The Opposition demand for the resignation of railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in the wake of the triple-train accident in Odisha that killed 288 people — the toll was revised on Tuesday — appears to have spawned an entire industry of image-builders for him on social media.
As is often the case with the BJP whenever faced with a crisis that could trigger a public outcry, its well-oiled machinery to create another narrative was ready and waiting to not just counter criticism but also drown other voices and questions about safety issues and huge vacancies in the railways. This is more often than not done to provide talking points to the party’s own constituency in street corners and WhatsApp groups.
The fire-fighting after the Balasore accident has been for Vaishnaw, who has even otherwise studiously cultivated an image of a no-nonsense technocrat-politician. The minister has hogged much of the limelight with his presence at the accident site through the weekend, beginning with getting under the wreckage, sitting near the tracks on concrete paving with officials and staff, walking down the tracks, and briefing not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also Odisha and Bengal chief ministers Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee.
In many ways, it was as if Vaishnaw was back to his Balasore collector avatar, only this time he had an army of social media influencers batting for him in what is unarguably the biggest crisis he has faced since becoming railway minister 23 months ago. Without doubt, his familiarity with Odisha as a former IAS officer posted in the state stood him in good stead. And, by becoming the face of the rescue operation, Vaishnaw was able to make it look like a wholly central intervention when the state administration was also working in tandem to provide relief to the victims and their families.
For his part, Vaishnaw has posted six tweets since Friday: First to announce that he was rushing to the accident site and that rescue teams from various places had been called in, and the second to detail the compensation. The next two tweets pertained to repair of the tracks, following which he posted two videos flagging off the first trains on the repaired tracks in both directions.
In one of the videos — both shot in the dead of the night — the minister led the railway personnel and officers present in chanting “Bharat Mata ki jai” and “Vande Mataram”, making some wonder whether the occasion was right for this.
Vaishnaw could also be seen praying with folded hands when the first train passed without a hitch on the repaired track. Again, this drew him appreciation as his fan base made it look as if the repair of the tracks for traffic in 50 hours after the accident was unprecedented although this is par for the course for the railways.
The BJP ecosystem has heaped praise on him for his “hands-on” approach.
“Can’t remember the last time a Railway Minister was this proactive, quick & sharp after a terrible tragedy. A sign of the times. A sign of a rising India. Onwards & upwards,” columnist and presenter Suraj Balakrishnan tweeted in response to Vaishnaw’s video doing a namaskar to the first train to move on the tracks after the restoration.
“Painter, gardener and Modi ji’s supporter” Minni Razdan wrote: “No wonder. Opposition wants resignation of such an outstandingly efficient, ethical & dedicated leader under Modi ji’s leadership. Kuddos and regards @AshwiniVaishnaw ji.”
Civil engineer Anshul, who proclaims his “love for country” on Twitter, said: “Thank you for showing true leadership in the midst of opposition gunning for your head. Being there leading from front, motivating your team, getting the track moving so quickly, giving reassurance & healing touch to grieving families.Indian Railways is in right hands.”
Twitter user Ritesh Kumar said: “A role model for modern India. Your leadership shone when it mattered the most. Stay the course Sir!”