The drama over the increase in railway passenger fares and freight rates is confined to politicians alone. Their voters are more sensible; not only were they expecting the rise — the United Progressive Alliance had started raising freight rates if rather timorously — but they are also aware of the need to increase fares. They may not like it, but they do need safe, clean, comfortable, speedy trains, and more of them. But politicians have identified this as a ‘hard’ decision; they think that if the population has to pay more to travel by train they will refuse to vote, or something equally unrealistic — and any government that ‘dares’ to take it is very brave. Certainly that is the image that the government of Narendra Modi would like to project of itself.
No harm there, only Mr Modi’s party, when in Opposition, sang a very different tune. Two years ago, Mr Modi himself, representing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s point of view, eloquently accused the UPA government of having burdened the people unfairly by raising railway freight rates, and that too before the railway budget. Now Ajay Maken of the Congress has reacted in almost similar terms to the new government’s fare hike, just as other parties in Opposition — including the Left and the Trinamul Congress, naturally — have all expressed pious outrage. In Indian politics, reaction is driven by a kind of Pavlovian reflex that is determined by where a party in question is sitting: on the treasury benches or the opposition ones. From condemnation to protest rallies, the entire drama around the fare hike is a political construction generated by politicians who would rather strike mindless poses than do any serious thinking and debating. The railways desperately need reform and upgrading at every level; the fare hike is just the first step. What was the BJP objecting to when the UPA started raising freight rates and what are the other parties, many of them of the UPA, objecting to now? As if underlining the irony, the Union railways minister has defended himself by saying that his government has merely carried through the UPA’s proposed hikes. It is time perhaps, for all parties, in government and in Opposition, to transcend their silliness and address the actual subject of railways reform, through debate and argument if necessary, but at least like mature parliamentarians. Not like Pavlov’s favourite creatures.