Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lalu's ride, Paswan's envy

When Rail Minister Lalu Prasad was reading out his Budget to the House, former Rail Minister and Lalu’s friend-turned-foe-turned-colleague Ram Vilas Paswan was looking at him without showing he is looking at him. There was no glint in Paswan’s eye, one could not see a tinge of jealousy either. Just an occasional, stoic gaze that did not betray the enormous grudge he holds against Lalu. Paswan tried everything to be where Lalu has been for three consecutive Budgets. Lalu had better numbers and took it away.

Everybody wants to be the railway minister, at least everybody among Bihar politicians. Since Independence, eight railway ministers have come from that state. It’s not difficult to understand why.

Outside the finance minister who presents the national budget, the Railway Minister is the only minister who gets to present his own budget. It’s a personal fief and the minister gets to oblige many with state largesse, which does not seem be part of the state in spite of being part of the state. Indian Railways is an economy in itself. Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world and jobs are used as means to political ends. The railways give out a large number of thekas or contracts and these contracts are used to benefit many. It all ends in political profit for the politician. Then of course, you can play Santa to your home state.

Bihar’s infrastructure is often in news for its absence. Politicians have mostly forgotten to gift their constituencies with roads, power and water. The state’s debt-ridden coffers can hardly offer any sops soup for the Bihari soul. So the politician in the minister gifts railway lines that translate into contracts for their cronies; new trains for people to migrate to Punjab, Delhi, Surat and Mumbai; and local passenger trains for convenient ticketless travel within their strongholds.

That’s what Paswan was missing as Laluji rode the gravy train to desk-thumping, roaring laughter and the occasional booing in the Lok Sabha.

There is opportunity to make money and benefit his benefactors even in the ministry that Paswan holds. But he is dependent on what P. Chidambaram allocates to him, unlike Lalu who decides what he allocates to himself. He cannot play Santa unless Chidambaram allows him to. Lalu can play Santa for a day, showering coolies with gangmen jobs and gangmen with Garib Rath tickets.