New Delhi: 16 Lok Sabhas. 15 Prime Ministers. 45 Railway Ministers.
India is all set to elect its next government in the next few weeks, landing one of the country’s most important ministries its 46th minister in the nearly 72 years since Independence. That’s an average of one minister for every year and a half.
The railway ministry, which oversees the lifeline millions of Indians rely on daily, has changed hands at a dizzying pace since 1947, with only two incumbents ever completing their five-year term: Jagjivan Ram (7 December 1956 to 10 April 1962) and Lalu Prasad (23 May 2004 to 25 May 2009).
Others seem to have whizzed through the revolving doors of Rail Bhavan after stints as unpredictable as the punctuality of Indian trains: The first of the Narendra Modi government’s three railway ministers, D.V. Sadananda Gowda, held the office for five-and-a-half months (26 May 2014 to 9 November 2014), Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress for eight months (July 2011 to March 2012), Pawan Bansal of the Congress for seven months (28 October, 2012 to 10 May, 2013), George Fernandes for 11 months (5 December 1989 to 10 November 1990) in the National Front government, and T.A. Pai for less than seven months (23 July 1972 to 4 February 1973) in the Indira Gandhi government.
Only two incumbents — Lal Bahadur Shastri (1952-1956) and Nitish Kumar (1998-1999) — have quit the ministry over train accidents on their watch, which raises the question: Just what is it about this ministry that has caused it to change hands so often?
Plum as it gets
As far as ministries go, the railways is just about as plum as it gets.
Until 2017, the railways had its own budget that was announced in Parliament with almost as much fanfare as the general budget. It is India’s largest employer with 14 lakh employees, and among the world’s top 10 recruiters.
It oversees one of the world’s biggest railway networks — as of 31 March 2017, the network totalled 67,368 km — and a minister’s job involves travelling across the country.
“The ministry has a bigger budget [than others],” said a senior Railway Board official about the ministry.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the technical nature of the job warranted accountability on the part of ministers.
“Railways is considered to be a highly-technical institution. Here you have to depend on your technology, design the engine, make the track and, if the train derails, the minister has to face the punishment,” the official said.
According to Subodh Jain, a former member of the Railway Board, the foremost reason behind the frequent change is that the ministry is entrusted with “a public service of top importance” and thus courts greater scrutiny, not just from the prime minister but also the public.
“During the tenure of Suresh Prabhu, a series of accidents took place, but he kept shifting blame. It was the public perception of non-performance that cost him the job, notwithstanding his position as the darling of the Cabinet,” Jain told ThePrint.
Prabhu served almost three years as railways minister, from 10 November 2014 to 3 September 2017.
“Prior to this, there was Sadananda Gowda. In his case, it was the Prime Minister’s perception that he wasn’t performing, as nothing was moving in the direction of high-speed [trains],” said Jain.
High-speed rail connectivity, such as the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, has been one of the focus areas of the Narendra Modi government.
“No other ministry is susceptible,” Jain added. “There were ministers who resigned on account of some kind of deterioration in the service as well.”
Infrastructure consultant Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman of Feedback Infra, echoed Jain’s assertion.
“Railways is one of the ministries that courts the most public scrutiny,” Chatterjee said. “It touches the lives of most Indians and people across the country have opinions on how it is doing.
“It is also a very sensitive ministry because punctuality, service, accident, safety, all these factors always make news, and this could be one of the reasons of frequent changes in leadership,” Chatterjee said.
The coalition factor
Former Railway Board member Vinoo Mathur, who has worked with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, said the trend of coalition governments was also a factor behind the frequent changes.
In recent coalition governments, the railways ministry has often been held by smaller allies: For example, it was with Nitish under NDA-1 (1998-2004), and Lalu and Mamata Banerjee under the UPA (2004-2014).
“Railways has always been a coveted ministry because the minister gets to make a lot of populist policies and he gets to travel across the country,” said Mathur. “It is an important portfolio, which many ministers look forward to.”
Experts say that ministers often use stints in Rail Bhavan to curry favour with their constituents, by announcing projects that cater to their demands at the cost of other parts of the country.
“Every railway minister wants a railway factory in his state,” said J.L. Singh of the Railways Enthusiast Society, a forum for knowledge exchange vis-a-vis trains in India and overseas.
“Since we have had maximum ministers from UP-Bihar area , we see all factories in Bihar, and the factories have nothing to do with economic or operational analysis,” he added.
Mathur also talked about the extreme powers enjoyed by the minister. He said that even if general managers and committees entrusted with analysing proposals flagged any problems, the railways ministers could override the objections and approach the prime minister for approval.
Singh of the Railways Enthusiast Society, who was a joint director in the Indian Railways in 1981, recalled a proposal at the time for three new coach maintenance workshops in the eastern, western and southern regions. The committee set up to shortlist locations for the workshop in the southern region identified eight, but Singh was asked by a Railway Board member to change the report and told that the workshop would be set up in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, which wasn’t even on the shortlist.
Since the President at the time, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, was from Andhra Pradesh, Singh said, the officials wanted to make him happy.
“It was a purely political decision… At the same time, it was a technically poor decision. Tirupati had no industry even to buy any spare parts,” Singh added.
Said Mathur, “I remember one line was built by a minister to reach his in-laws’ place in Bihar. They get this power.”
Asked if politics had a role behind the frequent shake-ups in Rail Bhavan, Bansal, who had to resign as railways minister in May 2013 following his nephew’s arrest for allegedly accepting Rs 90 lakh as bribe for a Railway Board member’s promotion, said yes.
“The intrigue in politics is dirty,” he added.