Jairam Ramesh is the ultimate outsider looking in. Born in Chikamagalur but not quite a Kannadiga. Tam-Brahm but brought up in Bombay. An engineer by education but better known as an economist. A columnist and television anchor, but not quite a journalist. Half-Kannadiga, half-Tamil but now a Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh.
Yet, while the media likes to count Jairam along with S.M. Krishna, Veerappa Moily, K.H. Muniyappa and Malikarjuna Kharge as part of “Team Karnataka” in the Union council of ministers, little is known about the man from coffeeland who possesses the most over-sized pate in Indian politics and a mot juste for every occasion.
Minister of state for commerce in the previous Manmohan Singh team who had glass doors installed at his office (“because he has much to hide!” in the words of a long-time political observer), Jairam is now minister for environment and forests. In the first 100 days, the wordsmith has already crossed swords with three chief ministers, B.S. Yediyurappa (over the Bellary mines issue), Ashok Chavan (over the location of the new airport in Bombay), and Sheila Dixit (over relaxing the ban on plastic covers).
So, who is Jairam Ramesh?
1) Son of Prof C.K. Ramesh, who taught structural engineering at IIT Bombay, where Jairam later went on to study “girlfriend repellent” mechanical engineering. Studious Jairam often was pelted with chalk by his B. Tech classmates. His crime? He wouldn’t walk out with the backbenchers even if the professor wasn’t in.
2) Married to K.R. Jayashree, daughter of former IAS officer K.V. Ramanathan. The couple have two sons, one of whom is studying law at Oxford. Although a devout Hindu, he is also seriously into Buddhism. Suffice to say, Jairam’s personal life is the topic of more than ordinary interest in the family. His mother Sridevi Ramesh lives on Chord Road in Bangalore.
3) Jairam did a brief stint at Business India, once the pre-eminent business fortnightly owned by Ashok Advani. That began his association with tiger researcher Valmik Thapar‘s sister Malavika Singh, the eminence grise of Business India who launched the company’s now-defunct business channel, BiTV. Jairam was part of Malavika Singh gossip sessions with such worthies as Navin Patnaik, now Orissa chief minister, in attendance, and now carries the tag of being an ace gossip.
4) Former planning commission member Abid Hussain has been quoted as saying “Jairam has the highest IQ I have ever come across in anybody and energy levels that 10 horses can’t match.”
5) Jairam dropped out of a PhD program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after getting a master of science (MS) in public management at the Heinz College at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1977 to take a job at the World Bank.
Quotable quote: “The rate of growth of any economy is inversely proportional to the number of economists. Look at South Korea, look at India. South Korea produces no economists, but it has three times the growth rate as India, which produces three times the number of economists.”
6) Upon his return, he did a stint as a backroom boy with economist Lovraj Kumar and was an Officer on Special Duty in V.P. Singh government. He became a key fixture in Manmohan Singh‘s finance ministry in the Narasimha Rao regime. As an example of the licence-quota-permit raj that Singh unshackled, Jairam has said his father waited 15 years to buy a car.
As long back as 1979, he gave a clear indication of his main interests by co-editing a book titled Mobilising Technology for World Development.
7) Jairam Ramesh and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, both excellent quizzers, were part of the 1975 Mood Indigo team at IIT Bombay. Jairam was the man Nandan tapped when the Infosys IPO was undersubscribed in 1993. Nandan asked Jairam to put Rs 10,000 in the company; Jairam didn’t and calls the move “the single biggest mistake of my life“.
8) Has a deep interest in history and when he wrote a column for The Times of India, revealingly chose the pseudonym Kautilya. He says he used to spend two-three days researching the topic: “Most columnists in India write for senior government officials to read. They write to be noticed by the government. And they write in a language only they can understand. I am writing for an ordinary person who wants to know more and more about economics. I try to de-mystify economics and issues. It is not an easy thing.”
9) Workaholic Jairam hosted a Sunday evening business roundtable on Doordarshan in the early 1990s called Crossfire produced by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group, and a daily morning show called Business Breakfast on Star Plus.
The legend goes that for 480 days he woke up at 3.30 am, read the morning papers, and hosted the programme. He would arrive at the studios in a Fab India kurta and pyjama, remove the kurta, and host the show with a shirt and the pyjama. He was also famously known to be addicted to mint with a hole, finishing off a couple of packets a day.
10) His North Block office as was famous for the music that emanated from it all day. Jairam, who counts music among his interests, has a huge collection of music CDs, from Kumar Gandharva to Miles Davis.
11) In the early 1990s, Jairam told friends there were four reasons why he thought he wouldn’t make it as a politician: “I am Brahmin, I am South Indian, I am good-looking, I am brilliant.”
12) Jairam is an Iyengar and wags say the line “this website is a public service so that you can leverage my knowledge and experience,” as proof that the three forms of the human ego are I-Iyer-Iyengar. Mani Shankar Aiyar, with whom Jairam fell foul early, is reported to have said, “The only thing Jairam Ramesh is interested in is Jairam Ramesh.”
Both Mani and Jairam later fell foul of Sanjaya Baru, the journalist turned media advisor to the prime minister. Jairam is seen to have played a key role in the installation of Harish Khare as Baru’s replacement this time around.
13) Jairam Ramesh fancies himself as a wordsmith, but is notorious for shooting his mouth off with amazing regularity. Yet, something in his persona endears him to the powers that be in the Congress first family who are famously not known to tolerate dissent.
He told Asiaweek magazine in 2000: “Two years down the line [after the Congress' 1998 election defeat], Sonia Gandhi is seen as a loser and the morale in the party is very low… People who saw her as a ticket to nirvana now see her as a ticket to narak [hell]…. If things go the way they are, the Congress will not come back to power for another 50 years.” He also famously rubbed off Gandhi family retainee, Ambika Soni, on the wrong side on the Ram Sethu issue, but without sustaining any visible injury.
14) Jairam is known to draft many of Sonia Gandhi‘s English speeches. He wrote and re-wrote the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme in 2004 on his Fujitsu notebook at 99 South Avenue six times. He now uses a Sony Viao laptop.
15) Created a diplomatic boo-boo in 2006 by trashing the India-Brazil-South Africa summit in an interview with Patricia Campos Mello of the influential Estado do Sao Paulo daily, even as the prime minister was winging his way to the Brazilian capital. Later, when asked “why” by a veteran political correspondent, Jairam is said to have said: “But she was so beautiful.”
16) Although he served as deputy chairman of the Karnataka State Planning Board, chief minister S.M. Krishna is said to have refused to give him a Rajya Sabha seat, because, according to a well-known quizzer, “SMK has a slight aversion for bright people”.
Quotable quote-II: “The early generation of our founding fathers were all educated in England. Our tragedy is that not many crossed the Atlantic. In fact, there were only two of our leaders who crossed the Atlantic, and they made a substantial difference to India.“
17) Although he is 55, Jairam has a formidable reputation as a “whiz-kid” and “backroom boy” in the Congress, and is even credited for having his finger on the political pulse, by pushing the Congress’s aam admi slogan in 2004. However, Jairam, who served as deputy chairman of the Karnataka State Planning Board, is said to have predicted 120 seats for S.M. Krishna‘s Congress in the assembly polls. He got 65.
18) Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch admiral who headed a Chinese fleet which reached the Malabar coast of India in the early 15th century (some have argued he reached America, before Columbus, as well) is a particular favourite with Jairam. He appears several times in his book Making sense of Chindia.
Photographs: courtesy Bharatwaves, Scott Adams, Outlook, Flickr