Railway Budgets serve a definite political design. Parties holding the ministry utilise it to earn goodwill points with their electorate. Ministers routinely gift special projects to home states in the budget and take care that they don’t offend the popular sentiment through fare hikes. They also ensure that the budget proposals remain in sync with the ideology of the party they represent.
All these make the presentation of the Railway Budget an important exercise for the party in charge of the ministry. Against this backdrop, it sounds incongruous that Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi presented his budget entirely on his own, with his party, the Trinamool Congress, nowhere in the picture. It is difficult to believe that he would go for fare hikes against the wishes of party chief Mamata Banerjee, who is in mortal fear of the CPM in West Bengal when it comes to issues of the common man.
If Dinesh has done it on his own, he must be an incredibly brave man or a man bent on committing political suicide. After announcing the hike he sought to absolve Mamata of all blame. “The party was not aware of the fare hike. I didn’t consult the party… I take onus for the budget.. I have done my duty. I will do whatever is good for the railways,’’ he told reporters after presenting the budget.
It does not wash. No doubt, it is a brave budget, a good one for the railways and the country. But it is more in tune with the Congress-led UPA government’s line of thinking than Trinamool’s. So what is the game here? Is Mamata playing a well-planned double game — playing to the gallery and quietly supporting what her detractors would call a harsh budget at the same time?
Having been a railway minister herself earlier, she probably understands that some drastic action is required to revive the Indian railways. And a small across-the-board price hike after 10 years is no big deal. But she has to balance this position with her hyper populist political agenda. This is probably why she wanted Trivedi to go ahead with his budget. Now that the party is at his throat, it appears to a well-laid-out gameplan. The party might force a partial rollback which would give Mamata something to boast about.
The party started building pressure immediately after the fare hike was announced. “Trivedi never consulted party on the budget. The hike is unwarranted. He will have to take it back,” said party spokesperson S Bandopadhya. “Railway Budget, what was all that about increasing fares across-the-board? Upper class, maybe ok, but all?” tweeted senior leader Derek O’Brien. But there are media reports saying that top leaders of the party were in the loop. They were aware of the budget being prepared by Trivedi and of the price hike too.
Whatever the truth, the entire development shows Mamata as an incompetent leader. If Trivedi was working on his own then it shows she has no control over her minister. If she wants his proposal rolled back, it means she is too scared to look beyond her populist agenda. Either way she comes across as a poor leader.
What does the development mean for the shaky UPA? More trouble. The general budget is due in a couple of days from now. If she continues to play fast and loose, the UPA cannot rely on her to get it passed in Parliament. It has to find new allies to make up for Trinamool’s 19 MPs. It could approach the SP and the BSP but both parties, particularly the SP, would find little reason to bail the government out. They would demand their pound of flesh for saving the government. It could be worse than Mamata’s tantrums.
The government may not collapse but it would be in for another round of embarrassment.