Arun Jaitley, one of India’s top lawyers and a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister, was referring to a verdict from India’s appellate tax tribunal that bribes were paid 25 years ago to an Italian businessman on a Bofors gun deal. That businessman was (and may still be) close to the Gandhi family that ran the Congress government in the 1980s and still does so today.
Mr Jaitley’s remark has a wider resonance for the Congress Party and government, which was hit in 2010 by a series of corruption scandals that dwarf the $50m bribes believed to have been paid in the 1980s on India’s Bofors gun deal when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister.
It neatly provides me with a new intro to a blog post that I had started writing about who made the most difference in India in 2010.
Certainly, I was suggesting, not prime minister Manmohan Singh nor his lady boss, Sonia Gandhi (Rajiv’s widow) and her heir-apparent son Rahul.
They have stood aside allowing messes like the Commonwealth Games preparations and a host of corruption scams to go ahead. They have won international applause for hosting the leaders of the US, China, Russia, France and the UK in Delhi during the past few months, but banquets, trade deals and investment memoranda do not run countries.
Now, sensing the political price they might have to pay later this year in five state assembly elections for allowing such rampant sleaze, they are proposing new regulations and procedures that look good but are likely to have little effect in the current state of Indian society and politics.
Pranab Mukherjee, the veteran finance minister, does not qualify either. Aside from the finance job, his political skills have kept Mrs Gandhi’s undisciplined and often corrupt coalition government in business, thus allowing offending politicians and officials to get richer and remain free.
In a negative sense, the biggest achiever could be Niira Radia, a lobbyist and public relations consultant, whose wheeler-dealing has flooded across media headlines in a “truth comes out” torrent of leaked audio tapes. This has exposed a massive telecoms-based scandal and revealed networks of politicians, officials, fixers – and a few journalists. It has personally embarrassed Ratan Tata, India’s top businessman and one of Ms Radia‘s main employers, as well as various contacts and associates such as N.K.Singh, a rich and controversial former top Finance Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office bureaucrat, Tarun Das, creator and former head of the Confederation of Indian Industry, and Pradip Baijal, a proud former senior telecoms bureaucrat.
Some observers suggest that Nitish Kumar, recently returned after state elections for a second term as chief minister of Bihar, made the most difference by turning round that beleaguered state. Or maybe it should be Kapil Sibal, the human resources minister who is tackling the country’s grossly inadequate education system and is now also cleaning up the telecoms administration. But these are still works in progress – Mr Kumar has to embed change in Bihar, and Mr Sibal has to implement good intentions and plans.
Jairam Ramesh – economic reformer
My choice is Jairam Ramesh, minister for the environment, who has used more than two decades of personal experience as an economic reforms adviser to bring some order and ethics to a previously policy-starved and corrupt area of government.
He has, to return to Mr Jaitley’s words, showed that “truth comes out”, not by directly accusing those involved of evading and bending environmental laws and administration, but simply by rigorously implementing those laws and personally reforming the administration.
Consequently, the truth has come out about how Vedanta, a London-based mining and metals group headed by India-born Anil Agarwal, has breached environmental regulations with bauxite mining and other projects, and a proposed university in Orissa. A long-delayed $12bn iron and steelworks project planned by Posco of Korea has come unstuck, also in Orissa, because of possibly faulty environmental and land-use approvals. A politically influential branch of the Jindal business family has been told it has ignored requirements on another Orissa steelworks. A partially built “hill station” (a romantic euphemism for lucrative urbanisation of rolling hills) called Lavasa in Maharashtra, which is promoted by powerful political and business interests, is also (as the Indian media terms it) “under the scanner”.
Mr Ramesh’s approach has also helped the truth to come out about massive illegal mining in other states such as Karnataka and Jharkhand, tied in most cases to corrupt politicians.
His success can be measured by looking at who he has upset – Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel, both powerful politicians and fixers from Maharashtra and currently ministers (respectively) for agriculture and aviation, Kamal Nath, minister for highways, the coal and steel ministries, chief ministers of various states, and the companies named above plus dozens of smaller mining operators.
He also has more respectable critics, notably Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who runs the Planning Commission, works closely with the prime minister, and has been a government economic adviser since the 1980s. Mr Ahluwalia objects to Mr Ramesh’s plans for “no go” coal mining areas, suggesting this would hit economic growth.
The two men have been rubbing shoulders professionally for over 20 years (seen together, left, this week laughing at their first public meeting since Mr Ahluwalia’s remarks). They know that neither is anti-growth and that both are committed economic reformers. “We cannot deforest our way to prosperity and we cannot pollute our way to prosperity,” says Mr Ramesh.
Mr Ahluwalia’s remarks do however reflect the opposition that Mr Ramesh has stirred up. There are rumours that this has triggered a campaign to have him removed from the environment ministry in a cabinet reshuffle that might happen in the next few weeks, but that seems unlikely to be successful, given his high-level backing. “I am not doing something that is alien to what the prime minister and the Congress president [Mrs Gandhi] want me to do,” he said recently.
In the first year as minister, Mr Ramesh (below) seemed to be blocking every dubious project, courting controversy, secure in the support of Mrs Gandhi and, usually, the prime minister. I assumed then that, once he had established his new approach, he would start to be more accommodating and that now appears to be happening, forced maybe partly by the force of opposition.
He did for example compromise last month with Mr Patel about a new airport for Mumbai, achieving he says 80% of what he wanted. He might also let at least part of the Posco’s plans go ahead later this month. He has approved an environmentally controversial Indo-French nuclear power project in Maharashtra, and is reviewing coastal development zoning to allow some development while protecting vulnerable coastlines.
Overall he says, projects are divided into “yes”, “yes but” and “no” categories, with 95% being approved, which is “down from 99.99% earlier”. Only 5% receive a “no”. In addition to less controversial work he has done on wildlife conservation, he is planning two new environmental assessment authorities and tribunals. He also plans to amend forest laws to benefit tribal communities that have been driven by bullying officialdom into the hands of Naxalite rebels.
’Ultimate strategic maverick’
So I have no doubt that he is the public figure who has made the most difference in the past year. Perhaps the best tribute came last week from Lumumba Di-Aping, Sudan’s United Nations representative and a leading climate change negotiator. Having clashed with Mr Ramesh, who has also been courting controversy over climate change, he said he is “the ultimate strategic maverick”.
“He is a leftie on the right, he is a global nationalist and at the same time, he is unaccountable to anyone but to the pursuit of the national economic interests of India. That is the only thing that shapes his ultimate strategy”.
Mr Ramesh doesn’t like being called a maverick because, he says, all he is doing is implementing the laws. Nevertheless, it is a good tribute and surely puts his powerful political and business opponents in their place, which can only be for the country’s good.