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By focusing on Vaishnaw liberals are playing Modi’s game

It is a measure of what our society has become that in the aftermath of last week’s terrible train accident, the discourse has focussed less on the human tragedy and more on political agendas.

The first agenda is not out in the open yet but it is the subtext to many of the things that are being said by supporters of the regime.


Slowly but surely, there is an attempt to (for want of a better term) Pulwama-ise the discourse. Just as the Pulwama attack was designed to kill hundreds of Indians, this train accident was the result of a hostile, deliberate act, goes the subtext.


   No minister has come out and said this yet but the portents are worrying. On social media, people are pointing to a photograph of a white structure near the accident site and are saying that it is a mosque. It is actually an ISKCON temple. But what if it was a mosque. What does that prove anyway?


   Then, it is being suggested that the station master was a Muslim and that he is absconding. Actually, he is a Hindu and he is not absconding.


   All the semi-official (and sometimes, official) talk of knowing who was responsible and how they will soon be arrested; the decision to summon the CBI for an investigation; all of these are designed to make us believe that it was not an accident. It was the consequence of a deliberate act.


   It is possible that we are reading too much into these portents; that the BJP and its supporters will not try to politicise this tragedy. I certainly hope that the online communally-charged speculation has no high-level encouragement even if it comes from social media handles that are known to support this government. It would be a shame and a disgrace if hundreds of people lost their lives only so that votes could be won over their bodies.


   While there is no doubt that the Pulwama massacre was a deliberate act of terror, there was very little public interest then in fixing responsibility. Somebody let it happen. And the system failed to gather the intelligence that could have stopped it. But they got away with these failures without being held accountable.


   In the case of the Balasore accident however, responsibility has become a major concern. Just as pro-BJP social media handles look for saboteurs and scapegoats, opponents of the regime are as eager to demand accountability for the accident. For days after the accident, the most loudly expressed opposition demand has been the call for the resignation of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. This has led to a counter-campaign by the Parivar faithful to insist that he continue in office.


   For some people, the resignation of a railway minister is normal after an accident. Lal Bahadur Shastri did it, we are told, why not Vaishnaw?


  "The truth is that for Railway Ministers, offering to resign after a crash is a rite of passage."

   Well, actually it is more complicated than the current debate makes out. First of all, the Shastri parallels are only half-right. In 1956, when Shastri was Railway Minister, 112 people died in a train accident in Andhra Pradesh. Shastri resigned but later withdrew his resignation. When 114 died in another accident in Tamilnadu, Shastri resigned again and this time his resignation was accepted.


   The second resignation has long been treated as an example of accepting political responsibility --- which, of course, it was --- but the first (which was not accepted) has largely been forgotten. Nor did the second resignation do Shastri, much long-term damage. Within eight years, he succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru and became India’s second Prime Minister.


   Since then, it has become customary for railway ministers to resign and for Prime Ministers to refuse to accept their resignations. When he was Railway Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, Madhav Rao Scindia resigned after a train crash only to have Rajiv refuse to let him go. Rajiv’s argument was that Scindia was an outstanding Railway Minister, that there was still much for him to do at the railways and that every time there was an accident, it did not follow that the minister had to go.


   That has become the pattern. Mamata Banerjee resigned as Railway Minister in 2000 taking responsibility for two train disasters. However, A B Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, turned down the resignation. In 2016, Suresh Prabhu offered to resign after two derailments in quick succession. Narendra Modi asked him to continue in office. (A month later Prabhu was out anyway).


   Even when resignations have been accepted, the ministers concerned have hardly suffered. Nitish Kumar resigned as Railway Minister in 1999 after a disaster in Assam that killed 290 people. By 2001, he was back as Railway Minister.


   The truth is that for Railway Ministers, offering to resign after a crash is a rite of passage. The resignations are usually not accepted and even when they are, all it means is that the minister in question takes a short break before returning to the cabinet.


   There is a certain perverse logic to this. Why should Railway Ministers be the only ones who are expected to resign on moral grounds? Why not the people who run other ministries where there are also major failures? For instance, given the disaster that was demonetisation, shouldn’t the Finance Minister have resigned? (Assuming he was consulted about the move.) But nobody asked for his resignation.


   When resignations on moral grounds do take place, the reasons are nearly always political rather than ethical. VP Singh resigned from Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet only so that he could oppose the government and try and become Prime Minister (which he did two years later). When Madhav Rao Scindia resigned as Aviation Minister after a non-fatal crash, Narasimha Rao who had always regarded him as a potential rival, delightedly accepted his resignation at once.


   So nothing much is achieved by demanding Vaishnaw’s resignation. He is a honourable and decent man who has probably already told Narendra Modi that he wants to step down. In keeping with precedent, Modi will not let him go. And even if he does, Vaishnaw will be back in a year or so, like all the others.


   But it suits the government to let its opponents hammer away at Vaishnaw and demand his resignation. That keeps the blame away from Narendra Modi himself (who has treated the railways as one of his great achievements, triumphantly flagging off train after train) and limits the political damage to the Prime Minister’s image.


   And while the campaign for Vaishnaw resignation distracts everyone, the rumours of sabotage and terrorism with the subtext of non-existent masjids and Muslim station masters will be spread.


   By focusing on Vaishnaw liberals are playing Modi’s game. Even if he is forced to sacrifice Vaishnaw, Modi will be okay. Vaishnaw is a technocrat, not a political heavyweight like Brij Bhushan Singh who Modi is reluctant to antagonise. Once the Railway Minister is sacrificed, the public outrage will be satisfied. And in a year or so, Vaishnaw will be back, his moral credibility burnished by his resignation.


   In the long run, this terrible tragedy may actually do the government’s reputation no real harm.



Posted On: 08 Jun 2023 10:50 AM
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