| Laloo Prasad Yadav takes charge as railway minister in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Jagdish Yadav
Laloo Prasad Yadav is possibly the eighth MP from Bihar to get the railway portfolio. Add to the list the two from Bengal, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Mamata Banerjee, and as many as nine railway ministers of the country, it would be seen, have been from the two eastern states.
The earliest railway minister from Bihar one can recall is Jagjivan Ram, who ran the utility from 1956-62. Then came Ram Subhag Singh.
He was followed by Lalit Narayan Mishra and Kedar Pandey. George Fernandes was also an MP from Bihar when he presided over Rail Bhavan while the nineties saw Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar in the chair. The railway network and services in Bihar, however, continue to be among the worst.
Paswan this time made the cardinal mistake of resting on his laurels. His stint as railway minister in the United Front government, Paswan believed, would make him a frontrunner for the post. He, after all, had the experience of presenting the railway budget and would find it easier to control the known turf.
He had, however, failed to take into account the dogged determination of Laloo Prasad, who, contrary to popular perception, had set his sights on Rail Bhavan and not on the North Block.
In his unique style and language, Laloo Prasad had adopted a look of injured innocence when asked why he was twisting the arms of the Prime Minister to get the railway portfolio. “Hum maal-chatoo nahin hain” (which, loosely translated, would mean ‘I am not looking for crumbs’), he had said, repeating that he only wanted to serve the people.
But there are good reasons, say observers, for Laloo Prasad’s preference. He had watched with some irritation, if not fascination, the public profiles of both Paswan and one-time friend Nitish Kumar as railway ministers.
The portfolio, points out railway officials, carries with it a disproportionate degree of autonomy and a hefty publicity budget. The ministers would often insist on issuing advertisements, complete with their pictures, to publicise minor repairs, renovation of stations or even the occasion when halogen bulbs lit up a remote station in Bihar. There have been railway ministers who have squandered the tax-payers’ money in publicising the new ‘halts’ announced for trains.
The railway minister, moreover, does not require cabinet approval to launch new trains. What is more, the railway employs a large army of contractors and casual workers for temporary periods. A pro-active railway minister obviously can get a large number of people employed for at least short periods. Huge maintenance and supply contracts, which again are issued for short periods, is another area where the minister can seek to favour loyalists.
“The public profile of the railway minister is very high indeed,” conceded a spokesman of the Indian Railways, “not only because of the enormous contact with people that the post entails but also due to the minister’s authority to nominate people to various committees and oblige people with both free passes and releasing berths from the minister’s own quota.”
Another official said, tongue-in-cheek, that Lalooji had perhaps taken a fancy to the plush salon in which the railway minister can travel in style.
There could also be a political motive to Laloo Prasad’s insistence on getting the railway portfolio. Nitish Kumar during his stint had nursed his constituency well and people belonging to his caste, the Kurmis, did get plum contracts. The Yadav chief from Bihar could try to undo the “discrimination” and ensure “social justice”.
Laloo Prasad himself, however, went on record to say on Monday that he was the railway minister of “India” and would specifically try to redress the grievances of his “south Indian brothers”.
With his publicly expressed ambition of occupying the Prime Minister’s chair one day, it is possible that he calculated that the railway ministry would provide him with just the right vehicle to propel him to a different league.
It would of course be ironical when Laloo Prasad finally rises to present the railway budget. Because, confronted with the accusation that as both the chief minister and the finance minister of Bihar, he was responsible for allowing the fodder scam, he had memorably and disarmingly declared: “Do I understand figures' They are all cooked up by the babus and I merely put my signature on them.”
But then, there have been many occasions when Laloo Prasad has surprised his critics and proved them wrong. One hopes this time too he escapes being just a carpetbagger.
The railway has clearly cast a spell on him. It remains to be seen if he now casts a spell on the railway.