Why Gowda was Shunted out of Railways

| November 10, 2014

Over a month ago, Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda selected an Indian Railway Personnel Service officer to head the crucial ‘Confidential’ branch of the Railway Board. Despite a written order, however, the rail bureaucracy did not move, and the post remains vacant.

The months in office of the first Railway Minister of the Narendra Modi government is replete with instances of the ever-smiling, “nice man” Gowda not being able to assert himself. Several Railway officials said this could never have been said about Gowda’s predecessors Lalu Prasad or Mamata Banerjee.

The Railways are big in Modi’s scheme of things. The PM has given the Railways a list of 30-odd tasks needed to be performed for an overall turnaround. The PMO monitors progress monthly. A majority of these have made no tangible progress.

At the meeting on connectivity-related infrastructure targets convened by the PM last week, the Railways got a tongue-lashing as things did not seem to have moved as desired, sources said.

Gowda did, in fact, try. He called meetings of the entire Railway Board to review PM-monitored projects regularly. One of these meetings took place on a national holiday last week. He also invoked the Swachh Bharat campaign wherever he could.

But things did not move. Devoid of any big idea to lead the ministry that has the biggest people connect, Gowda was increasingly being seen as someone out of his depth, unable to get work done.

Suresh Prabhu, a man with a big reformist reputation and enjoying Modi’s trust, is expected to be a tactful leader who will be able to galvanise the Railways bureaucracy, be more in sync with the deliverables and outside-the-box ideas the PMO is interested in, and overall be a more impressive “brand ambassador” for the Railways.

Prabhu was quick off the blocks on Sunday: tweeting, within minutes of the portfolios being announced, “Railways could be the engine of growth if driven properly. Now in the drivers seat”, and “All those who work for the Railways must work towards realising Honourable PM’s dream”.

By contrast, Gowda’s official handle continued to describe him as “Minister for Railways”, his last tweet having been on November 8, wishing L K Advani a happy birthday.

Gowda failed to find a way to untangle the knot of big infra projects like the locomotive factories in Madhepura and Marhaura, to bring out a roadmap for FDI in Railways, and to show progress in apparently simpler tasks like making Wifi available on trains and stations — something the PMO has been wanting since June.

Officials said the former Karnataka chief minister was also overwhelmed by the complex ways of the Rail Bhavan bureaucracy. For the past four months, the ministry’s proposal to fill posts of seven general managers across India has been getting rejected by the PM-led Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which has been finding faults with the file. The ACC has recently given scathing remarks on the way the Railways has been handling high-level appointments. Gowda’s contribution to the Railway Board bureaucracy — a post of Director (New Initiatives and Projects) — has no power to get work done.

Arvind Gupta, appointed by Modi as an Adviser to the Minister for Railways, has become less and less visible at Rail Bhavan over the past few months. Sources said this was one indication that Gowda was going out of sync with his leadership as far as running the ministry was concerned.

Gowda’s lacklustre performance in steering an amendment to the Railway Act in the Lok Sabha, which led to even allies joining the opposition to criticize the government, and forced the government to refer the Bill to the Standing Committee, did not go unnoticed in the party leadership, sources said.

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