March 1998. The Doordarshan studios are abuzz with activity.  As the 12th Lok Sabha election results pour in, it is evident that the Congress party has suffered a major electoral setback. The BJP seems to be heading for a majority, but the other parties are reluctant to let go. Hectic horse-trading is on in the drawing rooms of Delhi’s various ‘fixers’ to try and cobble together some kind of marriage—however immoral.  Party leaders appear in the media mouthing cliches like “politics is the art of the possible.”

Anchor Tavleen Singh asks Jairam Ramesh when the Congress will concede defeat. Jairam smiles and says, “The MCP factor applies at 250 seats. When the BJP crosses this mark, we must concede that we do not have the Moral, Constitutional or Political right to form the government.” The panelists are shocked. So is the Congress top brass. The minute the recording is over and cell phones are switched back on, Jairam is told to shut up. This was Jairam Ramesh at his best, or some would say at his worst— intelligent, quick-witted, honest and sadly, always in trouble. Not that he learnt his lesson. Just a year later, in September 1999, just weeks before the last general election, he wrote a piece in his widely read Kautilya column in India Today extolling the virtues of two of the country’s most successful chief ministers, who he claimed were “exemplars of the type of ‘managerial’ politicians India needs.” While praising Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh in those terms was okay, his other example could make any Congressman see red—Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh where Jairam’s party was fighting a bruising political battle.

For Jairam however, the truth mattered more than politics. In fact he went on to claim that, “Of the two, Naidu has demonstrated far greater political courage and a reformist outlook.” And as if to add icing to the cake, he ended the column by even praising the then BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalyan Singh, claiming that he “is another regional shogun who surprisingly is proving to be a bold reformer.” “I say things that I feel are right. Sometimes, it does upset people, particularly from my own party,” he says. In fact soon after, rumour mills in Delhi were grinding overtime claiming that he was joining the BJP, something that he strongly denied. Though he did tell this writer “I have had a thoroughly religious upbringing—and from that angle, I probably belong in the BJP more than any other party. But I am not a political Hindu, and for that reason, I will never be able to join them.”

As Secretary, Economic Affairs of the Congress party, Jairam Ramesh is thus a strange renaissance man. He says that his work is towards restoring the Congress party to its glory days. He wants to see his ideas implemented, but will not “sell his conscience” for power. He wants to be in politics, not of it.

The Loneliness of Jairam Ramesh

With Congress out of power the question is how long will he enjoy life in the wilderness? The last time he was in a similar situation in the mid-1990s, he first took up a job as full time television anchor and then in May 1996, quit the Congress party to become an advisor to the United Front government finance minister P. Chidambaram. He rejoined the Congress in 1998, but considering the party’s declining fortunes that move has not proved to be propitious. Like his two mentors Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh, it looks like Jairam will have to bide his time.

Just 46, Jairam still has age on his side. And there is no doubt that his nimble mind, liberal ideas and telegenic demeanor will keep him in the limelight in the years to come, whatever his politics. The only child of a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Jairam grew up in a Tamil Brahmin environment, which was ‘conducive to intellectual pursuits.’ Even as a 12-year-old student in Bombay, his hero was Jawaharlal Nehru who is “the one figure in the last 100 years of Indian history who excited a whole generation.” It was then that he decided he would be in public life. Engineering from IIT Delhi, public management from Carnegie-Mellon and technology policy from MIT rounded off academics for Jairam, but expect a twist from him at every turn. At 17, he nearly missed going to the Indian Institute of Technology, having made up his mind to join neighbour Swami Chinmayananda—“before he started all this VHP nonsense.”

As a 22-year-old student in Carnegie Mellon, he undertook a student project at the World Bank in the summer of 1976, which was followed by more assignments with them between 1978 and 80. It took the then Bureau of Industrial Cost and Prices Chairman Lavraj Kumar, who is credited with getting people like Montek Singh and Vijay Kelkar into government, to lure Jairam as well. He jumped at the opportunity and returned home to act as consultant to the government on various projects between 1980 and 1983.

By this time, he was making inroads into government through the cabinet secretariat, but his first real brush with the corridors of power came 4 years later, through Sam Pitroda’s technology missions. They would meet Rajiv Gandhi regularly and by early 1991 Rajiv had asked Jairam to work for him in the forthcoming elections. And with that, Jairam entered full-fledged politics and began working for the grandson of his childhood hero.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, he continued as Officer on Special Duty to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, but this was to last only for four months. The heady first 100 days of government had resulted in too much media exposure for Jairam, who saw no harm in meeting “all and sundry” who came to see him at the PMO. He spoke his mind then as he does now, and was soon left standing in an uncomfortable spotlight. “There was a lot of backbiting,” is all that Jairam will say, but insiders insist that he earned Rao’s displeasure because he rubbed Chandra Swami the wrong way. Says a senior journalist, “He was always seen as a troublemaker, an upstart.”

Moved behind the scenes to the Planning Commission, Jairam kept himself busy with various developmental projects. He is also credited with drafting large chunks of the economic liberalisation programme that have today become synonymous with Dr Manmohan Singh. And so it went on, until there was an election. The dates would be announced and Rao would ask Ramesh to resign from the Planning Commission and rejoin the party. “Someone had to write the manifestoes and the like,” recounts Jairam wryly. Once the elections were over, he would be shunted back to the Commission.

After two such assembly elections, Jairam claims he was frustrated with both politics and his financial state. In June ‘94, a chance request to anchor a stock market show on Doordarshan which he “accepted no money for, being in government,” shaped what he would do for the next year and a half. In December that year, with his patience “at its very end,” someone who had seen his show asked him to anchor a breakfast business show, and he accepted. Only this time, he quit politics completely and took up TV as a full time job. “For one and a half years, I had no contact with politicians—barring Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram,” he says.

During his television days, he set up a rigorous schedule for himself, waking up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to read all the papers and prepare for the 5:00 a.m. recordings. This meant going to bed every night at 8:00 p.m., to look fresh on TV the next morning, but this did not bother “never-a-nightbird” Ramesh. Kadhambari Chintamani, who used to produce the show, remembers. “He used to take a bus or a rickshaw to office and sit by the fax machine all day and send invitations to people whom he wanted to interview on the show. He had absolutely no hang-ups about doing those things. I don’t think he had a car till even two years back.”

Clearly no run-of-the-mill anchor, Jairam used television to interact with bigwigs of the corporate world as well as top functionaries of the government. “440 people in all, whom I wanted to meet”, he says. The good looking amiable face which one critic called the “Aishwarya Rai of television” struck a chord with audiences across the country and letters of appreciation began pouring in by the dozen. Some even sought advice from the good “tam-brahm boy” on topics ranging from career choices to marital arrangements! By the time he was doing his second show, a late night economic debate programme on Doordarshan, he was a recognised TV personality. With two young sons who were growing up fast, he accepts that “television gave him the financial security that he needed,” but even that could not keep him away from the political action for too long.

In May 96, Jairam resurfaced from his self-imposed exile—this time, as Advisor to Finance Minister Chidambaram in the UF government. No one was surprised. Says prominent lawyer and friend Shardul Shroff, “I once asked him what keeps him in politics and he said it was the thrill of getting things done in a system which just doesn’t seem to move.”

Trying to move through a system bred on years of apathy is asking for trouble. And Jairam got into plenty, fast acquiring a reputation for being impatient. Says Chandan Mitra, Editor of the Pioneer, “Like Chidambaram, he does not suffer fools easily.” Once bitten by media overexposure during the Rao regime, Jairam was twice shy during this stint with Chidambaram. To those who knew the open straight-talking Jairam, he now seemed to have turned secretive and high-handed, again to his detriment. Many thought that proximity to power had done it to him.

But even his detractors in the Congress had to grudgingly accept that he had his uses. As he himself says “They still need somebody who can write a policy statement, string two lines together for a speech!” And so, when he lost his job with the fall of the UF government in December ‘97, Pranab Mukherjee recommended him for the post of Secretary, Economic Affairs, of the Congress party. Yet, Jairam could never fully understand his appointment by then party president Sitaram Kesri. “We were as diametrically opposite as possible, in approach, in ideology, in everything, and yet, he chose me. Why he did it is still a mystery to me,” says Ramesh.

I am realistic enough to know that the Congress party is not going to nominate me to the Rajya Sabha. I am not ‘scheduled caste’, ‘woman’, ‘Muslim’, ‘backward’ or anything else. I don’t have a godfather or godmother. Tomorrow, if I were to join the BJP, my chances of nomination would probably be much brighter.”

Try to unravel the mystery and you realise why many feel that Jairam is a misfit in the present day Congress party. Sitaram Kesri told this writer, “Who is Jairam Ramesh and who is Pranab Mukerjee? These are small people, of no consequence. I don’t want to talk about them.” Tell Jairam this and he agrees sadly. “The Congress party generally tends to look down upon people with a degree of sanity and education. But it wasn’t always like this.” And yet, he believes that “the biggest mistake that educated people make is wanting positions of power.” He prefers to stay behind the scenes and fight what he calls the “ideological battle.”

So where does all this does leave Jairam Ramesh? Party colleague Mani Shankar Aiyer believes that he is “too able to be wasted on secretarial duties,” and should “enter electoral politics by grooming himself for the Rajya Sabha.”   But first, says Aiyar, “He has to curb his tendency for self-promotion. His desire to see his name in the newspapers often overtakes the need for discretion.”

With no desire to be a “Delhi-based constituency politician” and having built no mass base, Ramesh knows that the only way he will ever get into Parliament is through the Rajya Sabha. But he has no illusions about his chances of being nominated through the Congress. He does not network in “those circles” at all.

A teetotaler all his life, he considers socialising “a waste of time.” “I have all the good habits of a bad Congressman. Unfortunately, in the Congress party, life begins only at 6:00 p.m. All the political confabulations go on in the night. So I suppose I am at a disadvantage,” he jokes. “But seriously, I am realistic enough to know that the Congress party is not going to nominate me to the Rajya Sabha. I am not ‘scheduled caste’, ‘woman’, ‘Muslim’, ‘backward’ or anything else. I don’t have a godfather or godmother. Tomorrow, if I were to join the BJP, my chances of nomination would probably be much brighter.” Then why doesn’t he join the BJP? He readily accepts that the people who come to his mind when he thinks of a rare evening spent socialising are Govindacharya, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley. “I am a cultural Hindu,” he concedes, but not a political one. Others have their doubts.   “He is a Hindu alright,” says Mitra. “How long does it take to go from a cultural one to a political one? In any case, the BJP is shedding its fundamentalist image and he will have much greater autonomy there.”

Jairam’s mind, however, is made up. “Today, it is extremely easy for me to rationalise my joining the BJP. I am very fond of Atal Behari Vajpayee, he is a liberal leader, they are implementing economic reforms, and I have many friends there…why not? Because I am uncomfortable with their social policy. The core of the BJP is not secular. How different will I be from Albert Speer who rationalised working for Hitler?”

Jairam may have run out of choices in politics. And given his outspoken nature, he agrees that his days in the Congress party may be numbered. But he has “switched off from worrying about it.” “My friend Prakash Tandon once told me that every time he took up a new job, the first thing he did was to see what he would do once he was out of it. I think that’s a very healthy philosophy.”

The Loneliness of Jairam Ramesh

He is not certain what he will do next, but wants to stay “one step ahead all the time and put out ideas that become accepted conventional wisdom the next week.” With a column in a leading weekly satisfying that need and private sector consultancy paying the rent, Jairam is able to hold on to his policy of distancing himself from the dirty side of politics.

Push him to see himself 5 years from today and he admits, “he would certainly like to be in Parliament,” but is realistic enough to realise that the chances of this happening are bleak.

But Jairam is justifiably proud of his achievements. “I am happy today – by the time I was 35, I had worked with 2 Prime ministers. In 1991 I helped create history with economic liberalisation. I don’t think there are many others who can say that.” Today, he seems happy to sit out on the bench and wait for his turn to get into the middle of the action again – spending time with his family, his huge music collection (350 CDs of classical music at last count), and his ideas.

You can sense a mild bitterness at the current state of affairs in his party, but there is no overall dismissal of politics as a place unfit for him. “Politics is the only area where your progress is not limited by the social strata you come from. Anand Mahindra would never give Mayawati a job, but don’t forget, she made it to the Chief Minister’s chair,” he says.

He won’t join the BJP, but would he, by any chance, consider a ‘quasi-bureaucratic position’ in the present government? “Let’s see what happens…,” he says with a typical Jairam smile and you know he’ll be back in the news soon enough. You just can’t keep a good man down.

This story was first published in April 2000

Photographs by Ramesh Pathania