Raghuvansh babu, the architect of MGNREGA and India’s most influential rural development minister
Singh was the unsung architect of MGNREGA, the programme that survived change of political colour at the Centre, attracted a record fund allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore this year and emerged as a lifeline for millions of migrant workers in the Covid-hit economy
Whenever former Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh would stop his car to chat with journalists on his way out of the Parliament complex, it would be an anxious moment for his officials.
No, India’s most influential rural development minister would not belt out any state secret. But his marathon encounters with journalists would inevitably lead to delays in important meetings in his office. And at least on three occasions, he missed his flight to Patna.
Raghuvansh babu, as he was known, loved to talk. But he worked more.
The 74-year-old socialist leader died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi on Sunday, triggering an outpouring of grief across the political spectrum. He was admitted to the hospital due to post-Covid-19 complications and was suffering from breathlessness. His body will be taken to Patna for last rites.
Singh was the unsung architect of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). India’s biggest welfare programme that came as its result has survived change of regime at the Centre, attracted a record fund allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore this year and emerged as a lifeline for millions of migrant workers in an economy battered by Covid-19.
While Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) had drafted the rural job guarantee scheme, Singh gave a critical push at a time when the scheme was facing a delay because at least three Congress heavyweights were not fully convinced of its utility and saw the programme as a leaky cauldron of public funds.
One afternoon, as United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Gandhi was passing through the Central Hall of Parliament, a desperate Singh walked up to her and briefed her about the inordinate delay.
Within a few minutes, Gandhi summoned the then defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who headed the Group of Ministers on MGNREGA, and told him to expedite the project. The files started moving and India’s first job guarantee scheme was rolled out in 200 districts in February 2006, two years after the UPA came to power at the Centre.
A man of unquestionable integrity, Singh was entrusted with the key social sector ministry amid a flurry of welfare activities that would soon transform welfare models for poor Indians and were hailed later as hallmarks of the UPA era. The rural welfare was also politically critical as the all-powerful NAC was sharply focused on the sector.
Singh, a low-key politician who carved a niche in Bihar as well as national politics, once shot off a letter to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accusing a top cabinet minister of being “garib virodhi” (anti-poor).
The then Planning Commission chairperson, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, tried to mediate. He met Singh to tell him the senior minister was pained about his letter and that he would want to accompany him to some of the villages to oversee progress in rural programmes.
“No,” Singh replied, “he should come with me in the peak of summer in north Bihar and stay in an unelectrified village for at least three nights. Only then he would understand what it means to live in an Indian village.”
At a cabinet meeting, Singh verbally made complex calculations for fund requirements for the rural job scheme, leaving nearly his colleagues gobsmacked. A minister, unaware that Singh held a doctorate in mathematics and taught the subject before joining politics, asked him, “When did you learn such good math?”
Singh quipped, “I learnt it before you were born!”
Raghuvansh babu was also instrumental in launching the pension scheme for the disabled and widows, and expanded the National Social Assistance Programme (rechristened as Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme) of 1985 to include all individuals below poverty line for the old age pension. This too, proved to be a key intervention for the rural poor who are no more able to work, and it continues till date.
And it was during his tenure that the government initiated the process of amending India’s archaic land acquisition law to make it more farmer-friendly. The controversial new law, however, took final shape during the UPA’s second term.
A five-term parliamentarian from Bihar’s Vaishali constituency, he was a prized upper caste asset of a party that survives on backward caste politics. He had been a loyal lieutenant of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad since the late 1980s till he resigned from the party on September 11 via a handwritten letter sent from his hospital bed at AIIMS.
His political journey started as a secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) in Sitamarhi district of Bihar. He entered the Bihar assembly in 1977 and rose through the ranks as a minister and the deputy speaker before winning Vaishali in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Between 1996 and 1998, he was the Union minister of state (independent charge), animal husbandry and dairying, and food and consumer affairs in the United Front government.
The party’s intellectual powerhouse, he rejected open offers from the Congress and others for a long time. In 2009, the Congress was keen to make him the rural development minister again, even though the RJD had ceased to be a UPA ally. But Prasad did not agree.
Singh’s association with Prasad goes back over three decades. And, he is also perhaps the only leader who could openly criticise Prasad and get away unscathed. Once he was asked in an interview how he would rate Prasad’s achievements. Singh replied that in political management, his boss would score a perfect 10 out of 10 but as an administrator, he deserved nothing more than a zero.
Singh’s baiters within the RJD pounced on the opportunity to paint him in poor light. They brought the paper clippings to Prasad, demanding action against the former mathematics professor. The RJD chief, however, disappointed them. “Yes, he should not have said such a thing publicly, but whatever he has said is also not incorrect,” Prasad said.
The Rajput leader could win Vaishali one last time in 2009 but caste equations went against him in the next two general elections, leaving him confined to the party organisation as a vice president and an occasional visitor to Delhi for health check-ups.
For many, he was the face of development in the RJD for his stellar work as the Union rural development minister between 2004 and 2009, but he would almost always get overshadowed by the more charismatic Prasad. But they bonded well.
Prasad, after Singh’s his resignation, urged him not to join another party. “A letter written by you is circulating in the media. I cannot believe it. I, my family and the RJD family want to see you recover soon. We will talk after you recover. You are not going anywhere. Just mind it,” Prasad told him.
A simple man (his brother saw Delhi for the first time after Raghuvansh babu became a Union minister), Singh once gave five pieces of advice, written on a paper napkin, on how to run the Bihar government to chief minister Nitish Kumar on a flight. He used to throw his only annual party in Delhi on Makar Sankantri, didn’t carry a cellphone for a long time and could amaze visitors at his office by reciting entire Trilokinath-katha—a religious hymn.
This correspondent met him for the first time in 2002. At his office, Raghuvansh babu was having khichdi for lunch. I gave him my business card. He took it and started using it as a toothpick. Then, for the next one hour, the former mathematics teacher taught me intricate details of cultural and social similarities between Bengal and Bihar.
He knew my state better than me.