More than his contributions to policy-making and the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility, Jairam Ramesh has made a mark on Lutyens’ Delhi for his witticisms and his spin-doctoring abilities. His one-liner, “Yankee go home but take me with you,” if original, was probably the most devastating comment on the spuriousness of India’s fashionable anti-Americanism. Once dubbed the “only Kannadiga in the Tamil Maanila Congress”, during the United Front days when he was under the patronage of then Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Jairam combined his cleverness with an ability to weather political upheaval. That’s because he was a good speech writer and a crafty spin doctor, talents that the Congress recognised. He was well utilised by the party in 2004 and 2009 and many of his inputs undoubtedly helped make a difference.
It is probably unfair to suggest that Ramesh has put his spinning skills to work in the past week when it appeared that his very survival as a Minister was in doubt. Yet, it is curious that a controversy that began with an impassioned outburst against India’s “paranoid” Home Ministry mindset and a robust defence of Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies has drifted effortlessly into a debate on political culture and outspokenness — areas where the Minister’s indiscretions can well be seen as a departure from the usual stodginess and non-application of mind.
From Ramesh’s perspective, the derailment of the debate is desirable, not least because it diverts attention from what he said in Beijing and puts the focus on his intellectual vanity. It does Ramesh no harm to draw flak for his uninhibited individualism, as long as it is accompanied by certificates from historian-ecologist Ram Guha that “Jairam is the best Environment Minister India has had.”
Guha’s assessment will, of course, encounter protests from the State Governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Kerala — all run by non-Congress parties. Nor will it be shared by India’s erstwhile negotiators to the Copenhagen summit on global warming where it was felt that the Minister was being remarkably casual about India’s interests and a bit too bothered about what China and the US thought.
Ramesh has a highly individualistic sense of what constitutes the national interest. The need to improve India’s bilateral relations with China is an issue that excites him. Through much of 2003, when he held no official positions, Ramesh wrote nearly a dozen articles in a Kolkata-based newspaper on various facets of China, so much so that he established a claim to be regarded in Beijing’s eyes as the new Dr Kotnis. He even coined the term Chindia to signify an ideal Asian convergence.
In The Telegraph of May 29, 2003, Ramesh asked the question: “Are we schizophrenic when it comes to full-fledged economic ties with China?” His answer was revealing: “While trade has taken off, we seem to be prisoners of the old mindset when it comes to Chinese investments in India. Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications networking major, already employs over 500 Indian software professionals in Bangalore but it has already caused concern in the Indian security establishment. We are approaching its expansion plans very warily.” He concluded that “India is still unable to break out of the shibboleths of the past” and warned this prejudice would affect the prospects of Indian companies in China.
The story doesn’t end here. In October 2003, the Confederation of India Industry hosted an Indian Expo in Beijing. Ramesh secured a CII accreditation and attended the fair. At Beijing, he surprised Indian industry by his forthright advocacy of Chinese companies, particularly in the telecom, IT and port sectors. At the meet where the Indian Commerce Minister and his Chinese counterpart were present, Ramesh intervened from the floor and repeated the arguments proffered in his article. Ramesh’s behaviour prompted India’s Ambassador to China to alert the Commerce Minister about a possible conflict of interests.
India’s Ambassador to China in 2003 is today the National Security Adviser and the then Commerce Minister now happens to be the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. They were witness to Ramesh waving the red flag at India in Beijing seven years ago.
The position Ramesh took in 2003 may not have a direct bearing on his conduct as a Minister of the Government of India. In 2003, he was speaking for himself; today he represents India. However, we cannot but be struck by the fact that his views have not been circumscribed by his stint in the Government. In 2003, he wrote on “the ambivalence of the Central Government in its myriad form on Chinese investments in India”; last week he spoke about “needless restrictions” on Chinese companies in India. In 2003, he wrote about how the good Huawei was being thwarted; seven years later he repeated that “Huawei is creating assets in India, it is hiring Indian professionals, (and) over 80 per cent of its employees are Indians”.
The point is not that Ramesh felt for Huawei then and feels for it now. It would seem that that the Minister can’t distinguish between his advocacy of Chindia in 2003 and his assigned role in 2010. What Ramesh said in Beijing last week wasn’t an unscripted indiscretion; it followed the 2003 script. If the original script had secured Cabinet backing, Ramesh would have been in the clear. He now has some serious explaining to do about the intrusion of past friendships into official duties.
Ramesh’s outburst wasn’t against Chidambaram in person. He was hitting out at India’s perception of its own national security. Whether such a contrarian should have anything at all even remotely connected with China is something for the Prime Minister to decide. To reduce the Ramesh affair to the ‘foot-in-mouth’ epidemic in the Congress is to trivialise it. The Government is confronted with a more delicate problem.