Of Inquiries, Resignations And Defectors – It’s The Same Old Story

Mr. Modi is the original fisherman when it comes to hawking red, now saffron, herrings. Which is why the CBI inquiry into the Balasore train accident smells so fishy. Could the government not have waited for at least the findings of the investigation by the Commissioner Railway Safety before ordering the inquiry? Suppose this report finds that it was a signal failure, or an interlocking defect, or a human error? The CBI rarely manages to catch even a common burglar, how then can it wrap its head around some of the most sophisticated and technical electronics involved in this derailment? It is only if the Railway inquiry concludes that it suspects sabotage that the police is justified in stepping in. There has been no such indication yet.

But the government appears to have made up its mind to play the national security card quite early. (It is the only card it has left in its deck after the Hindutva and Vishwaguru cards were trumped in the Karnataka elections, so a Balasore will serve as well as a Balakot, thank you!). The clues were there for the observant: when Mr. Modi visited the site, he said the guilty would not be spared and would be dealt with harshly- how did he know that there was any deliberate guilt or mens-rea involved ? Then again, on the day after the accident the Railway Minister told the press that the root cause of the accident and the people involved had been identified- this, even before the inquiry had commenced!

Balasore Train Accident (Photo Courtesy: Indian Express)

There is, moreover, another angle involved in this decision. By ordering the CBI inquiry the BJP has ensured that the matter is out of the hands of the state, or Railway police, and it can influence the investigations and findings any which way it wants. It’s a trick it has played quite often in the past, with fairly good (for it) results. It will not want to be embarrassed so close to the crucial state elections. And it still has the NIA card up its sleeve in case the CBI does not deliver the goods. So, folks, expect a terrorist or Pakistan hand to emerge from this mess very soon.

What is actually needed, but will never happen, is a judicial inquiry. An accident of this magnitude, involving three trains and resulting in 288 deaths (at last count) and more than a thousand injured, cannot be a stand-alone incident, it is the culmination of various causes and failures, and it is important to identify each one of them so that such a catastrophe does not happen again. The country is entitled to know whether the following has contributed in any way to the accident: drastic reduction in the budget for safety, including signaling systems and track maintenance (the budget for track renewals alone was slashed by Rs.3222 crores in 2022-23 as compared to the previous fiscal); shortage of staff at all levels, which according to media reports is as high as 20% of the sanctioned strength; outsourcing of crucial functions to private entities; excessive concentration on elite trains like the Vande Bharat even when funds are denied for routine operations and maintenance; overloading of tracks by running trains without regard to the safe carrying capacity of the entire system or convenience of lower class passengers (an RTI query has revealed that between April and October 2022, the cumulative delays of passenger trains amounted to more than 24 years!). Earlier, some focus could be kept on these issues when the Railway budget was presented in Parliament, but now that this government has merged the Railway budget with the general budget it is difficult to penetrate through this deliberate wall of opacity. Neither a CBI inquiry, nor one by the Commissioner for Railway Safety, can be expected to look into these issues, only a judicial inquiry with a broad TOR is capable of doing so. The demand for such an inquiry is not politicisation of the issue, it is at best an inadequate reparation for those who have died, and for their devastated families.

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Mr Vishnaw, the Railway Minister, will be sacked anon. But not for the reasons you suspect. Let me give you a clue by narrating an incident concerning Winston Churchill when he was Prime Minister of U.K. One smoggy London morning a senior Tory M.P. described the PM as an idiot at a press conference. He was promptly issued a disciplinary notice by the party and the matter came up for mention in Parliament the next day. Why was the government trying to curb free speech by punishing the Member, the Opposition demanded? Churchill got up and explained that the MP was being proceeded against, not for expressing his opinion about him, but for revealing a state secret!

Get it? Mr. Vaishnaw will have to go, not for moral responsibility reasons, but for trying to upstage Mr. Modi in the TV visual stakes. We all remember those carefully choreographed shots of the Minister crawling out from under a wrecked carriage (getting to the bottom of the matter?) or sitting exhausted on a parapet with the hoi polloi after a hard day’s night, in the same soiled slacks and tee shirt, or atop a carriage inspecting the overhead cables. How could he? This is Supreme Leader territory, intruding on the spotlight is a capital offence. So the Railway Minister must go, not because three trains crashed into each other, but because a dozen cameras were focused on the wrong guy. Even though he did not change his clothes between shots.

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It now appears inevitable that Mr. Sachin Pilot will be severing relations with the Congress next week, according to all media reports. Frankly, I am relieved because this soap opera has been going on now for longer than the “Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” serial, and one is sick and tired of it. He belongs to a breed of entitled politicians who believe that they are bigger than the party and deserve a better compensation package, never mind if their company is deep in the red and is fighting for sheer survival. If their actions shove the nation a little closer to the dogs, so be it: it will not affect their life styles in any way- in fact it might make them even better, what with some handouts from the burgeoning Election Bonds in the BJP coffers. The Congress should let Mr. Pilot go- cut its losses now and re-strategise, rather than face a last minute crisis just before the state elections this year. A Judas will never reform. Look at Mr. Pilot’s illustrious predecessors in betrayal- Amarinder Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ghulam Nabhi Azad; two of them are already non-entities and just unpleasant memories, the third will become one too after the elections. Mr. Pilot’s departure may result in the Congress losing a few seats, but that would have happened anyway with the privileged scion putting up rebel candidates to counter the official ones. Now at least Mr. Kharge and Gehlot can fight the elections without having to constantly worry about the knife between the shoulder blades. The secret of handling excess baggage is to throw it out quickly. As the Bard said: Stand not upon the order of your going, sir, but go!

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