Forget a week being a long time in politics, in India it can take just a few hours for a zero to become a hero and vice versa. On the morning of Wednesday, March 14, Dinesh Trivedi was a relatively nondescript minister in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, elevated to the post of railway minister through the munificence of Mamata Banerjee. By the same evening, he was the top trending name on Twitter and was even being eulogised in the national media as a new age reformer. By midnight, though, it was clear that the ever-smiling Dineshbhai, a Kolkata-based businessman-turned-Trinamool-factotum, was set to earn a more dubious distinction: the first railway minister to lose his job within a week of presenting a Railway Budget.
Trivedi may well see himself in rather grandiose terms as a modern day Bhagat Singh who put nation before self, who forsook his chair for principles even when there are no prizes for martyrdom in politics. The truth is, if we are to view Trivedi as the minister who ‘sacrificed’ himself in an attempt to reform the railways, then we might lose sight of the rather more insidious trend that has crept into our politics. The railway minister fiasco reveals less about the travails of our reform process, but more about just how our political parties and governments are now structured and decisions are taken.
Let’s get this right: Trivedi did not lose his job just because he sought to raise passenger fares. He was shunted out because he dared to go ahead with a policy decision without consulting his party ‘supremo’ Mamata Banerjee. In other words, Mamatadi wanted the Railway Budget to be decided in Kolkata and not in the Union Cabinet. By raising fares, Trivedi was not just seeking to bring desperately needed financial rationality to the railways, but was seen to be challenging Banerjee’s authority. And that, in a party with a ‘supreme’ leader, is simply unacceptable.
It is this culture of the party ‘supremo’ where a single individual’s whims will determine all decisions that threatens the very basis of democratic politics in the country. There is almost no party in the country — with the possible exception of the Left and the BJP — which is not run like sole proprietary or family firms. The result is that decisions are often arbitrarily ‘imposed’ by a ubiquitous high command rather than arrived at through meaningful consultation.
Banerjee’s party is a classic example of this syndrome. Trinamool is Mamata, and Mamata is Trinamool — she is the vote-catcher, the chief minister, the party president, all rolled in one. Defy her and risk exile. Accept her supremacy and you can hope to survive. Call it democratic dictatorship, but the party is clearly a one-woman show, with no space for dissent or debate.
Supplant this authoritarian approach on a coalition government and it can strike at the very root of the Cabinet system and executive responsibility. A Railway Budget approved by the prime minister and his Cabinet is being nullified because it doesn’t suit an individual who sees herself as an extra-constitutional authority with veto power over decision-making by virtue of the fact that she controls 19 MPs, on whom depends the future of the government.
Nor is this the first time that such a thing has happened. In 2007, in the UPA’s first avatar, Dayanidhi Maran was removed as telecom minister on the express instructions of DMK ‘supremo’ Karunanidhi because of an alleged family feud. Moreover, the NDA, which claims that the Trivedi episode reveals the timidity of the Manmohan Singh government, would do well to remember that in 2002 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, Suresh Prabhu was forced to step down as power minister because the Shiv Sena ‘supremo’ Bal Thackeray insisted on his resignation (the allegation, never proven, is that the Thackerays were displeased that Prabhu did not ‘contribute’ ministerial ‘benefits’ to the party coffers). The fact that he was one of the brightest and best performing NDA ministers could not prevent his exit.
What this suggests is that coalition governments have been structured in a manner to deliberately undermine prime ministerial authority over the Cabinet. It is one thing to see the Cabinet as necessarily representing all coalition partners. It is quite another to allow it to reach a stage where coalition partners can ‘blackmail’ the Centre and pick and choose portfolios. The DMK, for example, believed that it had a ‘right’ over the telecom ministry. That’s why an A Raja was retained as telecom minister in 2009 even though, as subsequent events have shown, the prime minister was not unaware of the goings-on in Sanchar Bhavan. In UPA 2, the Trinamool, too, feels that it has the right over the railway ministry and just who should be the country’s rail minister.
Which is why the time has come to draw a lakshman rekha if India’s experiment with coalition governments is not to end up destroying the Cabinet system. Yes, a prime minister must consult his allies and recognise the limitations of a fractured mandate. But a prime minister must also insist on retaining the right to decide on portfolio distribution and not ‘outsourcing’ the task to respective party chieftains. Policy decisions, again, cannot be taken at party headquarters but they must be taken in Cabinet meetings. This, of course, requires the prime minister to recognise the power of his office rather than simply look to survive in power.
Yes, this is easier said than done, but leadership is ultimately about risk taking rather than being status quoist. Singh has spoken recently about biting the bullet. Bullets can kill, but they can also carry the halo of glory and martyrdom. If you need further proof, ask Dinesh Trivedi.
The views expressed by the author are personal