In politics, 80% is downhill, 20% is upswing: Jairam Ramesh

Firstpost columnist Janaki Lenin interviewed Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh a few weeks before he was shifted from the environment ministry. This is the second and concluding part of the interview. (The first part is here)

Who were your early role models?

The only person with whom I’ve been fascinated since I was very young was Nehru. I had this instinctive image of Gandhi being anti-modern, anti-science, anti-West. But as I've grown older and begun to read Gandhi more and situate him in the political and historical context in which he operated, I've come to appreciate and acknowledge Gandhi much more than I used to when I was younger. I've also studied Tagore deeply. These are the three names that come to mind.

What about Nehru fascinated you?

His whole modern approach to life, bringing change in a traditional society; his liberal, humanist, rational approach to life, religion, men and matters. These are all recurring themes in whatever we do. After all I'm a product of the Nehruvian era in many ways.

Jairam Ramesh outside a plenary meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) at the Bella Center in Copenhagen in this file photo. Christian Charisius/Reuters.

Jairam Ramesh outside a plenary meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) at the Bella Center in Copenhagen in this file photo. Christian Charisius/Reuters.

Were you interested in engineering at all?

No. That's what my father told me I should do. At 16, when you don't have economic independence, you jolly well do what you are told to do. I wrote the IIT entrance exam. Prepared for it for three weeks, unlike kids now who spend two to three years at it. Things were much more relaxed during my time. I got through on the first attempt, and spent five years, good years, there.

Did I learn anything at IIT? Difficult to say. All the good things I learnt much later, in the University of Life. As it turned out, it's a good stamp to have. During my time, nobody had even heard of the IITs. Now of course, IITs are front page news. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't do it.

At one point you had a fascination for physics.

I started off with a great fascination for physics. I still have an interest in physics. I can't read technical physics anymore because obviously it's impossible to keep track. I retain an interest in science but obviously I'm not a scientist. It makes it easier to converse with many of these scientists because they can't bullshit you. They don't take you for granted; they grant you a modicum of human intelligence.

Did reading Paul Samuelson (an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1970) change your outlook?

I read Paul Samuelson when I was 17. I found him very interesting; his presentation, the substance, issues such as population, growth. That's what got me thinking of economics, the larger issues of life, than worrying about engineering drawings and mathematical formulae.

You were in touch with Gunnar Myrdal (a Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974).

Yeah. After I read one of his early books, Asian Drama, I wrote to him. It was 1971, I was 17 at that time. He was at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He was very nice, said to stay in touch with him.

Did his writings influence you?

Yes. Asian Drama is a very influential piece of work to understand development planning in India.

So why did you quit your PhD (on technology, policy, economics, engineering, and management)?

If you are going to do a PhD, you've got to have a certain intellectual rigour and discipline which I don't think I have. In retrospect I'm glad that I didn't do physics either; I just don’t have the mental make up to have been a good physicist. The thought of spending five years on one topic, drilling deep into one topic…. I'm more comfortable with a helicopter view. I could have written an indifferent PhD, but…

What did your father say when you quit your PhD?

He was livid. He never reconciled to the fact that I never did a PhD. He used to bug me till he passed away asking why didn't I do my PhD. I'd listen with one ear and it was out the other.

How did working with Dr Lovraj Kumar (a prominent economist who played a big role in drafting Nehru’s economic policies) shape your worldview?

He was the one who got me back to India. He was in many ways a Renaissance man himself. He studied chemistry in Oxford; he was India's first Rhodes Scholar. He became interested in economics, technology… all the issues that animated me as well. We shared many common interests and we got along very well.

At what point did you get interested in politics?

There was no single moment when I said, "This is it. I'm going to join politics." It didn't happen that way. I was working in the government at that time. It just so happened that when I quit government to start working with Mr (Rajiv) Gandhi, elections were announced sometime in January 1991. I began working with Sam Pitroda on Mr Gandhi's election campaign.

Why did you quit government?

I quit government in order to get into public service more directly. I felt that just talking about political issues without getting involved with them directly was meaningless. Politics is a full time occupation, and I couldn't do it while I was still in government. There was always a desire to be in public service, public systems, public policy…that's what I wanted to do.

But surely you quit on some guarantee?

No, there were no promises. In December 1997, my affiliation through a position in the party structure became formalised, and I became, what is known as, a party apparatchik. A lot of people thought I was crazy; my friends thought I was crazy, my colleagues, my family…everybody thought I was nuts to join a party that was tanking. They asked, "What is all this politics? How do you join politics?" It was a party in the opposition; it was a party that had no prospects of coming to power in the near future. To use market language, it was the "deep discount bond," it wasn't exactly a "premium issue" at that point of time. Things are different now.

Continues on the next page

So what did you father say?

My father never understood; my parents never understood why I was in politics.

Does it bother you that politicians face a huge trust deficit?

I think it is a dangerous trend in our society if we are constantly denigrating politics and politicians. Politics is extraordinarily demanding and politicians lead incredibly difficult lives. I don't think the type of vilification that they are subject to is quite justified.

A couple of years ago, your advice to a young MP was, "You have to be in the box and occasionally get out of the box and come back into the box." What was that about?

You know sometimes you have to say things in colourful language. Somebody asked me if you come out of the box. So I replied yes, you go out of the box once in a while and come back. You can't be an anarchist if you want to get things done. If you want to be out pissing in, that's one thing. You can try to change the system from the outside but that is exceedingly difficult, because you have to be heard at the first instance.

You can also be in the system and still change things. When I look back at the last 25, 30 years, things have changed dramatically in so many areas.

Did spending some of your childhood in Ranchi and Roorkee make an impression in any way?

They were very, very nice places then, although they have changed enormously since. It gave me an opportunity to stay in different parts of India. I'd like to think that I belong to a very small minority called Indians. Because I was born in the South, lived in the north, lived in the east, lived in the west. That's what Nehru's India was all about - national integration. Never mind where you were from, you are not bound by roots of language, caste or region.

You’ve been described as "a leftie on the right, he is a global nationalist and at the same time, he is unaccountable to anyone but to the pursuit of the national economic interests of India. That is the only thing that shapes his ultimate strategy."

Oh my friend, Lumumba! (Lumumba Di-Aping, Sudan’s United Nations representative and a climate change negotiator)

Was he right?

Frankly, I don't know what Lumumba was trying to say.

You apparently said that there were four things that may hold you back in your progress as a politician: being Brahmin, South Indian, good looks and smarts.

No, no I didn't say that. I think people are increasingly getting more sophisticated in terms of what they expect from their politicians. I'm not a casteist by any means but in electoral politics, people do look at caste. That's the reality of Indian politics. For example, in all the states of south India, being a Brahmin is a tremendous disadvantage. No doubt about it.

So there is no connection between those characteristics and your choice of pen name, Kautilya (also popularly known as Chanakya, was the author of 'Artha-shastra')?

(laughs) No, no. There was no caste angle to that at all. Kautilya was the intersection of politics and economics. He was among the earliest to talk about political economy. He was talking of politics, society, economics, such as existed at that time.

Nehru also wrote under the name of Chanakya.

He wrote a very famous piece on himself in Modern Review in 1937 under that pseudonym. It is a devastating self-assessment, key to understanding his approach to politics and public life as Prime Minister later on.

Did your father live to see you as a minister?

No. My father didn't live to see me even as a Member of Parliament. He passed away one year before that. My mother, of course, is still alive. She was equally frustrated at my joining politics. It wasn't the 'done' thing. I belong to a family of professionals.

You've taken an unorthodox route in politics. Would you do it differently if you had to do it again?

It was a high risk, low pay-off route. It paid off entirely because of Mrs Gandhi. I got my ticket to the Rajya Sabha, I got my ministership; it was all entirely because of her. Lots of people ask, "How do I join politics?" I tell them, "Look. I can't give you any formula. There is no set route. You have to find your own route. All I can say is that I took a risk, a conscious risk."

There are many professionals like me who have joined politics who have not advanced very much and are still struggling. I've been lucky because Mrs Gandhi gambled on me. I joined politics in 1991, became an office bearer in 1998; I got the break of being Member of Parliament in 2004, and a minister in 2006. So people think it's easy, but 80 percent of politics is downhill, only 20 percent is on the upswing.

You wouldn't try Lok Sabha politics?

No, no. I don't have the financial clout or the muscle. A friend of mine who just contested a state assembly election said that the total legal expenditure for his seat was Rs 5 crore. I can't raise this amount of money because it will necessarily involve a quid pro quo.

In retrospect, what I would advise people is develop financial independence much more to begin with and then join politics. I didn't have financial security; I had to live virtually by writing. I used to write all these articles every week and that's how I made a living. If you want to make a legit living, it's very, very difficult. Developing an alternate, legitimate source of income is very crucial to maintaining integrity in politics.

Secondly, you've got to have something to fall back on. Even though I was in politics since 1991, I was doing other things. I was writing, I was reading, I was lecturing. Is it replicable? I guess it is. Would I recommend that route? I told you there have been multiple downs, innumerable depressions, many knocks and a couple of high points as well which makes it all the more worth it. I was certainly hoping to be in Parliament, but in 1998 that prospect loomed distantly.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Who knows! If 10 years ago you had told me that I was going to be the Minister for Environment and Forests, I would have laughed. I would have said you are out of your mind.