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Cover Story

Battering Ram

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It was only in the fitness of things that Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh survived the Chinese tremors he sent across Congress with comments seen as "unambiguously anti-national". None gave him a chance when he criticised the home ministry from Beijing for stalling Chinese telecom projects because of security apprehensions. Yet, he came out unscathed to author a few weeks later the most critical of the UPA government's policy decisions - the closure of Vedanta's bauxite mines in Orissa.

Old-timers in the Congress marvel at the way in which he has become a trusted lieutenant of 10 Janpath after calling its occupant, Sonia Gandhi, "the Rabri Devi of the Congress". But Jairam is different. The man, variously seen as a bright policy wonk and an incorrigible enfant terrible, manages to land on his feet from whatever height he falls.

An engineer, an economist, a policymaker or a campaign strategist, the environment minister of UPA-2 is an enigma to the world at large. To insiders, however, he is the quintessential political animal who made the right decision to opt for the vagaries of a career in politics when his peers from MIT went in for big bucks in the corporate world. Today, Jairam is lording over both big money and bigger men. Ask Vedanta.

Unconventional is the word to describe him. For a man who has worked the system in the Congress, he should know that the queen's keepers remain anonymous and unobtrusive. Jairam, on the other hand, revels in being in the spotlight with off-the-cuff remarks. Risk is the name of his game and Jairam has succeeded like no other in polarising opinion about him.

Most Congressmen resent his meteoric rise, complaining he lacks the mandatory Congress apprenticeship. He has never won a Lok Sabha election, he does not belong to a vote-bank caste or state lobby and is autonomous to a fault. And while he is grudgingly accepted as the high command's points-person, he has not earned his spurs as 'loyalist' in the tradition of the N D Tiwaris and Arjun Singhs of yore. The latter's recent lament that the Congress high command's parameters of loyalty are no longer as rigorous could well have been aimed at Jairam.

But what most find difficult to stomach is the way his gaffes are overlooked when similar ill-advised remarks have sounded the death knell for leaders of "much more consequence". A constant refrain about Jairam is, "Sar pe bitha rakha hai (he's given too much leeway)."

While the hostility that Jairam evokes is inevitable in a party that resembles a pot full of lobsters pulling at each other, there is also silent recognition that he has survived his many crises largely because his merit earns him a long rope. A Congress insider, no less exasperated by his shenanigans than his detractors, confessed, "We need people who can draft manifestoes, flesh out policies and who have a high IQ. Just vote-catchers and election-winners cannot run an institution like the Congress. " This was said when it was still not clear whether he would survive his Beijing blast at his own government.

Yet, three decades ago, when he had just graduated, Jairam did not seem destined for politics. A young Iyengar whose father taught civil engineering in IIT and who studied mechanical engineering in the same elite institution, he went on to do a degree from MIT in technology and policy. Then came a stint at the World Bank.

Call it a quirk of fate or a thirst for challenges, he quit the United States to return to India and join the government. In the following years, he served different masters, working with Manmohan Singh when he was finance minister, then with P V Narasimha Rao in the Prime Minister's Office and later with P Chidambaram when he was finance minister in the United Front government. When he was in the Planning Commission, Jairam worked with Rakesh Mohan and Arvind Virmani to prepare a report that is believed to have laid the framework for the economic reforms that were unleashed by Manmohan Singh in the early nineties.

Today, he is at the centre of whatever happens in the Congress. In the UPA's first term, he steered the super-cabinet called the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi and in UPA 2, he designed its role and manifesto in its new avatar. He helped pick its members and polished the structure earlier this year even as "self-styled apparatchiks" at the Congress headquarters remained blissfully unaware that the NAC was being revived. He's also the nuts and bolts man for the Food Security Act, which Sonia has flagged as the defining promise of UPA 2.

Many in the Congress believe that he rose to prominence and has carved out an important niche for himself because of the key role he played in the 2004 elections, which the UPA won quite unexpectedly. He is credited with coining the winning slogan of "aam aadmi" to counter the BJP's "shining India" platform. Since then, he has been "the ultimate backroom boy". Just before the 2009 polls, he was asked to resign from the power ministry to again take charge of the Congress war room at Rakabganj Road. The manifesto and the successful campaign, which yielded the Congress a second consecutive term, were his babies.

Jairam is flying high. He not only has the ear of the mother, he is said to be equally thick with the heir apparent. It's all about being relevant in changing times. He has what challengers from the older generation lack - the language, the flair and the gizmo-friendly brain to connect with Rahul Gandhi. His wide-ranging knowledge of 21st century concerns makes him a valuable member of Rahul's core team.

Jairam scores with a cunning talent to combine his undisputed talents with coldblooded pragmatism. Once an acolyte of Ambika Soni, he did not hesitate to ditch her when her star began to fade. He quickly hitched himself to the new power horses in the 10 Janpath durbar and then twisted the knife, so to speak, with a public attack on Soni when she was at her most vulnerable. Congress insiders still talk about the manner in which Jairam trained his guns on her during the Ram Sethu controversy and demanded that she resign as culture minister for the faux pas over the existence of Ram. (The ministry had claimed in an affidavit filed in court, that there was no evidence to prove that Ram existed. ) "He has changed bosses with amazing foresight, " says an insider who has tracked Jairam since his initiation in the mid- '80s.

What separates him from the boys is his willingness to take risks. Look at the number of toes on which he's unhesitatingly tread, be it roads minister Kamal Nath, law minister Veerappa Moily, coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, old friend Navin Patnaik or even the ultimate insider, Pranab Mukherjee. Life would have been much smoother if he hadn't rubbed them up the wrong way. But it's thi s quality that makes Jairam, forever living on the edge, such a conundrum for Congressmen, most of who prefer the safety of status quo.

The consensus in the Congress is that Jairam is the man to watch as the party prepares for a generational shift in leadership to make way for Rahul. Few doubt his potential. The man with a flowing mane and rolled up kurta sleeves, who listens to classical music and talks with passion about Ramadhin and Valentine, manages to straddle opposing sides with consummate ease and masterful reasoning. He's been dubbed an apologist for the US for surrendering the "per capita" argument on carbon emissions and yet managed to share the table with China at Copenhagen to push developing world camaraderie. He's an absolute reformist who waxes eloquent on the relevance of NREGA, food security and socialist populism.

This is what makes it so difficult to box Jairam.

subodh. ghildiyal@timesgroup. com

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Reader's opinion (1)

Siddhant NowlakhaOct 9th, 2010 at 23:09 PM

I love Jairam!

 
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