The five battles that defined Jairam Ramesh

Jun 15, 2011 15:12 IST

#BT Brinjal   #Jairam Ramesh   #Nuclear energy   #POSCO   #TheLongView  

By Shiv Visvanathan

Jairam Ramesh is the odd man out in politics. It is tribute to Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh that they have the vision to keep the odd man in. He represents the new ideal of the congressman: scrubbed, dapper, technocratic, managerial, happy in the the give-and-take of politics but equally at home in an academic seminar.

Ramesh is a scholar at heart but prefers to use scholarship as a hammer to make a policy point. His originality lies in the consumption of data. He can smell an interesting trend, sense a promising problem. He reads, absorbs, sniffs out promising connections and synthesises them quickly. He listens carefully, diligently and respectfully, but can smell a fake. He rations reverence like many intellectuals but can celebrate an idea like a child savouring a candy.

This is a proud man, proud of both his competence and his tradition, happy to rise early and listen to MS  Subbulakshmi's recital of the Suprapadam. The scientific method provides Ramesh a secular spirituality, a substitute for the traditional rituals of his background. It evokes objectivity, and makes no claim to sentiment, allowing him to go beyond ideology.  For him, method provides clarity, rigour, and a consistency that technocrats admire. Justice for the minister is a collection of indicators; method a virtual substitute for ethics.

Where the previous environment minister, Kamal Nath, was a fixer, Ramesh is a problem solver. The power of Jairam Ramesh lies in realising that method, discipline, and respect for knowledge can be a lethal force in politics. He knows he cannot be a populist, and that he is too argumentative for it. Often he refuses to endorse collective wisdom when he knows the facts are different. He is a master at irritating the elite by demonstrating its ignorance while reassuring them of his competence.

This man is a duelist; his environmental career defined by five key battles, each of which reveal a different facet of his persona.

The brinjal debates were sheer drama and Ramesh played listener, impresario and performer with great enthusiasm. Reuters

BT Brinjal: One of the first scientific controversies shaped by a public debate offered a rude revelation — and for Ramesh, a personal triumph. NGOs behaved like professional scientists, assembling data, coordinating arguments. The government's scientists were caught with their professional pants down, plagiarising from easily accessible pamphlets. It was a case of self inflicted injury.

The brinjal debates were sheer drama and Ramesh played listener, impresario and performer with great enthusiasm. He showed scientists that science had to be more open in accepting evidence, and helped NGOs recognise that cantankerousness is no match for organised scepticism.  His ability to establish a public space created a sense of trust in the openness of the environment minister.

Ramesh was one of the first politicians to understand the power of electoral data, but he also realises democracy is not a numbers game. It needs governance, the rule of law, and a more inclusive theory of citizenship.

Posco deal: If the battle of the seed symbolised hope, the long drawn out war over mining soon defined the limits of hope. Ramesh's objections to the Posco deal triggered violent responses. Even the unflappable Montek Ahluwalia went apoplectic when 'economic growth', his baby, was threatened. The mining mafia  proved more resilient and Ramesh was branded as an environmental outlaw. The mine  prevailed, retaining its role as the fertility rite for modern industry.

Ramesh is a Tamil Brahmin to the core, with the strength , arrogance and weaknesses of one. He has faith in the power and discipline of knowledge and is still discovering that political bosses can be both contemptous of constitutions and the logic of science.

Nuclear energy: Ramesh has been evasive — even a trifle silly — on nuclear energy, tarring anyone who objects to nuclear energy as fundamentalists. He will only speak to those who want to discuss safety or the quality of contracts, dismissing out of hand sixty-odd years of the sustained critique of nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy is inherently risky. There are limits to our knowledge and the time horizons required to ensure safety are virtually indefinite.

This sleight of hand— confusing fundamentals with fundamentalism —reminded us of the politician in him. It was a bravura performance that rang hollow.

Ramesh responds not to pompous reprimands, but to a counter-argument.PTI

The IITs: His comment that the IITs have made little contribution to major research was accurate and welcome. It was an act of truth-telling that worried the vested interests who summoned the usual character certificates.

Worse, it showed us that established scientists are poor debators and are probably more afraid of the facts than any sector of society. Indian scientists become hysterics screaming foul as soon as anyone raises them up to scrutiny.

Ramesh is a technocrat, concerned about science as literacy, culture and innovation. It is silly to treat him — as Kapil Sibal did— as a loose cannon. He responds not to  pompous reprimands, but to a counter-argument.

Climate change: Ramesh was devastating on climate change, and not because he took on Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel-prize winning chairman of United Nations' Integovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What took insight and courage was his public indictment of climate change as not an objective domain of science, but a realm defined by an array of vested interests.

He exposed how Western regimes hide behind the alleged objectivity of scientific data which in fact serve as a screen for market interests.  What we needed instead was research and quality data generated by Indian scientists.

If Ramesh’s statements possessed a bluntness rarely witnessed in scientific matters, it's because he is matter-of-fact about science, and shrewd enough to realize that often expertise is only a sanctioned form of self-interest.

It is an exciting time for science and ecology with a minister who understands science and cares for the environment. But Ramesh has opened up a can of expectations  that may yet be his downfall. When his politics meets the limits imposed by current reality, the NGOs are going to scream for his blood.

And then there is the 'tragedy of the third paragraph.' When people went excitedly to scientist Amulya Reddy with a new idea, he would ask "what is in the third paragraph or the third issue?" Reddy realized that an idea has to have a career, a long trajectory that goes beyond the opening proclamation. By the third paragraph, a good idea shows genuine possibilities and one can sense its potential.

Jairam faces the challenge of the third paragraph. His ideas are intelligently ethical, but they have to survive if he is to be genuinely significant. Sustainability requires a minister who will be durable. This Jairam Ramesh has to be.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.