Ru­ral Shock

The ru­ral de­vel­op­ment min­is­ter is des­per­ately try­ing to re­gain his place in the head­lines

India Today - - INSIDE - By Priya Sahgal

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 ”

MAN­MO­HAN SINGH,

Prime Min­is­ter

“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.

JAIRAM RAMESH

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