When 61-year-old Suresh Prabhu decided to ditch the Shiv Sena to become the Union railway minister in the Modi government, many regarded it as his best shot at political redemption. By then, the soft-spoken MP – also a chartered accountant and a lawyer – had spent many years of extreme disenchantment in the regional party.
Nearly two years later, with Prabhu presenting his second Railway budget for the Modi government, the verdict is still out on his ability to deliver. As far as many in the BJP are considered, he may still be an outsider – a tag that stuck to him through his stint in the Shiv Sena.
Prabhu’s political career had quite an enviable start. It is said that Sena chief Bal Thackeray first met him when he was the managing director of the Saraswat Co-operative Bank. Impressed by his intelligence and capabilities, Thackeray made him contest from the “safe” seat of Rajapur, Konkan, in the 1996 general elections.
Within a month of becoming an MP, Prabhu was picked to represent the party as its educated and articulate face – an anomaly back then – in the 13-day Vajpayee government. Later, in 1998, he again managed to find a berth in the BJP-led government without having to overtly sully his hands in politics. He went on to win from Rajapur four times in a row, purely on the basis of the Shiv Sena’s strength.
However, as time went by, things took a turn for the worse. In the 2009 polls, his loss to Nilesh – the son of Sena rebel and Congressman Narayan Rane – marked the beginning of his political exile.
Some would say that Prabhu’s disconnect with the Sena’s brand of politics had become obvious even earlier, during his stint as a Union minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government. Insiders say relations with his mentor, Thackeray, soured after he started showing more commitment to his ministerial responsibilities than party ambitions.
In 2002, he was famously asked by Thackeray to resign for the third time since 1998. The party supremo was reportedly upset with Prabhu for not doing his bidding, and promoting his ‘clean image’ at the cost of party interests.
However, Prabhu – who was widely considered a non-corrupt and focused constituent of the government – had by then become one of Vajpayee’s most favoured ministers. Crucial reforms introduced by him as the power minister, including the drafting of the Electricity Act-2003, opened up opportunities for private sector investments and augmented power generation.
Prabhu also handled the environment and forests, chemicals and fertilisers, and the heavy industries portfolios during his tenure. Even after he lost his ministerial portfolio, Vajpayee put him in charge of the ambitious interlinking of rivers scheme.
For a largely apolitical person, Prabhu knew how to maintain good relations with people from all sides of the political spectrum – at one time, he was close to both Thackeray and Pawar. The lawyer-turned-politician endeared himself to Modi by turning down a Wharton invite in 2013, after the business school declined the Prime Minister his keynote address at the Wharton India summit.
Much like Thackeray, Modi also picked Prabhu from political oblivion to put him in a position of recognition. Now, it remains to be seen whether he can turn the Indian Railways around, and consequently, earn the goodwill of the Prime Minister.
The road ahead won’t be easy. Prabhu will have to be a technocrat and a politician, all rolled into one, to succeed and prove his critics wrong.