implemented,” says social activist Nikhil Dey. Somehow, appeasing activists is not the same as taking on Posco and Lavasa. The fun is missing. So is the hype.
In his earlier ministry, every move of his made headlines—whether it was riding an elephant or wearing a garland of brinjals to protest against GM foods. In his new ministry, he is doing much more meaningful work. But it’s just not interesting enough. At a recent meet of the National Development Council, Ramesh was not amused when Himachal Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal complained about wild animals spoiling crops and suggesting that driving them away be included in MGNREGA schemes. Later, the minister muttered, “Now they want to use MGNREGA to drive away monkeys!” Certainly not what Ramesh had envisaged for his ministry’s flagship scheme. Or himself.