| Lalu Prasad in Rail Bhawan just before leaving to present the budget. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Feb. 24: Lalu Prasad had memorised the Urdu couplets that peppered his speech and invited his children to watch him play Santa in Parliament today.
He may have expected the disruptions from the BJP, but his biggest disappointment came from his favourites, the Left, who played spoilsport to what the railway minister later dubbed a “visionary” endeavour.
Lalu Prasad had begun on a sunny note, quoting lyrical lines with surprising flourish: “Mere junoon ka nateeja zaroor niklega; is syah samandar se noor niklega (My passion will certainly bear fruit; I will find the light that hides in the depths of the dark seas).”
Having secured unusually high praise from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Lalu Prasad clearly meant to enjoy himself today.
His children urged to be shifted to special seats in the visitors’ gallery for a better view. As Lalu Prasad read through the first few pages, he looked up to find fault with his daughter’s posture.
Motioning her to face the House, he went on to describe the catering services he has introduced on trains, provoking a suggestion from a backbencher: “Why don’t you start serving chicken too'”
But the minister had already tackled that. The Railway Board today ordered its canteen in Parliament to start serving chicken, banned from the kitchen since February 20.
“All chicken items will be back on the menu from Monday,” a caterer said.
With an animated Sonia Gandhi thumping the desk, Lalu Prasad began listing the new trains: “Ahmedabad-Patna-Azimabad Express, Saharsa-Patna-Kosi Express, Delhi-Patna Garib Rath'.”
He had scarcely counted 10 new trains before the BJP members were on their feet.
“All trains go to Patna,” one MP yelled. “There are no trains for Gujarat,” shouted Harin Pathak, MP from Ahmedabad. Soon, other NDA partners joined in. They were trooping into the well when L.K. Advani stopped them. But the din continued.
Lalu Prasad almost stopped and would have sat down for the racket to ebb but the finance minister motioned to him to keep reading. By then, the railway minister was out of humour and seemed eager to wrap up the speech. Little could be heard as he plodded through the text. But just when things were returning to normal, a fresh attack came from the Left benches.
Angry at the east-west freight corridor going from Ludhiana to Sonnagar instead of from Delhi to Calcutta as earlier announced by the Prime Minister, Basudeb Acharya of the CPM began shouting at Lalu Prasad. All the Left MPs joined him.
The BJP members, most of whom had sat down, seized their chance and began screaming: “We want justice. More trains for Gujarat.”
The finance minister rushed to calm tempers. He spoke to Acharya and coaxed an agitated Mohammed Salim to sit down. But the din went on and Chidambaram gave up. Minister of state for personnel, Suresh Pachauri, too, tried and failed. As the noise got louder, Sonia asked her ministers to give up trying to mollify the Left.
Lalu Prasad ended his speech amid appreciation from cabinet colleagues and Sonia, who thumped the desk the longest of all. As the House was adjourned, a furious railway minister was seen shouting at one of his colleagues.
He later regained his humour partly to explain: “Yeh sab ham se jalta hai (The BJP members are jealous of me).”