When Pawan Kumar Bansal rose to present his maiden Railway budget in the Lok Sabha, he became the first Congress Minister to do so in the past 17 years. For, the allies of the ruling coalition — be it the BJP-led NDA or the Congress-led UPA — held the portfolio.
Mr. Bansal, who was shifted from the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs to the Railway Ministry four months ago, began his speech, thanking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi for giving him the opportunity.
In the past, Congress stalwarts such as Lal Bahadur Shastri, who went on to become Prime Minister, Jagjiwan Ram, Kamlapati Tripathi and Madhav Rao Scindia have held the portfolio. Shastri set an example, resigning in 1956 owning responsibility for three accidents.
Mr. Bansal, who hails from Chandigarh and represents it in the Lok Sabha, recalled that the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had introduced him to the most sacred temple of democracy. He also pointed to Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts at turning India into a giant in information technology, which also benefitted the Railways.
MPs were all ears as Mr. Bansal began his 75-minute speech, but murmurs of protest surfaced when he announced the setting up of new rail-based factories.
Members of the Opposition and even some allies of the Congress said the new initiatives focussed on the constituencies of Congress MPs. Later, noisy scenes and uproar marred Mr. Bansal’s speech as members of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Left trooped into the well, raising anti-Congress slogans.
“It is not rail budget, but Rae Bareilly budget,” some BJP members shouted from their seats, referring to Ms. Gandhi’s constituency.
Undisturbed, Ms. Gandhi turned aggressive at the protest.
Several members, including Bhuvaneshwar Kalita and Mukut Mithi, both of the Congress, N.K. Singh and Shivanand Tewari of the Janata Dal (United) and Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool were present in the Rajya Sabha gallery.
In the Speaker’s gallery were Mr. Bansal’s family members and those of Minister of State for Railway Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi was seen engaged in a discussion with Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Describing the Railways as a “vital organisation,” Mr. Bansal said its role in integrating the nation was unparalleled. “From Baramulla in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, Dwarka in the west to Ledo in the east, trains of the Indian Railways always on the move, carrying people and material, creating opportunities and fostering development, is a single most important catalyst in the growth story of our great nation,” he said in the beginning.
Quoting inspirational words from the poem ‘Song of the Engine’ of Christine Weatherly, he drew a round of applause when he read out this stanza:
When you travel on the railway,
And the line goes up a hill,
Just listen to the engine
As it pulls you with a will.
Though it goes very slowly
It sings this little song
“I think I can, I think I can,”
And so it goes along.”
In sharp contrast to the speeches of his predecessors like Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who took recourse to quotable quotes and poetry in Hindustani, Mr. Bansal’s was prosaic.
Mr. Bansal’s exercise also brought back memories of last year: Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool had to resign on March 18, four days after presenting the budget. His exit became clear as his proposal to increase the fares did not go down well with his Ms. Banerjee, who wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that he be replaced with Mukul Roy.
Mr. Trivedi’s grandiose plans for the Railways and even many mentions in his speech of Ms. Banerjee, who had become West Bengal Chief Minister, brought him no relief.