What should be a surprise isn’t that the first real hike in railway fares in the last 10 years has been opposed by the party to which railway minister Dinesh Trivedi belongs, but that it took so long for someone to instal the first steps to save a great Indian institution from certain penury. Mr Trivedi, in his bold Railway Budget speech on Wednesday, proposed an across-the-board hike in passenger fares in order to raise a much-needed extra Rs. 4,000 crore this year. For far too long, the Indian Railways has subsisted on a self-destructive diet of runaway expenditures tied to plummeting income.
The usual practice of robbing Paul (the Indian exchequer) to pay Peter (the Indian Railways) had to halted, especially since a desperate modernisation programme including the installation of safety measures is non-negotiable while at the same time to be accounted for. Which is why, for too long, short-term gains were trumpeted as feathers in the railway minister’s (read: his or her party’s) cap at the cost of the railways. Rising above myopic party political considerations, Mr Trivedi has underlined the fact that his responsibility as Union minister is first to the Indian Railways and then to his party. With Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee openly opposing the railway fare hike, what we see is a regional leader vehemently opposing this basic prioritisation of nation over party.
The open opposition of the TMC to the budget proposals set by one of its own MPs has let the cat out of the bag. If Ms Bane-rjee’s autocratic ways of dealing with Centre-state relations see-med parochial when it came to her opposition to UPA policies such as FDI in retail and the setting up of the National Counter-Terr-orism Centre, her public proclamation that her party ‘won’t allow the fare hike’ confirms our worst fears of her style of politics. As a former railway minister herself, she should have known better than to showcase her displeasure about “not knowing about the fare hike”. The railway minister’s boss in Delhi is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and not chief minister Mamata Banerjee. To get her approval for a Railway Budget is as preposterous as a West Bengal budget being approved by a central minister.
The TMC is well within its right to oppose Mr Trivedi’s laudable budget proposals — even as it makes it look ludicrous politically even by Trinamool’s ‘opposing for the sake of opposing’ standards. But what its opposition — and especially the reason for it — has exposed is Ms Banerjee’s churlishness that she dresses up as populism and ‘pro-people’ politics. This should be a clear signal to the Congress-led UPA that one of its allies sees the nation and the state the latter rules locked in a zero sum game.
However imp-ortant an ally the TMC may be in terms of numbers for the upkeep of the central government, we — and one hopes the UPA — realise the dangers of having such self-serving allies. As for Mr Trivedi, we applaud not only his courage for presenting a budget that hasn’t gone down well with his knee-jerk-reacting party but also for presenting a budget that provides a roadmap ahead for the nation’s people — that of his home state, West Bengal, included.