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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Hindu Pundamentalist

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Written by Ashok Malik | June 20, 2004

ON a nippy winter’s day in February 1993, a taxi left New Delhi’s decidedly dowdy Lodhi Hotel for the Andrews Ganj government housing complex. Its passenger was a mousy, somewhat worried man. His company’s IPO had been undersubscribed. He was looking to a college friend, now in the Planning Commission, for help.

Upon arrival, the visitor requested his host to invest Rs 10,000 in equity from the promoter’s quota. It was no avail. Like all good government servants, this one too began by saying he had no money. In any case, he cheerfully informed the frazzled entrepreneur, he didn’t buy shares.

Eleven years on, Jairam Ramesh calls that refusal the ‘‘the single biggest mistake of my life’’. His guest that day was Nandan Nilekani, the company in question, Infosys. The chance was gone. Jairam owns no Infosys stock, still insists he has no money and has had to settle, this week, for the humble station of MP designate. The Congress has nominated him as a Rajya Sabha candidate from Andhra Pradesh.

Though Jairam’s only known connection with Andhra Pradesh is that his elder son studies law in Hyderabad, he is, in a sense, not far from his roots. Andhra Pradesh borders Karnataka, where Jairam was born in 1954 in his grandfather’s coffee plantation in Chikmaglur. Typical of the man, the journey from Karnataka to Andhra Pradesh has taken him halfway across the world, from Powai to Pittsburgh.

Jairam spent his formative years at IIT Powai, where his father taught civil engineering. Life was straitlaced. Jairam wanted to study physics at St Stephen’s, Delhi. A stern parent said, ‘‘Nothing doing. Sit the IIT exam.’’ So it was the mechanical engineering class of IIT Powai that he entered in 1970. He hated it. In his second year, he discovered Paul Samuelson, wrote to Gunnar Myrdal, hero-worshipped Vikram Sarabhai for marrying science to a larger social calling.

It was all mentally elevating. It was also, as Jairam confesses, a girlfriend-repellent. The nerd reached America in 1975, for an MS in public management at Carnegie-Mellon, Pittsburgh. He enrolled at MIT for a PhD programme that combined technology and policy, before taking a break from academia to join the World Bank in 1978.

‘‘That’s when I discovered the world outside,’’ he remembers. The PhD was junked. In December 1979, a chance meeting with Lovraj Kumar brought him back from Washington, as adviser to Kumar at the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices. The marathon had begun.

Jairam worked the system. He moved with Kumar to the petroleum ministry, writing an appreciated energy projections report in 1983. By 1985, he was in the industry ministry, where he wrote a paper on delicensing that was the template for the 1991 deregulation. The godfather graph grew — from Manmohan Singh at the Planning Commission to Sam Pitroda at C-DOT to, in February 1991, entry into the Congress as part of Rajiv Gandhi’s think-tank. By June, Pranab Mukherjee and he were giving P.V. Narasimha Rao tutorials in economics.

As OSD in the Rao PMO, Jairam drew up a 100-day programme of ‘‘big bang’’ reforms. On day 102, Rao said ‘‘thank you’’ and shunted him back to the Planning Commission. It took the United Front to rehabilitate him as finance minister P. Chidamabaram’s adviser in 1996.

In December 1997, he rejoined the Congress, graduating from economic wonk to Sonia Gandhi’s speechwriter to all-purpose spokesman to, in 2004, election manager. While unquestionably talented, Jairam has his detractors in the party, those ever suspicious of the frequency with which he gets himself quoted in the press.

The man’s ability to rationalise almost anything with a suitably Brahminical intellectual argument sometimes makes him an exasperating interlocutor. When he says he is ‘‘a devout Hindu, staunchly secular, with an abiding faith in the Buddha’’, you do wonder where philosophy ends and wordplay begins.

Others see Jairam as a bit of a boss-hopper, climbing up the value chain of mentors. There is the view that his current renunciation of government office — ‘‘I have no more peaks to conquer … The Congress needs Promode Dasgupta type apparatchiks’’ — is early positioning for Rahul Gandhi’s first cabinet, if and when it is formed.

Outside Lutyens’ Delhi, Jairam is the telegenic politico, one of the pun-a-minute sound bite sorcerers who took over news channels in the late 1990s. Any favourite sparring partner? ‘‘Actually, it was (K.N.) Govindacharya. He used to tell me, sotto voce in Tamil, he saw merit in what I said. I used to tell him, sotto voce in Tamil, I saw merit in what he said. You could call it the Iyengar brotherhood.’’ Ah these southie Brahmins …

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