As battle lines get drawn for the 2014 general elections, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh reposes unshakeable faith in Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s track record of achievements. In a freewheeling interview with HT, he endorses Rahul Gandhi’s approach, while slamming Narendra Modi — the BJP’s man of the moment — for subverting the Indian political system.
There is an ongoing debate on whether Rahul Gandhi will be declared prime ministerial candidate. What is your take?
Indian elections are fought by parties, not individuals. Parties contest elections on the basis of competing vision programmes and ideologies and individuals give content to the party programme.
The fundamental contest in Parliament system is between parties. We will go to 2014 with what the Congress stands for. The BJP, for what it stands for. Mr Narendra Modi wants to reduce this very serious electoral battle between parties, vision and ideologies into matter of individuals.
This is completely distorting and subverting the essence of Indian political system. Of course, Gandhi is our lead campaigner. He is our vice-president and is hands-on.
He is chairing the election coordination committee. In the party he is clearly no 2. Declaring him as the prime ministerial candidate is a non-issue in my view.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi stressed on more effective modes of communication. Is there any disconnect between the party and the government?
No, elections are not fought just on achievement. They are fought on sentiment also. We have to be sensitive to both. We have to use all media. The party has to communicate.
Maybe, we have not been aggressive enough in communicating what we have been able to do. Part of our problem is the states which have usurped our programmes.
One state has issued pattas under UPA’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) with the photograph of the chief minister. Another CM had renamed the Rajiv Gandhi Vidyutikaran Yojana as Atal Jyoti Yojana.
Our president has been stressing for aggressive political mobilisation. Nand Kumar Patel (slain Chhattisgarh Congress president) was doing the same in southern Bastar and was exterminated by Maoists.
Our party chief in Madhya Pradesh has covered almost 100 constituencies by now. I have covered over a dozen constituencies with him. We are trying multiple methods.
Corruption is an issue UPA is battling with. How do you will deal with it in 2014 elections?
We have cheapest call rates in the world and second largest mobile network and you focus only on corruption. You don’t focus on how ubiquitous telecom revolution has been in India. We view corruption as an issue in Karnataka. We have a track record of achievements.
It is how we are able to project our record. We have a worthwhile record legislatively as well as from executive point of view.
How can you say that you have a worthwhile legislative record? In the last two years, not a single bill has been passed?
If Parliament is not allowed to function, how will the bills get passed? We have to go to the people and tell them the reason why the bills were not passed. The effectiveness of our outreach will matter.
The BJP decided to do with India Shining in 2004, they failed. Every political party has a communications plank. In terms of our legislative track record in UPA-2, we were hamstrung that BJP did not respect the mandate of 2009.
They thought it was their inalienable right to form the government. They did not allow the Parliament to function. The casualty was legislative business.
The UPA has spent lot of money on the social sector, but hasn't inequality risen?
I admit inequality has risen. We measure inequality in consumption terms and not in income terms, as done in some other countries, and may not depict the correct picture. But, all our social sector programmes are to reduce poverty.
Our annual rate of poverty reduction has been about 2 percentage points, double of what it was earlier. High growth meant better access to social services.
Access to higher education has increased from 8% at the time when UPA came to power to about 17% now. Access to public health has also improved.
The way mining projects are approved in tribal areas appears to go against the government’s development plank to check Naxalism…?
Our approach to mining in Naxal-affected areas should be cautious. In some areas, it should not be allowed. Where mining is a must, it should be done in a responsible way.
Locals should benefit, not only outsiders. I have advocated moratorium on mining in Naxal violence affected areas such as Saranda (forest) in Jharkhand. It has not happened.
I think the mining lobby is politically powerful and we have seen it in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha. I have also made it clear that in the Schedule V areas, the consent of gram sabhas should be mandatory for mining activity.
We have made the consent mandatory for acquisition of land in schedule V areas.
I think mining has contributed to Naxalism in the last 50-60 years because of multi-level displacement, environment degradation and poor implementation of relief and rehabilitation packages. Locals not benefiting from mining projects has contributed to Maoist violence.
Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) is almost six months old, but its penetration is poor. Do you think DBT will work?
To me, it is not DBT. It is Aap Ka Paisa Aap Ke Haath or Direct To Home (DTH) money. I think this is also the view of the Prime Minister and the finance minister. It is an ambitious and comprehensive reform programme.
The programme has been much slower than anticipated. I believe it has shown progress in Andhra Pradesh, not all 22 districts but 7-8 districts where Aadhaar enrollment is high.
What are the main problems with DBT?
I think the biggest issue is getting the banks on board. It is a huge challenge. The response of the public sector banks is lukewarm. That is the reason we have to move to post offices for DBT.
The second big issue is lack of clarity on commission to the banking correspondents. Nilekani report recommended 3.14% commission to make banking correspondents viable. The finance ministry has agreed to only 2%. It is not enough.
The banking correspondent model has to be open architecture to allow inter-portability. We have to look at the Andhra Pradesh model under which women’s self-help groups have been notified as banking correspondents.
There has to be clarity on multiple banking correspondents at the village level. Implementing DBT will not be possible without high Aadhaar penetration.