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Suresh Prabhu: The blue-eyed boy finds himself in the dock

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-08-2017 Jyotika Sood

New Delhi: He is the man credited with reforming the power sector in India during his stint as Union minister of power in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, but today Suresh Prabhu, railway minister since November 2014, is a beleaguered man. Two back-to-back train accidents in the last week, one of which led to the death of more than 20 people and left 156 injured, have called into question his performance.

Prabhu himself offered to quit but was reportedly asked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to wait for the cabinet reshuffle. Fourteen bogies of the Kalinga Utkal Express, travelling from Puri to Haridwar, derailed at Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar on 19 August, while nine coaches of the Kaifiyat Express derailed near Auriaya on the intervening night of 22 and 23 August. The fatalities were due to the first accident. The second one saw over 70 people injured.

There was a time when Prabhu was doing everything right as railway minister. He tried to introduce several reforms in Indian Railways like changing the accounting system, corporatization of railways, giving more powers to railway general managers and focusing on non-fare revenue. He became popular when he started using social media as a means of redressal for customer complaints. From a man tweeting about his father needing a wheelchair to a girl complaining about being harassed to even providing diapers for babies, the railways under Prabhu did all this and much more. All one had to do was send out a tweet tagging the minister and Indian Railways. It was a sure shot way of winning hearts and ensuring customer satisfaction.

Prabhu also introduced non-fare components for revenue generation but his tenure has been under scrutiny especially due to the dismal performance of the railways vis-a-vis revenue and the frequency of accidents. A senior railway board member, on the condition of anonymity, said, “Prabhu’s biggest shortcoming was his inability to follow-up on his decisions and directions. Another issue with his decision making was he didn’t understand the system and got excited with any new idea pitched to him, which has taken a toll on his performance.”

An executive director in the railways thinks differently. “He was a man with dynamism. He brought in those ideas and tried to break the age-old traditions. As usual people in the system oppose changes and that was the reason he was disliked by a lot of Rail Bhawan bureaucrats. There are lots of things to his credit—non-fare revenue, station cleanliness, bio-toilets. He had a vision although implementing it would take time and outcomes at least a decade,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

Prabhu, a chartered accountant by training, was a four-time MP from Maharashtra’s Rajapur seat till 2009. He is currently a member of Rajya Sabha. He had a stint as Union cabinet minister for six years when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power under Vajpayee. A Shiv Sena member, he shifted allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. He was Prime Minister Modi’s sherpa for the G20 annual summit in the same year.

The tradition of resignations, amongst railway ministers, following an accident goes back to 1956 when Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned after an accident. Nehru himself had praised the act as a tribute to a man of the highest integrity but times were different then. What started out as a genuinely anguished act over a failure under his watch has been reduced to an appeasement trope. As of now, it’s wait and watch on Prabhu’s fate.

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