‘Rahul ready to lead India’

Interview – Jairam Ramesh

Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha member. He is also member of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, the Standing Committee on Finance, the Committee on Government Assurances and the National Advisory Council. Bappaditya Paul spoke to him on the fallout of the Mumbai terror attack, ties with Pakistan and the Congress’s prospects in the impending Lok Sabha polls.

Jairam Ramesh


The Mumbai terror attack was an assault on India’s security. Was it also an assault on the country’s economy and industry?

Well, in the short term, there is some discomfort and unease among travellers coming to India, among investors looking at Mumbai particularly. But over a period of time, I am sure that this discomfort and uncertainty will subside and the resilience of India will be shown once again. For example, we were going to have the India International Tea Festival in Kochi between 19 and 21 February 2009; we are going ahead with it…But there is (a) certain degree of unease, since the Mumbai attacks captured world headlines and a number of foreigners were also killed.

Will this terror attack adversely affect India’s investment prospects and economic growth?

India is a very large country you know and there should not be any worry that because of the terrorist attacks investment is going to be adversely affected. In any case, 94-95 per cent of investment required for India’s development is generated within India; foreign investment is a very small proportion of the total investible surplus. So, I am sure that would not be affected but foreign investment would certainly, as there is a certain degree of unease. But over the next three to four months, the situation will come back to normal.

There will be a short-term impact you suggest?

Yes. In fact, in the short term, the slowdown in the world economy would have a much greater impact on us than the terrorist attacks. Export slowdown that has been seen in October, export slowdown, which probably we will be seeing in November also, and for the first time, we are seeing industrial growth in negative in 15 years. So, the slowdown in economy worldwide will have a far greater impact on our economic growth than the Mumbai attacks itself.

Was it the incompetence of our intelligence and security setup that made the Mumbai strike possible?

No, I can’t say this. …all I can say (is) that we need to substantially improve our anticipatory intelligence capabilities ~ both human intelligence as well as technological intelligence and more importantly, our ability to act on that intelligence.
The intelligence reports cannot be like weather reports: “Today it will rain in Bengal”, “Today there will be a terrorist attack in western parts of India” ~ it does not make any sense. The intelligence has to be focused, has to be sharp, actionable and then action must be taken based on that intelligence.

So you are saying that we are lacking in certain aspects of intelligence and internal security?

No, I am not saying that we are lacking. Unless I have inside information, I can’t be able to pinpoint. But all I can say is that we have many agencies gathering intelligence, all that has to be coordinated, all that has to be analysed and all that has to be acted upon. We will have to strengthen our anti-terrorist forces. We can’t only have the National Security Guards sitting in Manesar in Haryana, we have to have mobile facilities to quickly dispatch them to different parts of the country. So, a comprehensive overhaul of the intelligence and the anti-terrorist mechanisms has to be carried out. Also the police system has to be empowered because the first layer of fighting the terrorist forces always is the police. After all, in Punjab Mr KPS Gill won the battle against the terrorists because the Punjab police were empowered politically, administratively and by technology and modern means.

Are you saying the Mumbai police were not empowered to act against the terrorists?

No, no. I am saying something positive and you are trying to convert that into negative, please don’t do that. I am saying that we need to substantially modernise our police system. However horrific the Mumbai attacks were, we need to look upon this as an opportunity of completely overhauling our machinery relative to intelligence gathering, analysis of intelligence, acting upon the intelligence and carry out anti-terror operations. I think the media’s role also has to be completely redefined. The way the Indian media behaved during the Mumbai mayhem, I didn’t see this happening after 9/11 in the US, in the UK, in Spain. I think, the Indian media really in its race for TRPs, didn’t enhance the national interests by the live coverage of what was happening in Mumbai.

Jairam Ramesh
Isn’t it the job of the media to convey authentic information fast?

No, it’s not. By live coverage, you can’t give the militants information that the commandos are landing in such and such a place. It is well documented and well proven that based on images seen on our televisions, orders were being sent from the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) to the terrorists in Mumbai. So I am afraid, the media have played a highly irresponsible role during the Mumbai terror attacks.

Will the government carry on trade with Pakistan as usual?

There will certainly be some effect on the normalisation of our relations with Pakistan. I was myself scheduled to visit Pakistan from 6 to 15 January, but all that is now on hold. There were a large number of confidence-building measures we were taking, like opening banks in each others’ country, promoting Pakistan’s export to India, opening up of the land customs station at Wagah, promoting rail movement of freight on the Munabao-Khokrapar rail route between Rajasthan and Sindh. A lot of these things have got affected. It is not wise to proceed on the assumption that everything is business as usual; everything is not business as usual and until Pakistan comes up with a credible response to what India has been asking for, I don’t see us going back to the way we were before the Mumbai attacks. The ball is in Pakistan’s court, we are ready to engage; we have an agenda for engagement.
But Pakistan has to make up its mind whether it wants the economic engagement and while not taking action against organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammad, LeT and all the all the other terror outfits that are operating freely from Pakistan under the watchful eye and support of the ISI. These two things can’t go side by side.

Recently the Muzaffarabad trade route was opened. Have we suspended trading through this corridor?

No, that’s continuing. The LoC trade is continuing, what was there is continuing. India is continuing its exports; tea is continuing to go to Pakistan from India and we are continuing to import from Pakistan. We import roughly $350 million worth of goods from Pakistan and our exports to Pakistan are about $ 1.7 billion and that will continue. We are not going to put a physical restriction but the trade negotiations, the trade discussions, the normalisation of our bilateral relationship ~ all that has been certainly affected because of the Mumbai attacks.

Given the prevailing tension, is a war with Pakistan imminent?

No. Our external affairs minister has said categorically that there is no war with Pakistan. We will retain the pressure diplomatically. War is the last solution and whatever the headlines in the media may be, it has never been India’s intention to go to war…

Jairam Ramesh
Given the bitter experience that the Congress has of the Left, is there a possibility of future alliance with them?

Let us see what the future holds. But we are going into elections seeking a mandate for ourselves. We are not seeking a mandate for the coalition government. We are seeking to come to power on our own two feet. I think the people of India want single-party rule and only the Congress can provide the single-party rule.

What will be the Congress’s slogan for the general elections?

Panch saal aur (elect us for another five years).

What for?

To carry forward with the good work that has been initiated and ensure India’s march to progress. And for this, India needs a 40-year-old leader more than an 80-year-old Prime Minister and we have that.

So you are saying, Mr Rahul Gandhi is ready to lead the Congress and the nation?

Of course he is and we are all there to back him.

(This interview was first published in The Statesman, India on 20 December 2008. The interviewer is on the staff of The Statesman)


Divisive politics

Bappaditya Paul takes on the indigenous-outsider conflict in Maharashtra and elsewhere in India.

The indigenous-outsider conflict is on the centre-stage again. Now, it’s the country’s financial capital Mumbai, which is being riddled by the murky debate triggering some tragic incidents already.

At the perilous instigation of the Thackery brat and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the streets of Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra have witnessed a number of ugly attacks on ordinary north Indians, especially the Biharis. While a few months back the target was north Indian taxi drivers, the latest victims have been the unemployed Bihari youths who went to the ‘city of dreams’ to write a railway recruitment exam.

The Mumbai mayhem however, is not an isolated instance of an indigenous backlash against the migrant communities. In the not so distance past, the northeastern state of Assam demonstrated a more abhorrent violence against the Biharis, while the insurgents in Manipur are ill famous for targeting the Hindi-speaking migrant workforce every now and then.

Though political cross interests are primarily responsible for instigating such violence, unfortunately in most of the cases, the backlash also bear some amount of approval from the indigenous civil society in the respective states.

Why this indigenous outrage?

It’s but astonishing as why the indigenous-population actively or inactively supports the political vendetta against the migrant workforce.

To be precise, the indigenous population actually perceives it as a fight for their ‘innate’ privileges on local resources and livelihood opportunities.

With the population explosion going unabated and correspondingly shrinking livelihood avenues, every new migrant means one more competitor. Thus, on the back of their mind, the native population always nurture the grudge that ‘outsiders’ were gobbling up the resources and job opportunities that ‘ethically’ belong to the natives.

Again, when individuals of a particular community migrate to a new place in bulk, they gradually consolidate into a socio-political force as distinct from the natives and their institutions. Such migrant population practice their own socio-cultural rituals and traditions, further segmenting themselves from the indigenous masses.

In a parliamentary democracy, the migrants then gradually find a role in the power game and by virtue of their franchise strength, compel the political parties to take care of their interests. This adds to the bitter feeling of the natives, as the indigenous mass feels that the ruling party – whichever it may be, are offering ‘illegitimate’ privileges to the ‘outsiders’ at their expense.

Insignificant political forces, like that of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena of Raj Thackery, often try to encash such harsh feelings as their political manna and instigate the natives to unleash attack on the migrant community.

Since, the Bihari migrant workforce rules the roost in terms of casual workers and wage earners across India, the impoverished community often has to bear the burnt.

The fact that employers prefer the migrant Biharis to the indigenous workers, make them more porn to native backlash at impulsive intervals.

Advantage Bihari

But why the employers –natives many a times, prefer the migrant Biharis to those of their fellow indigenous men and women? The answers lie in the basic characteristics of the Bihari workforce, which actually suits the employers/industries more.

Looking from an employer’s viewpoint, a migrant Bihari labour or for that matter any migrant worker, is always employable at a lower cost than their native counterpart. They are less demanding in terms of workplace amenities and also flexible about work schedules.

As an employee, Biharis are overwhelmingly humble and submissive to their boss ~ a trait normally missing in the indigenous workers.

As a trick of the trade, migrant Bihari workers hardly plea justice/ethics on workplace related issues and always try to stay in the good book of his/her employer.

Again, be it due to circumstantial pressure or their innate quality, Biharis are not homesick and this only adds to their advantages as a potential employee.

Outside Bihar, a Bihari is always ready to take up any job for survival– from sweeping to barber, rickshaw pulling to shoe mending and so on. Truly speaking, a Bihari can do anything for a living and generally would not give up even at repeated failures.

Take a look at the Indian street-foods ~ how amazingly the Biharis have turned their home-snacks like Pani Puri (Puchka), Chat, Ghatigaram and so on, into universal munchies for the average Indian across the country.

If we take a whole view of the community, the Biharis are hardworking, tenacious and painstaking. They can survive and sustain in inhuman conditions that others cannot even imagine. Look around in any of the Indian cities or towns; an average Bihari migrant practically lives in without the basic living amenities.

On the contrary, the native population, usually owning substantial volume of land in their home city or state, is comparatively lethargic in nature. This is because, unlike the migrants, they inherit a socio-economic stability from their predecessors and do not have to struggle to establish an identity.

Also the inheritance to immovable property, especially land, often offers them a handsome yield often without much effort and thus making them all the more sluggish.

Thus, the native population is normally averse to taking up vocations, which are perceived low in social esteem. Again in case of jobs that they would be interested in, the natives demand a better pay-package than the migrant counterparts.

Lesson to be learnt

Its not that the Biharis as a community has advantages only. To cite a few negativities ~ the community is entangled by a pitiably poor civic sense, a comparatively higher level of male chauvinism, illiteracy, superstitions, underage marriage etcetera.

But while the Biharis are and shall improve on these accounts, rests of the Indian communities have a significant lesson to learn from them.

That is ~ instead of nurturing the murky feeling that the migrant Biharis are gobbling up the local resources and hence, unleash some uncivilised attacks on them, let the natives compete the Biharis’ hard work with diligence.

Let the other communities respect and inculcate the Bihari traits of being laborious, tenacious and painstaking. Also, may the natives put a little more effort to conserve and compound what have come their way by inheritance.

This applies to the Marathis of Maharashtra, Bengalis of West Bengal, Assamese of Guwahati and so on.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. The article first appeared in The Statesman on 21 November 2008)