The finality of Railway Minister Mukul Roy’s expected resignation on Friday afternoon has rekindled hopes among a good number of aspirants in the ruling Congress for this portfolio. But it seems that they will have to wait. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to keep the portfolio to himself. When he does so, the question is for how long he will do so. When Pranab Mukherjee resigned as finance minister, Manmohan Singh kept the ministry for around two months before P Chidambaram was brought in.
The railway ministry is the country’s biggest, and employs the largest number of people outside the defence services.
Whether a new minister will be named or the ministry will be kept with the prime minister for a slightly longer period will depend on when the next cabinet reshuffle takes place. The prime minister had taken charge of the ministry for a temporary period when Mamata Banerjee had quit as railway minister to assume office as West Bengal chief minister.
However, the Congress will definitely keep this key ministry with itself and not part with it in favour of any key ally. While no date has been fixed for the reshuffle, sources said it could either happen by 28 September or after 15 October. As per the Hindu calendar, the ‘Shradh Paksh’ (considered inauspicious for doing something new, as it is a period for performing ceremonies for the departed) begins from 1 October and will continue till 15 October. 29-30 September is a weekend and reshuffles usually don’t happen on weekends.
If the prime minister presides over the railway ministry after Friday, will he push for long-pending “reforms” in the ministry? Former Trinamool railway minister Dinesh Trivedi was sacked at Mamata Banerjee‘s insistence for trying to raise fares last March without his leader’s concurrence. The question is whether the PM will risk raising passenger fares in order to improve railway safety when there is already strong political opposition to raising costs for the aam aadmi.
Given the current turmoil in the ministry, sources said the Railway Board’s Member (Traffic), KK Srivastava, who was to lead a week-long tour to Moscow on the night of 18 September, had to cancel his trip and remain at the headquarters. Mamata Baerjee announced her decision to withdraw support to the UPA and ask her ministers to resign on that day.
A senior ministry official said the government would in no way be deterred by the exit the Trinamool Congress and more action on the reform front could be seen after a brief interval. So far no radical issues have been listed for Friday’s meetings of the Cabinet and the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. But no Congress leader wants to make a guess about whether the reforms will be extended to the railway ministry following the exit of Mamata. But they are not denying the possibility, either.
A railway ministry official said passenger or freight fares can be hiked anytime. They do not need to wait till next year’s budget. Lalu Prasad, railway minister in UPA-1, did not touch the main fares, but hiked reservation, cancellation, Tatkal and such other charges without much ado.
For now the ministry has two ministers of State, KH Muniyappa and Bharat Sinh Solanki, both from the Congress and sitting pretty. Bureaucrats, though, are jittery about the changes that may lie ahead.