Some subjects — like railway safety for example — do not lend themselves easily to political stunts; jolts that are meant to create dramatic and transformative policy changes.
Consider this Sunday’s Indore–Patna Express accident that killed over 140 people and injured 200 more. Most of the dead and the injured belonged to India’s underclasses, which continue to remain dependent on the vagaries of the neglected Indian railway system. Even on the register of rhetoric, railway safety does not figure on the agenda of politicians and governments. And things are no different for the present dispensation.
The terrible accident occurred at a time when the Narendra Modi government has — in one fell swoop — overturned the country’s entire monetary system. One cannot help but wonder why the government did not invest the same missionary fervour and energy it has put into demonetisation, in ensuring safety for millions of passengers who travel by train, especially when train travel continues to be very risky for millions of ordinary passengers. With the expansion of the civil aviation sector and proliferation of airlines, the well–heeled hardly ever travel by train any longer. Not only has the government neglected the plight of millions, a few months ago, it even initiated a mechanism that would inflate ticket prices based on the number of seats being filled in certain classes of the train.
As an article in The Washington Post on Monday pointed out, despite having the world’s third largest railway system, the Indian railway system “lacks modern signaling and communication systems. Most accidents are blamed on poor maintenance, outdated equipment and human error.” Moreover, the massive territorial reach of the railways notwithstanding, train accidents continue to occur with alarming regularity, killing large numbers of poor people. A 2012 government report put the annual death toll in train accidents at 15,000.
Faced with such a grim situation, several questions come to mind. Why did the central government not prioritise railway safety over the recovery of black money? Why is there so little discussion in the corridors of power about protecting lives of people at risk for doing something as ordinary as travelling by train? Why did the Modi government (although all previous governments are equally culpable) not push through measures as drastic as the monetary measures we are now witnessing, to put the railways squarely at the top of government’s agenda?
The possible answers draw attention to the cynical ways in which contemporary politics is conducted and policies are implemented. Every move is turned into a theatrical spectacle or a policy stunt that aims to create racy, eye–grabbing headlines, or capture votes by the dozen. The government headed by Modi that loses no opportunity to assume the role of a preacher preaching from the pulpit, is no different in this matter than the many governments before it. In fact, it can be argued — especially after demonetisation — that the present regime has shown itself to be more driven by political stunts than it predecessor, the Congress–led United Progressive Alliance. After all, Manmohan Singh, with his sombre demeanour, could hardly hold a candle to the theatrical personality of Narendra Modi.
The fact of the matter is, of course, that the issue of railway safety does not cater to the politics of the spectacle in the same way as, say, the recovery of black money or the introduction of a uniform civil code. This government is all about the spectacle. The slogan of “Swachch Bharat”, for example, though focused on a ‘dry’ subject, was nevertheless easy to turn into a media event. Remember those images of Modi wielding a broom stick — and how they dominated the news cycle? We could also think, in this context, of the sudden and massive government initiative to popularise yoga. Once again, images of the prime minister performing yoga in Janpath, with senior ministers clumsily following in his footstep, were good material for social media campaigns and publicity.
The recent demonetisation drive falls into this same genre of politics that looks to produce ‘shock and awe.’ Railway safety, is, by comparison, boring and mundane.
It is the matter of stock–in–trade, conventional policy reform. The government remains unmoved by the sheer urgency of the situation. Never mind that safety measures would directly impact the lives of ordinary citizens.
Following the loss of lives in the latest accident, the Prime Minister tweeted that he was “anguished beyond words,” and promised to modernise Indian railways. One would be entirely justified in asking Modi why the railways are so low on the list of priorities for his government. But one also has the sneaky suspicion that until the issue can be turned into a photogenic event, not much will happen.