The congressman who said too much

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Former Panchayati Raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was once choosy about his berths. He admits that all he has now is ‘vulgar ambition’

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IT IS ALMOST impossible for any other Congressman to be as candid as Mani Shankar Aiyar. There is a strong chance that it could get him into the party’s bad books but Aiyar rejects that theory. “We are not a fascist party. I do suggest things within the party and sometimes in public, but it’s always in the party’s interest,” says the 68-year-old. Often considered a dissident, the former Minister of Panchayati Raj lost not only his Mayiladuthurai constituency of Tamil Nadu, but also his Cabinet berth this time.

He had started off on top of the Cabinet in the UPA’s 2004-09 term, with three ministries in his kitty — Panchayati Raj, Petroleum and Sports, but in 2009, he ended up being left with only one. Murli Deora was given Petroleum in January 2006 and MS Gill made incharge of Sports in April 2008. “I wasn’t dismissed from the post,” Aiyar clarifies quickly. He adds: “I was given temporary charge of the Petroleum Ministry. And because I succeeded in acquiring an international profile for the ministry, I became a media darling and they considered Petroleum to be my prime ministry and Panchayat Raj to be my subsidiary ministry.”

All this while Panchayati Raj remained close to his heart. Aiyar “hated” the Sports Ministry. He openly criticised the government’s spending on the Commonwealth Games. Not much has changed. He still maintains that the expenditure is loathsome for a country as poor as ours.

“It’s all for bogus prestige. It has nothing to do with the substance of development for this capital city which is a privileged place. Had the government focussed on some place like Mayiladuthurai, I would still have been okay,” he says.

Is it this opposition to a government scheme that went against him in getting a Cabinet berth this time? “No. I haven’t risen to the position of stature and confidence in the party hierarchy that people like Ghulam Nabi Azad have. I’m not surprised that I wasn’t given a berth,” he says. As the national convenor for the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan (RGPRS), Aiyar is aware that he is not in a powerful organisation, one which can revolutionise the situation on the ground. “Had I got elected, I suppose I would have been a frontrunner for the Rural Development Ministry and the Panchayati Raj Ministry,” says Aiyar. Currently, CP Joshi is heading those ministries. But Aiyar is relatively happy because Joshi is an old comrade-in-arms. “Together we may be able to achieve spectacular results on the ground,” says Aiyar hoping that his hard work in the RGPRS will get translated into a significant ministerial post in 2014.

Does he have the ambition? “You cannot be in politics unless you have vulgar ambition,” he says. And then displaying the candour that he is known for, he adds, “In the Congress party, you can have unbridled ambition up to position number two. Not beyond that.”

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