In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor Amitabh Sinha, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh asserts that UPA’s land Bill wasn’t given a ‘fair trial’, says that everybody in Congress knows the buck stops with Sonia Gandhi, and argues that Narendra Modi is ‘Narendra Lee Kuan’.
Why Jairam Ramesh?
As rural development minister in the Manmohan Singh government, Jairam Ramesh was seen as the architect of the UPA’s land acquisition Act, 2013. When the NDA government sought to bring amendments to this law, the Congress turned to Ramesh to frame its argument against the proposed changes. Ramesh is now leading the Congress campaign against the amendments that are scheduled to be brought before Parliament in the upcoming session starting on Monday, and to be brought up at a farmers’ rally to be addressed by Rahul Gandhi today.
Amitabh Sinha: The Congress has made the land Bill a prestige battle, but when you brought it in 2013, many of your Cabinet colleagues were not happy with the provisions. Veerappa Moily recently said Jairam went a bit too far. So how can you lead a battle when half your leaders still believe the law needs to be amended?
The 2013 Act was not born out of unanimity, but consensus. People in the government had different points of view, but in the final analysis, a political call was taken, not just by the Congress, but by all parties, including the BJP of which Rajnath Singh was the main speaker in the Lok Sabha and Vinay Katiyar the main speaker in the Rajya Sabha. The standing committee which recommended the Bill for passage with amendments was chaired by Sumitra Mahajan, who is now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and a BJP MP. After two years of discussion, after the standing committee process that took 13 months, after two all-party meetings, after a GoM under Mr Sharad Pawar’s chairmanship spent close to three months on this, the Bill was given a final shape and introduced in the Lok Sabha and subsequently in the Rajya Sabha. In the Lok Sabha, while the Bill was being debated, amendments suggested by Sushma Swaraj were accepted. In the Rajya Sabha, when the Bill was being discussed, amendments suggested by Ravi Shankar Prasad were accepted. Nothing was done in a dictatorial or forced manner.
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This Act is for land acquisition, not land purchase. If private companies want to buy the land, they are free to buy it. When you want to use State power to acquire the land, you have to follow this Act.
Amitabh Sinha: What about the views expressed by non-NDA CMs which the government is using as a strong argument for making the changes?
This is a completely dishonest argument because the Act came into force only on January 1, 2014, and in less than eight months, you conclude that it is strangling industrialisation. Regarding the argument that defence projects are held up, Section 40 of the Act states that for defence and national security, you don’t require consent or social impact assessment (SIA). This Act has not been given a fair trial. Numerous HC judgments and three SC judgments between January and April 2014 have upheld various sections of the Act, particularly Section 24, which is a retrospective clause and is now sought to be amended through the ordinance.
Ruhi Tewari: Would you concede that certain provisions in the Act, such as the 80 or 70 per cent consent for acquisition, were unrealistic?
The Act says SIA has to be done within six months and stipulates 80 per cent consent for private companies and 70 per cent consent for public-private partnerships. Instead of accumulating evidence at the end of a certain process, you can’t bring about an ordinance on imaginary fears… This preconceived bias is that the government must have the power to acquire whatever land at whatever cost from whoever. This is the principle of eminent domain extended to the maximum. That is under challenge in many parts of India. People don’t want forcible acquisition.
Manoj CG: You said land acquisition was a political call, so are many of your rights-based legislations, including food security. But the Congress’s left-of-centre politics was rejected by the people. So is it politically prudent for the Congress to go back to this plan?
The land acquisition Act was part of the rights-based approach. In fact, the 1894 Act is called the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. And the 2013 Act is a bit of a tongue twister — the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013. The story of how this name came about is interesting. Mr Rahul Gandhi had led the party’s agitation in 2011 in Bhatta Parsaul, so he was interested in this Act. He asked me what the Bill will be called and I said, Land Acquisition Bill, 2011. He said why don’t you guys think of a name which would capture the essence of what you are doing, and make sure that people who are opposed to this are forced to think differently. That’s how we decided on the name… Our 2014 defeat doesn’t mean the rights-based legislation was wrong.
Up to now, none of the rights-based legislations has been overturned, although there are attempts to weaken them. Euthanasia is being practised on RTI, they are not appointing information commissioners or responding to requests. They are trying to change MGNREGA but suddenly they have discovered its value now that there is farm distress. Same with food security, land acquisition, right to education, the one on manual scavenging… So, I think it’s not a bad record. A year after a government came to power saying the UPA did nothing right, they have not fully dismantled the edifice of rights-based legislation.
Vandita Mishra: Is the Congress poised on the edge of a large organisational change?
I think what we are on the brink of is a different approach to managing the party affairs — more demanding of accountability, a greater accent on youth in positions of prominence, taking positions which are clear. Are we in for a change? Yes. It is necessary that that change will involve a new generation coming in positions of prominence, which is as it should be. Every 25 years, organisational renewal is essential. Does it mean all of us are going to end up like Mr Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi? No, that won’t happen in the Congress because there will be an effort to bring both the experienced and the new generation together.
Amitabh Sinha: The NDA government has been saying they want clear and transparent clearances but greater compliance to rules. Do you see that happening?
I see faster, not necessarily transparent, clearances happening. I hope that clearances are faster, transparent, rule-based and are accompanied with enforcement and compliance. But the question really is in the detail. To me, it seems the priority right now is to weaken the edifice of environmental regulations and laws which are seen to be an obstacle to faster growth.
Manoj CG: Have you ever asked Rahul Gandhi why is he not communicating as he should be, why is he not on any of the social media platforms?
Everybody has his or her own style. Some people believe in over-communication, others in one-way communication. Mr Gandhi has been somewhat reluctant. Why is he being reluctant? Unfortunately, the pressures of competitive media have created a situation where the substance of what one is trying to convey gets a backseat in the search for something newsy in what he is communicating. I think he feels that the media may twist what he says out of context. I think he has realised it is an occupational hazard, I think he should, no doubt, be communicating more. As the general of the party and as somebody with a point of view, he should be communicating within and outside the party as well.
Abantika Ghosh: Is a reluctant communicator then a liability for the party?
He is a circumspect communicator. I did say reluctant, but I tend to change my mind. So is Mrs Gandhi, so is Dr Manmohan Singh… they are all very circumspect communicators, they are not comfortable with the modern media age. One of the ‘upheavals’ we are looking forward to is a more proactive communications strategy on the part of the leader.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: When you talk of more accent on the younger generation, an argument that often comes up among senior members is that they are falling between two stools. Do you see that happening again?
I have worked with Mr Gandhi for 11 years, with Mrs Gandhi for 16 years. I have never fallen between two stools. One is the president, the other vice-president. On some issues, their views coincide, on others, they differ. There are many issues where Mr Gandhi has a different point of view which he expresses in dramatic fashion. The best example of that was when I was speaking to Mr Karan Thapar defending the ordinance (on convicted MPs and MLAs), I was told the ordinance was being torn up. A good example of how there are different viewpoints, not two stools. Everybody knows the buck stops with the Congress president. So when I would go to Mr Gandhi for decisions, he would always say this is my point of view, but it has to be approved by the Congress president. So he is extraordinarily mindful of the fact that he is vice-president, and there is a Congress president ultimately out there.
Ritu Sarin: Was he totally incommunicado these two months of leave or were you or any of you in touch with him?
The whole purpose of this was to reflect on what you were doing and where you were going, so if you were communicado, then…
Ritu Sarin: So you didn’t speak to him?
Ritu Sarin: What suggestion do you have for the party to come back in 2019?
Between now and 2019, we have a series of state challenges. Particularly after the Delhi result, we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact that state results have on the national mahaul. There is no doubt the BJP is on the defensive for various reasons. So one path of our revival is to ensure we win in states where we are in power, and make a difference in the final results in states we are not in power. On the national level, there is no alternative but to get back to what Rajasekhara Reddy did in Andhra Pradesh to come back to power after being in the wilderness for a long time —1,600 km of padyatra. We have to rediscover and take up those issues that people are feeling strongly about, like the farmers’ issue right now.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: In the last 11 months, how do you rate this government reaching out to the Opposition?
Zero. The language that Narendra Modi used on August 15 was great. But after that, there has been no reaching out. Every time the PM has spoken in Parliament, it has been a chappan chati approach. Whether it is in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, which he rarely attends, but when he attends, he has used Parliament to reinforce the partisan message. The Lok Sabha is made to run in the most dictatorial form. No all-party meetings are called. There has been no effort to reach out even on the land Bill. So Modi’s speech on Independence day definitely would have been spoken in absent-mindedness. Because after that, there is no evidence of reaching out. Giving Vajpayee Bharat Ratna is great. But picking a leaf out of his book is something different, and Modi has not done that. His parliamentary interventions have been needlessly provocative. I have no expectations from him on reaching out.
Anant Goenka: But isn’t he getting a lot of support from the states?
So far. But when the states realise they have been sold a lemon — their 42 per cent share in Central taxes — they will know where the issue is going to pinch. This 42 per cent is an illusion. This one-shot approach is great atmospherics and optics, it is Modi-style of politics, but in substance it would mean 2015-16 is a virtual Plan holiday.
Sushant Singh: Who do you think is the best-performing minister in this Cabinet?
Are there ministers, first of all? This is maximum governance, one-man government. Barring the finance minister, does any minister have an independent voice? I seem to have forgotten who the external affairs minister is, the PM has spent more time abroad then the external affairs minister. To judge this government, you don’t judge the ministers, you judge the PM. Because today we have a presidential form of government — without the checks and balances associated with that form of government. He is Narendra Lee Kuan because he is a great admirer of the Lee Kuan Yew model, an extreme authoritarian form of government. That’s how he ran Gujarat. And that’s how he is running India for the last one year.
Manoj CG: You said Rahul Gandhi is more democratic and accessible than we think but your predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan complained about his interference and that she wasn’t given an audience with him when she sought one.
I think in the 2014 elections, a better human being lost. A better campaigner, better communicator and a more aggressive political leader won. Our challenge, between now and 2019, is to bring that better human being into the public domain. He has opened up the party in ‘ways you cannot imagine’. Twenty five per cent of Youth Congress and NSUI members are a completely new generation, without any political godfathers, who have been given positions of prominence. And this has happened in the last 5-7 years. It may not have happened on the scale he perhaps imagined but if and when he takes control of the bigger organisation, these principles will get replicated.
I met Mr Gandhi only once in two years when I was the environment minister… I never got any phone calls, never got any messages from him. But I am sure he would have told Natarajan, ‘Look, as minister of environment, your job is to protect the environment.’ I see nothing wrong in that.
Rajgopal Singh (EXIMS student): You said that the Congress won’t treat seniors the way the BJP has treated Advani or Joshi. But the party didn’t treat Sitaram Kesri or P V Narasimha Rao well.
Mr Narasimha Rao was the prime minister, he did not contest elections thereafter. At the AICC session in Bangalore in 2001, he sat on the dais with the Congress president. He figured prominently in our 2004 manifesto. I don’t think Rao has ever been denied his rightful position. And Kesri was asked to convene a CWC meeting in which an overwhelming majority said we need a new leadership for the party. Kesri resisted and a new leader was appointed.
Appu Esthose Suresh: With the BJP planning a memorial for Narasimha Rao, what do you think of the BJP appropriating your legacy?
Well, this is a systematic effort. When the BJP was formed in 1980, they had adopted ‘Gandhian socialism’ as their philosophy. They tried to first appropriate Gandhi, then Vallabhbhai Patel, then Lal Bahadur Shastri, Subhas Chandra Bose, Ambedkar. The BJP and RSS is deeply uncomfortable with major elements of Nehru’s legacy.
Transcribed by Pritha Chatterjee and Kaunain Sheriff.