BY offering to resign, Union agriculture minister Chaturanan Mishra has done what any man with any self-respect would have. Deeply hurt by a reported statement that the prime minister was not satisfied with his performance, the 74-year-old fighter sent the offer in a strongly-worded letter to I.K. Gujral. Sitting in Punjab, Gujral pacified Mishra on the telephone. But when Mishra received the final communication from the PMO, he was not satisfied. He said: "If the PM feels I'm inefficient, it's best that I resign". Gujral had to make another statement:"Mr Mishra is one of the able colleagues.... I greatly value his contribution." That put the controversy to rest. With just one difference: the man was serious—he would actually have resigned.
A major event, a major risk for any ordinary minister; a day's work for Mishra. Earlier, he had offered his life in exchange for that of the young scientist held hostage by the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. At 74, with five decades of an eventful struggle behind him, he is reported to have said that he had lived his life and did not aspire for anything more.
That, in essence, is the first-time Lok Sabha MP from Madhubani in Bihar, the grassroots politician in the true sense of the word, from the Communist Party of India (CPI). A man who believes more in serving than in cornering reams of newsprint or bytes on TV, mouthing the predictable over-my-dead-body spiel. Favour-seekers don't make a beeline for his office simply because they would be wasting their time. The flamboyance that the office of a minister typifies is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, what you see is rustic charm. For a man who's never been to college, Mishra is surprisingly insightful. From farmers' problems, to intellectual property, there is a commonsensical originality in his words. An idea-based originality that's backed by action. Individual action—Mishra has no gun-toting securitymen tailing him.
This individuality has kept him in the news of late. Be it his reported remarks on subsidies, his spat with finance minister P. Chidambaram, or even the Veerappan episode, Mishra makes news. Therefore, when Mishra declared during a TV interview last week that subsidies should be "carefully thought out and applied with judicious thinking", he was just floating a fresh idea. But the Left saw red. It felt that it wasn't right for the minister to trudge off the party line. Functionaries in the CPI were reportedly upset; more so, because of the timing: the Left has been demanding an increase in availability of foodgrains through the public distribution system.
Despite the furore, Mishra was unfazed. And didn't eat his words. Far from that, in fact. When Outlook met him last week, he explained he had been misquoted. Says he: "Some officials of the World Bank had come. They were saying that the subsidy bill of the government is too huge. I told them that they were wrong. If a large number of people of the country are poor, the government will have to subsidise foodgrains to them, won't it?" What he meant by reducing the subsidies was simply to increase productivity and efficiency, which, in his opinion, would drive down prices, pushing down the subsidy bill.
Frank, hard-hitting, straight-forward, that's Mishra."This government is no different and it is making a very big mistake," he says, the gentle smile seeking to camouflage the anguish within. He feels that when the country can make such great strides in science and industry, there is no reason why agriculture should be left behind. He tells his scientists in the ministry: "Science should be taken to the villages. The farmers need hybrid seeds, fertilisers and pest-control chemicals." A realist, he realises this is not going to be easy.
Unlike most politicians, who think twice before saying nothing on a whole host of issues, often putting foot in mouth, Mishra's nonchalance about answering questions regarding the subsidy debate could probably disarm his strongest critic. That, the CPI workers say, is a quality of the person. "He may not agree with you but he will still discuss the issue with you," says a senior party worker at Ajoy Bhavan, the CPI headquarters in Delhi.
His views are not limited to the outside; he looks within, as well. In the same interview, Mishra had gone on to make one of the most blasphemous statements a Communist could. The traditional attitude of the Communists to the public sector, he had said, "was a mistake committed by us in the past", leaving the Party seething again. Mishra couldn't care less. As a child, he had faced poverty; as a youth, he fought the freedom struggle; as minister, he introspects.
In the more than 50 years since he joined the Communist movement, he has seen too much to keep quiet now. If the Gujral regime falls tomorrow, he seems ready to pack his bags, leave his minister-ship at Krishi Bhawan, and get on with life, with struggle. But speak his mind he will. And so, his public spat with finance minister P. Chidambaram over the issue of Plan funds for his ministry. Mishra had written to Chidambaram, attacking his anti-farmer policies. Whether that was the reason why the resignation was offered is not clear, but the drama shows the man's commitment: clear, strong, stubborn.
Why then, is such commitment missing in Bihar—his home state—which is mired in corruption? "Times have changed," he says. "Today, there is a strong wave of casteism and communalism in Bihar. One by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (two of whose ministers are his cabinet colleagues) and another by the Bharatiya Janata Party." And you don't have to stare into his eyes to note the regret. That the Left parties have frittered away the hard work done during the independence movement draws a similar regretful tone. The Socialists and the Left spent a lot of time and energy fighting each other, negating the positive moves that they had initiated together. Having seen those days when being Left was right, Mishra feels that these parties, who used to set the agenda for the nation earlier, have let go the opportunity now.
His heart swells with pride when he speaks about his achievements. How he had fought the influence of the Raja of Ramgarh and former Bihar chief minister K.B. Sahay and managed to win the assembly seat in 1969. After that, he tasted more success before he was elevated to the Rajya Sabha for two terms. The stories he has from his long spell in public life would do a grandma proud. "We were fighting for an ideology," he reminisces. It was the Telangana struggle waged by the Left that began the process of land reforms. The Congress seized the plank and made it a nationwide policy. In the same way, the Left formed the country's first non-Congress government in 1957. "These were the causes because of which we had earned the respect of the people," says Mishra.
But while in public life Mishra's achievements stand out, as an individual he remains a loner. Right from his childhood, he has had no friends. During the freedom struggle, he had to hide in Nepal to evade arrest. "Life has been different because of being in politics," he smiles, dismissing, in a line, the hard years behind him.
His views have not changed after becoming a minister. Two weeks ago, at the Delhi airport, while trying to enter the VIP lounge, Mishra was accosted by security personnel who wished to ascertain his identity. Unassuming as ever, Mishra was unfazed by the gaffe. His office staff say that they now travel by public transport, unlike earlier times when the minister circumvented rules to make official vehicles available for them. They say Mishra pores through official files so well that every page has more corrections—valid corrections—than his predecessors. His favourite line sums up his humility: "I am not the agriculture minister, the monsoon is." "Anything else?" he asks. No. "Then shall we get on with our work?"