No new trains in the Railway Budget and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) steadfast position on the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill are signals from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team of senior Cabinet ministers that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is determined to pursue its reformist development-oriented agenda. The government is unlikely to follow the footsteps of preceding coalition governments that used exercises like Railway Budgets to keep their flock of members of Parliament (MPs) happy and also reach out to existing and potential allies.
In his speech, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, a chartered accountant by training, frequently used management buzzwords. He spoke of “four goals”, “five drivers” of change, and “11 thrust areas” for the Indian Railways in the next five years. The 64-year-old made MPs unhappy, particularly of NDA allies, by announcing no new trains and twice used the phrase how it cannot be “business as usual”..
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In the Rajya Sabha, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in his reply to the motion of thanks on the President’s address, quoted American businessman Ross Perot: “Lead me, follow me or get out of the way.” Perot had fought the 1992 US Presidential elections as an independent on the plank of a reformist economic agenda. Jaitley was speaking in the context of the opposition to the Land Bill. The message, sources said, was not only to the opposition but also to the National Democratic Alliance allies who have been read the riot act for making noises against the land Bill.
Prabhu did promise MPs that their suggestions on new trains will be considered, while senior ministers have reached out to All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Samajwadi Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the land Bill. However, the government is not in a mood to yield on substantive provisions of the land Bill, or burden the Railways with more new trains.
Among the allies, the Shiv Sena MPs complained that their state was being ignored. Prabhu hails from Maharashtra and was a member of the Shiv Sena before he joined BJP recently. Sena MP from Thane Rajan Vichare bemoaned how the Railway minister has done nothing for the Mumbai suburban railway or for Maharashtra. Opposition MPs also complained that outlay for states was reduced. Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Md Salim said the Budget has reduced allocation for West Bengal and Kolkata Metro.
The opposition slammed the Budget. Congress’s Veerappa Moily faulted the plan to utilise pension funds, former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi said he feared the Railways will go bankrupt the Air India way, while CPM’s P Rajeeve criticised the Budget’s intent to privatise Railways.
But the government's top leadership was happy with Prabhu's Budget. The Railway minister acknowledged Prime Minister Narendra Modi seven times in his speech, and thrice the assistance by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He referred to how the Railways will pursue projects close to the PM’s heart – Swachh Bharat, Digital India, Skill India, cooperative federalism, Yoga training for railway employees and Make in India.
The minister also invoked Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, Swami Vivekananda and the plan to institute a chair for study of railway technology at IIT-Banaras Hindu University, the constituency of the PM, in the name of Bharat Ratna Madan Mohan Malaviya.
The minister said the one “big idea” of the Budget was to “transform” Railways. “But the question arises in my heart: Hey prabhu (the Lord), how will this be accomplished,” said Prabhu, which led to peals of laughter. “That prabhu didn’t answer, so this Prabhu thought the Railways could be transformed in the centenary year when Mahatma Gandhi returned (from South Africa) to India,” he said. Prabhu said ways could be found for the Railways to take “rebirth” when there are ample resources and a “strong political will”.
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