Lalu Prasad Yadav’s visit to IIM(A) was much hyped and trivialised for reasons known to all. There were diverse opinions about the invitation extended to the Railway Minister to discuss the turnaround of the Indian Railways — the largest public sector system in the world and the largest organised sector employer in India. Yadav himself referred to this hype during his lecture, stating that he was asked “Aap IIM mein kya padaane ja rahein hain?”
From the time Yadav stepped into IIM(A), there was an air of excitement and tension on the campus. The institute had never before seen a politician in its classrooms and, that too, for a serious case discussion. The sight of mediapersons chasing the minister must have added to the excitement.
Much work had gone into the organisation of this case discussion by Professor G Raghuram and the four groups of shortlisted students who were to make presentations before the minister and his team. Yadav was not alone; he was accompanied by members of the Railway Board as well as the man behind the turnaround, Sudhir Kumar, OSD to the Railway Minister.
In the classroom, 90 participants waited with anticipation for Yadav. They included a dozen faculty and many mid-career executives in training at the institute, besides the students. The discussion and presentations were focused on four areas: the state of the Indian Railways in May 2004; the turnaround; the sustainability of the turnaround; and the role of leadership, especially that of Yadav.
When he took charge in 2004, Yadav was perceived as the person who would perform the last rites for the Indian Railways. This organisation was then in financial doldrums, mired in huge debts. Anticipatory obituaries had been written by, among others, management and transportation experts. In fact, Raghuram himself was part of the study group (the Rakesh Mohan Committee) that had forecast the collapse of the Railways.
Yadav enthusiastically responded to questions about the turnaround, doubts about its nature and whether it was sustainable. He was, of course, supported by his colleagues, who had done their homework well and were quick to help the minister with facts and figures. The case discussion lasted more than two-and-a-half hours, though it was scheduled only for two hours and the process had begun 15 minutes before schedule.
Though the focus of the discussion was the role of the minister in the turnaround, Yadav was quick to point out that this was a result of team work. He said that he had resolved to take up the turnaround as a challenge despite — or perhaps, because of — apprehensions about him being put in the Railway Minister’s chair.
He began his remarks by pointing out that if a small transporter with one truck could build his business quickly in India, there was no reason why the Railways could not. It was, after all, a business like any other. And, if run like one, there was no reason for it not to succeed.
Of course, where there is Lalu Yadav, his trademark rusticity can never be far behind. To take one example, he illustrated the scope and strategies to bring about the turnaround in the Indian Railways by using the analogy of the cow. This was similar, he said, to the need to regularly milk the cow and to take care of it in order to get the maximum benefits. So successful were the ethnic terminologies and analogies in getting the point across that the students later caricatured them in one of their presentations. Yadav, needless to say, was amused.
He listed the major strategies that led to the turnaround, supported by facts and figures. These included revenue maximisation, cost-cutting, staff encouragement and involvement, especially at the operational level, flexible tariff policy, investing to earn and maximum utilisation of capacity (‘If you don’t milk the cow fully, it falls sick’ and ‘Wagon is the bread earning horse of the Railways. Load it adequately. Make it run, don’t stable it’) with a focus on demand and the competition that was eating away its share.
Yadav’s own contribution included selecting the right people for the job, giving a free hand to subordinates and communicating directly with the people at the regional level. He was also quick to focus on the ‘aam aadmi’ and the ‘class question’ in his strategy, while giving rationale for past and future strategy. He referred to the ‘Garib Rath’ (AC trains) introduced by him as trains that belonged to everyone, including the poor (railway sab ka hai). “Juta milta hai AC dukaanon mein, aur sabji footpath pe!” he said, while promising to provide more respectable facilities for the storage and sale of farm produce at 7,500 railway stations. In this way, he was representing the UPA government and talking of ‘desh ko aage badaana hai’, and not restricting himself and the Railways to their narrow domain of just running trains.
The minister was at his best during the public lecture, which included dollops of his usual wit, humour, and political style. Delivered in Hindi, the lecture was well attended by people from various walks of life. The auditorium was filled beyond capacity, with people even squatting on the aisles. Finally, additional arrangements had to be made to facilitate the simultaneous viewing of the lecture at places outside the auditorium.
The minister was down-to-earth as usual, and humble about his background and education. He was equally clever about his response to the only question that was asked about reservations in higher education institutions towards the end of the lecture.
Finally, a couple of memorable moments: When suggested that he address the queries of the students and the faculty sitting down, Yadav reacted sharply in Hindi: “Aapke yahaan aise padhate hain kya? Hum to khade ho ke bolenge.” (‘Is this how you teach here? I will speak standing up.’) Similarly, when students referred to his cow analogy for the Railways, he corrected them, saying, “Not cow, say Jersey cow.”
Yadav’s visit to IIM(A) was devoted to the academic aspects of turning around the fortunes of the Indian Railway. He made quite an impact despite all that had been heard about him as minister and former Bihar Chief Minister. He was a crowd puller even here.
Sukhpal Singh is a member of the faculty at IIM(A)