Rahul at the Ficci meet; Jayanthi Natarajan
New Delhi, Dec. 21: Unable to “hit a six” in the recent elections, Rahul Gandhi batted for growth without taking his eyes off poverty and shared industry’s concern on environment clearances on a day the related minister resigned.
“Many of you have expressed your frustration with environmental clearances that are delaying projects unduly. There is excessive administrative and judicial discretion. The loopholes are so big you can drive a truck through some of them,” Rahul told the Ficci meeting a few hours after Jayanthi Natarajan had put in her papers as environment minister.
“I would like to work for the party,” Natarajan said. Such shifts are not uncommon — and more are expected — in the run-up to the general election but the explanation could not quell suggestions that she was eased out after complaints from industry.
Some ministers suggested that she had annoyed influential sections in the government by creating hurdles to environmental clearances for big projects.
Rahul did not mention Natarajan but said during an interactive session at the Ficci meeting: “Environment is very important but we have to see industry doesn’t suffer…. The real issue is arbitrary power, the environment minister can’t do what he wants. We have to create rules and structures.”
Natarajan’s resignation surprised many as it preceded the expected departure of rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, whose exit from the environment ministry earlier had also fuelled similar speculation.
Although Rahul today raised his voice against the “plunder of natural resources”, his comments were a far cry from the “sipahi” clarion call he had given from the foot of a hill in Odisha that became a lightning rod for environment activism in the country. “Main Dilli mein aapka sipahi hoon (I am your soldier in Delhi),” Rahul had told tribal residents in March 2008 when he visited the Niyamgiri hills where the Dongria Konds were protesting against a bauxite mining project.
Rahul’s slogan then was seen as a sign that the Congress and the UPA government had tilted towards stringent environment rules – a stand closely identified with Jairam Ramesh who became environment minister in 2009.
Ramesh was eventually replaced by Natarajan who has stepped aside now. Veerappa Moily will look after the portfolio for the time being.
Growth with rider
Speaking on the Ficci platform, Rahul sought to address misgivings among industrialists that the future Congress leader was not giving due importance to economic growth in his obsession with poverty alleviation.
Such a perception about Rahul is being seen as one of the reasons Narendra Modi could easily project himself as “business friendly”, often without having to spell out his stand on politically sensitive economic issues.
“There is absolutely no confusion in my mind. You need growth,” Rahul said.
But he declared that the party’s middle path approach would not be abandoned. “Poverty is neither befitting of human dignity, nor is it conducive to good business. I would like to state clearly that poverty cannot be fought without growth. Maintaining robust growth has enabled the UPA government to invest in people. In 10 years, almost a third of India’s poor have risen above the poverty line.”
Growth and welfare
Rahul said growth and welfare programmes need not be mutually exclusive. “There is a view that our investments in food security, employment guarantee and rural development are a drag on economic growth. I don’t believe there is a trade-off between investments in the social sector and economic growth. It is today’s investments in people that create tomorrow’s markets. It is today’s markets that allow us to invest in our people’s future.”
Elaborating on environment clearances, he said: “Of course, many projects are still stuck – some for good reason and some for no good reason at all.”
He said the cabinet committee on investments and the project monitoring group reflected the recognition of the need to fast-track clearances.
Caution against plunder
But he had a word of caution for the industry, too. “There has been a dramatic rise in transparency and we have to get used to the changing paradigm. It is possible to carve out a clear line. You can’t allow wholesale plunder of natural resources. There are environmental damages that are non-recoverable. We can’t allow that,” Rahul said.
He stressed the importance of rules and structures when a question was put to him on the problems created by the new land act.
“Take the example of the Tatas in Bengal. The absence of a law allowed political mobilisation. The law will protect you by creating a transparent system. In the Maoist corridor, land is the central issue… you are already bearing a cost. There is a large cost of not having a law,” Rahul said, claiming that the government had not abdicated its responsibility and there were large spaces where acquisition was possible.
Party of hatred
Rahul also talked politics, clearly building his argument in the context of the challenge posed by BJP’s Narendra Modi.
Without naming Modi or the BJP, he said: “Around the time Mahatma Gandhi was making his first address to Ficci in 1931, the dark shadows of fascism had begun to spread over Europe. A party built on a divisive ideology full of hatred, arrogance and misguided notions of superiority plunged the world into a war that brought Germany to its knees. Millions of people were killed and communities impoverished. Businesses were destroyed.”
The context of this historical recall at a business meeting became clear when he added: “What our people understood intuitively but the Europeans of the 1930s did not was that wealth cannot be constructed on poverty. Peace cannot be constructed on conflict. Societies cannot be built on injustice and hatred.”
He further rubbed the message in: “Our vision is of India united by compassion, not by power; living in harmony, not in hatred; thriving in peace rather than suffocating in conflict; filled with humility, not with hubris.”
Not oblivious to the general perception that industry was with Modi, Rahul said: “The Congress mission is anchored in a simple idea which is not new, an idea where humanity is united in love, compassion and harmony and in this great country of ours it always has, and will, trump hatred.”
The expression of hope came against the admission that the “Congress did not really hit a six” in the recent elections.
More instances of self-deprecatory humour followed. “Let me begin by acknowledging that we didn’t really hit a six in the last elections. We did not do as well as we expected and I now get the sense, I now understand what it feels like when you have to go to your AGMs with bad news,” Rahul told the Ficci audience.
Rahul also touched upon another episode that the Congress and the government would like to forget. “Recently, we have been able to ensure that convicted criminals are kept out of Parliament. In the process, I got to learn that it is not polite to ask that ordinances be torn and thrown into the dustbin,” he said.