Railway Budget 2012 Opens Avenue For New Controversies: What Could Follow?

Posted on March 15, 2012 in Politics

By Nitum Jain:

With the announcement of the Rail Budget, a new can of worms has been opened. The Railways Minister, Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, on the 14th announced marginal hike in passenger fares ranging from 2 paisa per kilometre to 30 paisa per kilometre in various categories of trains despite acknowledging that Railways is passing through a “difficult phase”.

In his speech Trivedi says that the budget was conceived after much deliberation and importance was given to devising a framework where there is “minimal impact” on the common man and the aim was “to keep the burden within tolerance limits in general”. He further explains that this was absolutely necessary as there has been no increase in the train fares in the last eight years and the incorporation of new trains and staff in addition of the rising fuel prices has made it impossible to make ends meet. The budgetary support, he says, has been pegged at a “modest” level of Rs 24,000 crore as against the required 45,000 crore.

Hours after the presentation of the new Railways Minister’s maiden budget, his predecessor, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee has lashed out against the hike. She has out rightly rejected the proposal as anti-poor, anti-people and has demanded a rollback in the fare hike immediately.

She has publicly announced that she will not allow the fare hike in the Indian Railways and has complained that she was not been consulted by Trivedi despite being the chief of the Chief of Trinamool Congress to which he also belongs. Trivedi confirms this but resolutely stands by his budget and puts a brave face as there may come circumstances that he has to resign. It’s a first in the history of the Indian Parliament that the Railways Minister has been opposed by his own party and has been left in the lurch.

The unpredictable Chief Minister has already made headlines several times recently when she wrecked the coalition unity and has proved to become more of a liability to the UPA, of which Trinamool Congress is a major constituent. The railway budget storm is the latest after a series of her trouble-making instances, ranging from objecting against the establishment of a National Counter Terrorist Centre, boycotting the PM’s Bangladesh visit and the India-Bangladesh Teesta accord to multibrand retail FDI.

The question thus raised here is that is Mamata Banerjee really as pro-poor as she proclaims to be or are the public demonstrations meticulously orchestrated to project this image. Working on the latter, we see how much she is to gain if a compromise in the form of a rollback is reached. Firstly, her ‘populist intentions’ will be reinforced and she, along with Trinamool, will gain the status of being reformists and pro-poor while actually keeping an eye on two constituencies.

Secondly, she will also enjoy an elevated status on the national political scene as someone who can make people work according to her whims and fancies, and if some government policy is not to her liking, she is seen powerful enough to make it to her liking.

The opposition of the Railway Budget doesn’t bode well for the general budget as she may intervene with another opposition to any reform that the finance minister proposes, thus making him cautious in the drafting process. However, this can also ultimately backfire on her as she has ruffled many feathers among her allies and the UPA may just find a replacement to regain its footing and counter the instability caused by Banerjee.