New Delhi: Railways Minister Piyush Goyal is not someone who’s known to get emotional in public.
At least not in a “teary-eyed” way, as he is supposed to have turned earlier this month while speaking to his officers and telling them to ensure stranded migrant labourers eager to return home are transported without any difficulty.
But that now seems like a rare and uncharacteristic blip on the trajectory of Goyal’s journey in government. The union minister with a reputation for being brusque with civil servants and combative with rivals has since returned to form.
With the Indian Railways making news — or running into a controversy — every other day in connection with the Shramik Express trains it is operating for migrant workers, Goyal has been forced to turn chief fire-fighter and defender of the Modi government in what is turning out to be a major PR disaster.
From 2 am tweets to TV and social media interviews, Goyal is leaving no stone unturned in defending his government’s response against allegations of neglect from opposition-ruled states. At the same time, he has also taken on a more proactive role within the ministry, and in interactions with civil servants, to ensure the migrant crisis is tackled smoothly, it is learnt.
Conspicuous by absence
It wasn’t exactly the case until a few weeks back.
PM Narendra Modi has been the face of the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis since before the lockdown was announced in late March.
While Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has addressed the press a few times to discuss lockdown relief measures, and Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan has coordinated Covid control efforts with the medical community, most other ministers have kept a low-profile.
But the government and BJP leadership, it is learnt, could not afford Goyal’s unusual reticence after they began facing flak over the Shramik Express fare controversy and the Aurangabad accident, which saw a goods train run over 16 migrant labourers sleeping on the tracks.
The Shramik Express fare fiasco started 5 May, when the government came under opposition fire over the fact that it was charging migrant labourers for the train journey.
As the government found itself cornered amid criticism from within and outside the party, the Congress lapped up the opportunity by announcing that it would foot the fare.
While Goyal refused to comment on the issue even as a massive political controversy flared, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and railways ministry officials were deputed to defend the central government’s position on the issue. They claimed the central government was bearing 85 per cent of the fare, with the states paying 15 per cent, without offering more details.
However, as state after state announced that it would pay for migrants in the absence of aid from the central government, there were murmurs within the BJP that the issue had caused embarrassment to the government.
“On the first day, it was felt that the Congress party’s agenda was allowed to dominate,” said a BJP leader. “The second day, during a meeting of the BJP office-bearers, the issue was raised by BJP members, and party president J.P. Nadda said he would speak to the railways minister.”
This controversy had barely receded when, on 8 May, a goods train ran over 16 migrants. Goyal weighed in on the accident with a condolence tweet.
आज 5:22 AM पर नांदेड़ डिवीजन के बदनापुर व करमाड स्टेशन के बीच सोये हुए श्रमिकों के मालगाड़ी के नीचे आने का दुखद समाचार मिला।
राहत कार्य जारी है, व इन्क्वायरी के आदेश दिये गए हैं। दिवंगत आत्माओं की शांति हेतु ईश्वर से प्रार्थना करता हूँ। https://t.co/NnOmPNfATU
— Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) May 8, 2020
In the wake of these two episodes, sources in the BJP and the railways ministry said the government and party leadership felt the government and the prime minister were getting too much negative publicity due to the railways ministry’s “mishandling of the crisis”.
Goyal, it is learnt, was then asked to go on the offensive.
“There was a feeling among the top brass in the government that railways is getting negative press,” a senior railways officer said.
A BJP leader echoed the view. “The railways has been criticised a lot for its mishandling, and the PM too was getting criticised for it,” said the leader. “Some also felt that Goyal had not been proactive… It was only after that was communicated to him that he has been attacking the opposition consistently.”
Over the past two weeks, Goyal has taken on several opposition-ruled states — West Bengal (led by Trinamool Congress), Chhattisgarh (Congress), Jharkhand (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Congress) and Rajasthan (Congress) — for allegedly impeding the central government’s efforts to ferry migrant workers to their hometowns.
“The railways is ready to run 300 Shramik special trains daily to help workers reach their homes, but I am sad that governments of some States like West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, are not giving permissions to run these trains due to which workers have to suffer away from home,” he said last week.
It pains me that several states such as West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, are not giving enough permissions for 'shramik special trains' to enter their states: Union Railways Minister Piyush Goyal pic.twitter.com/xWYoaTTT8W
— ANI (@ANI) May 14, 2020
Each of the chief ministers rebutted Goyal’s claim, with some hitting back at him on Twitter and accusing him of politicising the migrant crisis. However, he did not respond to them, and only addressed the allegations days later in a friendly interaction with Sambit Patra.
There is no permission pending for any train with govt of Rajasthan. In fact Rajasthan was in strong favour that Railways shd b allowed for commute of Migrants. But I am not surprised to see statement by Railway minister,they are skilled in passing their failure on to state govts https://t.co/cFTDlG6Q2J
— Ashok Gehlot (@ashokgehlot51) May 14, 2020
माननीय रेल मंत्री जी, ऐसा प्रतीत हो रहा है की आपके विभाग द्वारा आप तक सही जानकारी नहीं पहुँचायी गयी है।
हमने अब तक 110 ट्रेनों की NOC दे दी है और 50 ट्रेनों में लगभग 60 हज़ार से ज़्यादा श्रमिक घर लौट चुके हैं।
मैंने जहां देश में सबसे पहले ट्रेन चलाने की गुहार लगायी थी, अब 1/2 https://t.co/xRzZb4mEzd
— Hemant Soren (घर में रहें – सुरक्षित रहें) (@HemantSorenJMM) May 15, 2020
In the almost hour-long chat last week, aired on Facebook and Twitter, Goyal said he did not want to do politics over the migrant crisis. However, during the same interaction, he tore into West Bengal, Jharkhand and Rajasthan for allegedly not cooperating with the central government, even as he lauded BJP-NDA governments in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat for their proactive coordination.
The interaction with Patra came two days after the central government decided that the consent of destination states would not be required to operate migrant trains, giving the ministries of railways and home near-complete control with respect to Shramik Express operations.
But Goyal didn’t refer to the development.
Goyal vs Maharashtra
Goyal’s latest salvos came amid an exchange of allegations with the government of his home state of Maharashtra, led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, that accused the railways ministry of arranging only half of the 80 trains sought by the state to transport migrants.
In a series of 12 tweets late Sunday night, Goyal hit out at the Maharashtra government for not cooperating with the central government to send the labourers home.
“We are ready to provide 125 Shramik Special trains to Maharashtra. Since you have said that you have a list ready that is why I am requesting you to please provide all information like from where the train will run, the list of passengers according to the trains, their medical certificate and where the train is to go, to the General Manager of Central Railways within the next hour, so that we can plan the time of trains,” he tweeted around 6 pm.
Until 2.00 am, Goyal tweeted every hour or so that his ministry is still awaiting details. “Where is the list for 125 trains from Maharashtra? As of 2 am, received list of only 46 trains of which 5 are to West Bengal and Odisha which cannot operate due to cyclone Amphan. We are notifying only 41 trains for today despite being prepared for 125 !!!” his final tweet said.
Later, in a series of television interviews, Goyal accused Thackeray of “baselessly blaming” the railways ministry when it was the “ill-prepared” Maharashtra government that was “dumping” data on the ministry rather than coordinating with it.
“The administration has collapsed,” he said in an interview to India TV. “They don’t know anything, and are resorting to making random accusation on TV…This is especially unfortunate since the central government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coordinating with every state amicably.”
‘Involved from the beginning’
ThePrint called Goyal’s office and also sent text messages seeking his comment for this report but did not receive a response.
BJP national secretary and party spokesperson R.P. Singh, however, defended the railways minister. Goyal, he said, had been involved from the beginning — seeking to cooperate with the states since the lockdown was announced.
“Piyushji has been cooperating with states from Day 1 when the lockdown was announced… Initially, there was no permission to travel, but after the home ministry relaxed the guidelines, the rail ministry allowed trains,” he said. “But if the state governments don’t want to rescue migrants, what can be done?”
According to Singh, several “state governments like Bengal, Jharkhand are not cooperating with the central government, what is Piyush Goyal’s fault?
“He is ready to operate more trains to transport migrants…But the states should also cooperate with the Centre in this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, for the opposition, Goyal’s aggression is only evidence of the central government’s “guilt”.
“They should never have stopped the trains in the first place, and taken the migrants to their homes in batches… Now, with this crisis blowing up, they are passing the buck on to states,” said Trinamool Congress leader and former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi. “Since most of the blame is on railways, the railways minister is attacking states, and passing the buck.”
“This is politics over Covid… They are more concerned about the next election than the next life lost,” he said.