He alternates between candour and discreetness
“The impression that the Congress was trying to use me is wrong and baseless,” says Dinesh Trivedi, gesturing, “Honest to God, there was no move from the Congress.”
The former Railway Minister is responding to a question on speculation surrounding the future of the Trinamool Congress — that after his throwing a challenge to the leadership on the issue of raising rail fares, it is steadily moving towards breaking point. “Nobody is interested in breaking the party,” he told The Hindu in the course of an interview, stressing, “No individual can break a party. At the end of the day, a party is made or broken by the people. It is the people's will that gets reflected …”
On a day when the Railway budget is being discussed in Parliament, Mr. Trivedi, who was Railway Minister till Monday, casually dressed in a sky blue tracksuit, is lounging at his official residence, just off the fashionable Khan Market. The heady afterglow of the adulation that followed his defiance of his party leader, Mamata Banerjee, and the back-to-back TV interviews he gave over the last week, stressing that the interests of the country trumped those of the Trinamool, has faded. He is distracted, and on edge, as he watches TV grabs of scenes in Parliament: “Has the rail budget been passed?” he keeps asking.
So was Ms. Banerjee aware that he intended raising passenger fares?
“I had mentioned it to some senior bureaucrat and I have no reason to believe it was not conveyed to her,” he answers, adding, “The whole world knew that passenger fares and freight rates were being hiked. I had also made public pronouncements to that effect.”
What did Ms. Banerjee gain by opposing the hike in passenger fares, especially as it was widely welcomed?
This time, he is discreet: “You will have to ask her.”
On relations between the Congress and the Trinamool, his answer is similar: “I think Mamata Banerjee is in a better position to answer that.”
As Cabinet Minister, had he ever felt that there was a better way for the Congress and its allies to deal with each other? The answer is deadpan again: “I used to carry out what my leader wanted me to say in the Cabinet. It was totally on party lines.”
Given that the West Bengal Chief Minister controls her party with an iron hand, what possessed Mr. Trivedi to adopt a heroic posture on the passenger fares issue? “I did what any Railway Minister should have done: it was the natural, logical, professional thing to do. It was not heroic. Whatever I did was for the country, not for my party or region,” he repeats what he has said on the TV channels. And then he adds, “I am yet to see any person complaining about the fare hike.”
Mr. Trivedi then explains the rationale for the fare rise. “I did what I did based on the pattern of travel so as to give relief to the common man who,” he says, “by and large, travels within his own State, and rarely [undertakes] long distance travel. As for the poorest of the poor, they never travel, not because of the fares but because they can't pay the other expenses.” To cater for this section, he made suburban rail travel cheaper: “Now you can travel 150 km at a cost that earlier entitled you to travel [only] 100 km,” he underscores.
By turns, Mr. Trivedi veers between calibrated candour and occasional circumspection. Asked why the 11-month-old Trinamool government has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, he deadpans: “Anywhere in the country, if one does not deliver, the same people who carried you on their shoulders will drop you. Delivery is more important than promises once you are in power.” And to a question whether the Centre is being unfair to West Bengal, refusing to rescue it from the debt trap it is in until it shows some initiative, he answers briskly, “The same was the case with the Railways: I needed to raise fares and freight charges, otherwise where was the money to come from? No one helps you unless you help yourself: West Bengal needs to find a solution to its own financial problems.”
But to a question whether the consultation process on the three issues — sharing of river waters with Bangladesh, FDI in retail and the National Counter Terrorism Centre — on which the Congress and the Trinamool differed was faulty, the veil drops: “I should not comment on any leader's situation.” Persist and ask Mr. Trivedi how he thinks the Teesta waters issue should be dealt with: “Any problem can be solved if it is not personalised. The Central government must take the initiative and take the region into confidence.”
His view on FDI in retail? “There is need for a broader consensus by getting the stakeholders involved. Anything that promotes economic growth and jobs without taking away employment should be encouraged.” And NCTC? “This need not be politicised as it concerns security: neither side should make it a prestige issue.”
And what would he have done on the Singur (the site of one of the anti-land acquisition agitations that brought the Trinamool to power) issue? “I would have straightaway had a dialogue with Mr. Ratan Tata [who sought to set up a Nano car plant in West Bengal] without holding on to any prestige. I would have said let's sort out the issue for the benefit of the people. Let's create a win-win situation — it would have sent a tremendous current to the entire industry.”
How does he see his own future? “Bright,” he responds. “In the Trinamool?” “My future is with this country,” says Mr. Trivedi, in statesman-mode again.