Raghuvansh babu, the architect of MGNREGA and India’s most infulential rural development minister

Whenever Union rural development minister Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, would stop his car to chat with journalists on his way out of the Parliament complex, it would be anxious moments for his officials.

No, India’s best rural development minister would not belt out any state secret. But his marathon encounters with journalists would inevitably lead to delay in important meetings in his office. And at least on three occasions, he missed his flight to Patna!

Raghuvansh babu loved to talk. But he worked more.

He is the unsung architect of India’s biggest welfare programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a programme that survived change of political colour at the Centre, attracted a record fund allocation of Rs 1 lakh crore this year and emerged as a lifeline for millions of migrant workers in the Covid-hit economy.

While Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) had drafted the scheme, Singh gave the critical push. MGNREGA was facing an unusual delay because at least three Congress heavyweights were not fully convinced of its utility and saw the programme as a leaky cauldron of public funds.

One afternoon, as UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was passing through the Central Hall in Parliament, a desperate Singh walked up to her and briefed her about the inordinate delay in framing the scheme.

Within a few minutes, Gandhi summoned the then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, who headed the Group of Ministers (GoM) on MGNREGA, and told him to expedite the project. The files started moving faster and India’s first guaranteed job scheme was rolled out in 200 districts in February 2006, two years after the UPA came to power.

A man of unquestionable integrity, Singh was entrusted with the key social sector ministry amid a flurry of welfare activities that would soon transform welfare models for poor Indians and hailed later as hallmarks of the UPA. The rural welfare was also politically critical as the all-powerful NAC was sharply focused on the sector.

Singh, a low-key politician was such devoted to his work, that once he shot a letter to then PM Manmohan Singh accusing a top-ranking cabinet minister of being “garib-virodhi” (anti-poor).

The then Planning Commission chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia tried to mediate. Ahluwalia met Singh to tell him the senior minister was pained about his letter and that he would want to accompany him to some of the villages to oversee progress in rural programmes.

“No”, Singh replied, “he should come with me in the peak of summer in north Bihar and stay in an unelectrified village for at least three nights. Only then he would understand what it means to live in an Indian village.”

At a cabinet meeting, Singh verbally made the complex calculations for MGNREGS fund requirements, leaving nearly all colleagues gobsmacked. A minister, unaware that Singh holds a doctorate in mathematics and taught the subject before joining politics, asked him, “when did you learn such good math?”

Singh quipped, “I learnt it before you were born!”

Raghuvansh babu was also instrumental in launching the pension scheme for disabled and widows and expanded the National Social Assistance Programme (rechristened as Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme) of 1985 to include all individuals below poverty line for the old age pension. This too, proved to be a key intervention for rural poors who are no more able to work and it continues till date.

His original proposal—to grant pension for young widows—could not be passed as then expenditure secretary Sushma Nath single-handedly demolished his arguments and convinced the entire cabinet that young widows should be given skill training and not doles.

And it was during his tenure that the government initiated the process of amending India’s archaic land acquisition law to make it more friendly for the farmers. The controversial new law, however, took final shape during UPA’s second term.

A five term MP from Bihar’s Vaishali constituency, he was a prized upper caste asset of a party that survives on backward caste politics, a loyal lieutenant of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad since the late 1980s till he resigned from RJD on September 11 via a handwritten letter from his hospital bed in AIIMS, Delhi where he was admitted for covid-related complications.

His political life started as a secretary of Samyukta Socialist Party (S.S.P.) in Sitamarhi district of Bihar. He entered Bihar assembly in 1977 and rose through the ranks as a minister and deputy Speaker before winning Vaishali in 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Between 1996 and 1998, he was union minister of state (independent charge), animal husbandry and dairying, food and consumer affairs in the United Front government.

The party’s intellectual powerhouse, he rejected open offer from the Congress and other parties for a long time. In 2009, the Congress was keen to again make him the rural development minister, even though the RJD had ceased to be an UPA ally. But Prasad didn’t agree.

Singh’s association with Prasad goes back over three decades. And, he is also perhaps the only leader who could openly criticise Prasad and get away unscathed. Once he was asked in an interview how he would rate Prasad’s achievements. Singh replied that in political management, his boss would score a perfect 10 on 10 but as an administrator, he deserved nothing more than a zero.

Singh’s baiters within the RJD pounced on the opportunity to paint him in poor light before Prasad. They quickly brought the paper clippings to the RJD boss, demanding action against the former mathematics professor. The RJD chief, however, disappointed them: “Yes, he should not have said such a thing publicly, but whatever he has said is also not incorrect.”

The Rajput leader could win Vaishali once last time in 2009 but caste equations went against him in the next two general elections, leaving him confined to party organization as a vice president and an occasional visitor in Delhi for health check-ups.

For many, he was the authentic face of development in the RJD for his stellar works as rural development minister between 2004-09 but he would almost always get overshadowed by the more charismatic Lalu Prasad. But they bonded well. Prasad, after seeing his resignation, replied, Prasad responded to Singh’s letter and urged him not to join another party. “A letter written by you is circulating in the media. I cannot believe it. Me, my family and the RJD family want to see you recover soon. We will talk after you recover. You are not going anywhere. Just mind it.”

A simpleton (his brother saw Delhi for the first time after Raghuvansh became a union minister), Singh once gave five pieces of advice, written in a paper napkin, on how to run the Bihar government on a flight to chief minister Nitish Kumar. He threw his only annual party in Delhi on Makar Sankantri, didn’t carry a cellphone for a long time and could amaze visitors at his office by reciting entire Trilokinath-katha—a religious hymn practised in parts of rural India.

This correspondent met him for the first time in 2002. At his office, Raghuvansh babu was having khichdi for lunch. I gave him my business card. He took it and started using it as a toothpick. Then, for the next one hour, the former mathematics teacher taught me intricate details of cultural and social similarities between Bengal and Bihar.

He knew my state better than me.

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