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.
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
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