Back when she was Railways Minister under Prime Minister Vajpayee, Mamata Banerjee used to insist on driving into Parliament every day in a battered, old Fiat.
The paraphernalia of ministerhood in Lutyen’s Delhi, with its bulletproof cars and gun-toting securitymen, was always an anathema for a politician whose entire imagery has been built on the notion of the plebeian outsider; in the system but forever intent on pretending that she is outside it, playing politics, but insisting that she is doing it for people like her.
Now that she is unquestioned mistress of Writers Building in Kolkata, the old Fiat may have gone but her perennially crumpled cotton sari and the quintessential hawaii chappal remain: symbols of who she is and how she wants to be seen.
The symbolism of Mamata Banerjee is at the heart of the pantomime going on now about Dinesh Trivedi and his long-overdue hike in rail tickets. As she stares the Congress down, along with her once-loyal and now-renegade minister, Ms Banerjee is doing what she has always done: play the poverty card and tell her voters that she is with them. This politics of entitlement, this mai-baap style of leadership comes from an older playbook that Rahul Gandhi has already discovered does not work anymore.
Ms Banerjee may well learn soon enough but her politics has little else beyond this kind of populist sloganeering. As she gears up for panchayati elections in West Bengal next year, her opposition to price hikes in the railways at the national level, is fundamentally of piece with her announcements at the state level last week to ensure job quotas for minorities, 50% reservations for women in panchayats, and attempts to woo farmers.
Ms Banerjee’s bullying tactics highlight in even sharper relief the absolute shamelessness of politicians and successive railway ministers in treating a national asset like the Railways as a personal fiefdom, a specialised vote-buying machine to dispense favours. From Paswan to Lalu Yadav, to Mamata, the Railways portfolio has always signified bags of goodies for the home-states of respective ministers. Is it any surprise then that rail prices have not really increased in nearly a decade?
Nobody wants to pay higher prices but the bottomline is that financially the Railways was close to going the Air India way. Its arteries were clogged and it needed a bypass, as Dinesh Trivedi has argued. Two expert panels, led by Anil Kakodkar and Sam Pitroda have pointed out that as much as 14 lakh crores are needed in the next ten years for the Railways to modernise even as it struggles to meet its daily expenses.
The choice was clear: either Dinesh Trivedi could have done the politically safe thing and somehow kept muddling along, in the forlorn hope that it would be someone else’s problem tomorrow, or he could have done the honourable thing and taken the plunge.
Given the financial mess the Railways is in there was little else any honest minister could have done. For example, there are as many as 487 projects, costing 1 lakh crore in various stages of completion. Without new sources of money, few could have been completed. Similarly, nearly half of major rail accidents occur at unmanned crossings.
The consequence of poor infrastructure is affecting lives and fixing this will require money if we have to get close to the highest global standards of rail safety, as in Japan or say Germany.
The time has come for the Railways to be run professionally as a national service, delinked from political interference. Only then can it deliver the highest standards of safety and quality. Mamata Banerjee’s anger now is representative of an older style of patronage politics that is now past its use-by date.
The brinkmanship over rail prices has also exposed the continuing lack of confidence in the Congress which should stand up and defend its government’s rail budget. There is such a thing as shared responsibility and in this matter at least, it is not enough for the party’s managers to shrug their shoulders and call it an internal problem of the Trinamool Congress. Does the Congress stand for rail reform or not?
The government’s numbers are not so precarious. If Mamata’s bluff is called and she eventually withdraws support, the SP and the BSP’s numbers will make up for the lost MPs. Already we are hearing noises along these lines from Digvijay Singh. But in the end, this is a fight over governance and principles. Even if it is still licking its wounds from Uttar Pradesh, the Congress should have the political will to announce what it really stands for.