Mamata Banerjee was on Sunday sternly critical of the railways, specifically in the context of Friday's triple-train accident, and generally, over what India's largest public sector entity was apparently reduced to under the Narendra Modi government.
The Trinamul chief, who was railway minister over multiple stints during both NDA (under Atal Bihari Vajpayee) and UPA II regimes, iterated a number of measures taken by the Bengal government to alleviate the suffering of the Balasore tragedy’s victims or their kin. She suggested railway jobs for the next of kin of the deceased.
“When I was the railway minister, I had instituted the policy of giving a job to the kin of those who died in railway accidents... I think it is a just system,” she said.
Sources said that Mamata decided to hold the news conference as she felt -— after discussing the train tragedy with another former railway minister and her present Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar — that the flaws in the management of the railways should be highlighted as part of a concerted attack on the Modi government.
Most Opposition leaders have been saying how the Modi-led government has slammed the brakes on recruitment in the railways and compromised on passenger safety.
The brouhaha around Vande Bharat trains, leaders like Mamata think, is only aimed at creating a larger-than-life image of Modi.
At the news conference, Mamata spoke extensively on some of the crucial upgrades or infrastructure developments when she was at the helm of the Rail Bhavan, such as upgrading the signalling system, introducing anti-collision devices (ACDs), and converting over 400 unmanned crossings to manned level crossings.
“In my tenure, we upgraded the technology, the telecom system and adopted the usage of ACDs. In fact, I had personally gone to Madgaon and met Konkan Railway officials, where trials for ACDs were held,” said the Trinamul chief.
“All these upgrades happened because of the efforts of the previous government, and most certainly not the current government. In fact, the incumbent government, rather than improving the railways, has destroyed it,” she said.
Asked to elaborate, Mamata said: “There is a proverb, ‘if one’s character is lost, everything is lost’. The character of Indian railways was lost the day its budget was merged with the Union budget."
The chief minister, who rushed to Balasore on Saturday, said none of her statements issued to the media with railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and education minister Dharmendra Pradhan next to her was made with the intent to attack, which has been the interpretation of the saffron ecosystem and sections of mainstream media.
“(Vaishnaw and Pradhan) were standing next to me, repeatedly nodding in agreement with the things I was saying. Why did they do so then, if I was indeed attacking or casting aspersions? Why did they not object then and there?” asked the Trinamul chief.
“The things that I said were very measured…. I could have said a lot more, because I have experience in handling the railways, having presented seven-eight railway Budgets. I know the functioning of the railways like the back of my hand,” she added.
Clarifying that she doesn't want Vaishnaw’s resignation and asserting that he and his government would be sent packing by the people in the general election next year, Mamata said the Centre was trying to lower the death toll, suppress facts and shift the blame, instead of owning up and apologising.
Trinamul national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee, however, had demanded the rail minister's resignation.