It is no surprise that Mr Nitish Kumar, Union minister for railways once again, carries his resignation letter around in his pocket at all times. This he announced at the conclusion of the Samata Party national council meeting when, at a moment of satisfying drama, he was getting ready to produce it for the fourth time during his stint as minister. What is surprising, though, is the reason he adduced for his resignation-readiness: he would not stay on if that compromised his self-respect. He is back in his office, however. Pleas for his return have not quite made the headlines, although the Samata legislature party in Bihar, predominantly pro-Nitish, passed a resolution requesting him to withdraw his resignation. But more than this — since rebel leaders have threatened to begin a “vicious” campaign against him — it was Mr George Fernandes’s gentle nudging that sufficed. None of this has to do with the enormous number of railway accidents and derailments under his ministership. The precedent of resigning because the moral responsibility for an accident must be borne by the minister in charge was set long ago by Lal Bahadur Shastri, and has remained part of the unwritten code of noblesse oblige of the railway ministry. In these far less noble times, such resignations have a greater resemblance to bargaining chips. The tradition itself is a little confused, because the function of ministers is perceived confusedly. There is no distinct line between the policy-making role on the one hand and execution at ground level on the other. There is no tradition of examining whether a particular mishap was caused by the policy or decision made by a minister. He is expected to be morally responsible for failures of execution too.
But all this is quite irrelevant in Mr Kumar’s case. He is playing a power game in a faction-ridden party. Having succeeded in expelling two members of parliament and three Bihar legislators for alleging corruption in his ministry, Mr Kumar decided to resign when Mr Prabhunath Singh criticized him for high-handedness. This is all in a day’s work for the Samata Party, for the rivalry between Mr Kumar and Mr Fernandes goes back a while. Sorting out such problems for the good of all takes a short time too — a talk with Mr Fernandes and tea with Mr Singh, in which, interestingly, Mr Kumar was the host. Since Mr Kumar has such pressing matters to deal with, it will be some time before a nervous public finds out whether the recent workshop which revealed the lethal condition of railways maintenance and discipline will actually lead to positive steps for correction.