Rahul is prepared to take over as Congress president

32-Jairam-Ramesh Jairam Ramesh | Reuters
  • The joint committee on land bill is a complete waste of time, because the government has not given any indication of wanting to compromise.

The naming of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, owed a lot to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, says former Union minister Jairam Ramesh, who has come up with Legislating for Justice, a book detailing the making of the landmark law. According to Ramesh, Rahul gave the example of the Patriot Act of the US to drive home the point that the title of the law should be such that nobody would oppose it.

In an exclusive interview, Ramesh tells THE WEEK that Rahul is now prepared to take up the responsibility of being Congress president. He also terms the joint parliamentary committee formed to look into the BJP government’s proposed amendments to the land bill a “waste of time” and says the Congress will move a dissent note if required. Excerpts:

Your party had given credit to Rahul Gandhi for the law, saying it was his brainchild.
The urgency to bring the law was apparent after the agitation that Gandhi led in Bhatta Parsaul and Tappal. He was always of the opinion that there should be one law, not two laws, and that rehabilitation and resettlement should be part of the same law.

And his most important contribution is the title. What he said was that the title should convey that what you are looking at is a right to fair compensation. So it was Gandhi who saw the land acquisition act as part of the rights-based legislation of the United Progressive Alliance. It was Gandhi’s contribution that forced us to think of it not as land acquisition per se, but as a rights-based legislation, which gives people the right to fair compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement.

So the title was his idea?
In fact, the example that he gave was very interesting. After 9/11, he said, when [George W.] Bush wanted to bring a law for increased surveillance and security in America, a lot of people who were interested in civil liberties opposed it. So what did Bush call the act? He called it the Patriot Act. How can anybody oppose the Patriot Act? So, Gandhi said, why don’t you think of an equivalent of the Patriot Act? And that is why we thought of this title for the law.

Are you satisfied with the law?
If Medha Patkar, the CII [Confederation of Indian Industry] and the FICCI [Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry] are critical of the law, it means that I have done something right. We may not have achieved something to everybody’s satisfaction, but we have achieved balanced dissatisfaction.

The book is coming out at a time when the Congress is up in arms against the BJP government’s proposed amendments to the law.
The timing is just fortuitous. It just happened that I got the manuscript ready by December 2013.

What made you think of writing this book?
Because I thought this [act] was a paradigm shift. It was not an amendment to the law. It was a new law. And the original title of the book was Legislating for Equity. But then I thought it is more than equity what we are doing in this law. We are really doing justice. That is why it is called Legislating for Justice. And I wanted to give to the public, to the leader, to the scholar, to the student a sense of how the transformative law got made. Why did we do what we did? How did we do what we did? It is part of our political history.

But now, the Modi government wants to amend it.
Governments always have the power to amend. But the manner in which they [the BJP government] carried out the amendments was not participative or consultative. It was unilateral. They tried to ram it through, thinking that they have this brute majority in the Lok Sabha. They overestimated their ability to influence voting in the Rajya Sabha. They bypassed the standing committee. Now they are forced to set up a joint committee. I think it has been handled very, very dictatorially.

Many allies of the BJP are themselves unhappy. The Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal are unhappy. RSS affiliates like the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh are unhappy. Many BJP MPs have met me privately and have expressed their unhappiness.

How do you look at the joint committee?
It doesn’t make any difference to us. Our stand, which we will repeat in the joint committee, is that we are not going to support these amendments in any circumstance, and if we are in a minority, we will give a dissent note.

Will you be open to suggestions that are bound to be made in the joint committee?
Let us see what suggestions are made. Right now, we are discussing the [land acquisition] ordinance. We can’t support the ordinance at all. If, over and above the ordinance, there are some other amendments that the government would like to bring, we would like to see what those amendments are.

So you are willing to look at possible amendments.
Let us see what those amendments are. The ones that they have made so far are totally unacceptable. If they have other amendments that they are thinking of, let us have a look at it.

What do you think the joint committee is leading to?
I think it is a complete waste of time, because the government has not given any indication of wanting to compromise.

But the prime minister said he was open to suggestions.
They are blowing hot; they are blowing cold.

Do you feel the government will be able to pass the land bill in the monsoon session?
The ordinance, as it stands today, is not going to get the support of the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Janata Dal (United), the CPI(M), the CPI, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

So your stand in the joint committee will be that you want only the 2013 law and nothing else.
I have said that repeatedly. We want the 2013 law. That is all.

Rahul Gandhi has sort of re-launched himself with the agitation against the land bill.
Since April 19, you have been seeing the real Rahul Gandhi. He has finally emerged. He is at ease with himself. He is at ease with the Congress party. He has found his calling.

Why did we not see this real Rahul Gandhi earlier?
But we are seeing it now. The 56-day gap, the introspection that he did, has obviously worked wonders. I think each of us should go for introspection periodically.

Are you amazed to see this kind of a transformation?
I am not amazed. I knew that Gandhi was like this. I am not amazed, but I welcome it.

Under his leadership, what kind of changes can we expect in the Congress?
It is too premature to speak about that. In 2015, Gandhi will become Congress president. He will have to carry everybody along with him. He will have to carry the experienced guys, the old guys, the young guys. I think the new Gandhi is a more patient Gandhi. The new Gandhi is an all-inclusive Gandhi.

It was said that senior leaders in the party were wary of Rahul Gandhi taking charge.
He spent a good part of the past ten years trying to completely transform the Congress. He succeeded in changing some parts of the party. At the end of ten years, he came to the conclusion that he needs to shift track. He needs to provide the leadership that he is providing right now. He is becoming more and more vocal, more and more accessible, more and more visible across the country.

How soon can we expect him to take over as Congress president?
Sometime in 2015, hopefully. I think he is prepared for that.

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