This was first published on Tehelka.com
So the railway budget is back. Yet another opportunity for the political class to hide underneath the scholarly tomes of Tagore and Ghalib and unleash a barrage of utterly confounding arithmetic. I fondly remember the good old childhood days when the railway budget used to be a simple exercise in juggling a few fares here and there, with absolutely no interference in the way trains used to ferry man, cattle, cartons and cockroaches in the true national spirit. Train journeys were thrilling, and largely uncomplicated. Long travels usually involved buying a well thumbed novella or two at discounted prices from the ubiquitous Wheeler dealers. Patronizing ticket examiners gave berths to men, women and children in full public view, of course in exchange for a token ‘fee’. No one ever bothered to remember who the railway minister was, so long there was at least half a piece of potato meekly staring at you from the ‘thali’ served on long distance routes. In the potato’s absence, however, it was generally expected of the passengers to invoke polite references to the minister’s hidden anatomy and that of his immediate next of kin.
There I really admire Laloo Prasad Yadav. His legendary budget speeches, apart from being brilliant expositions in earthy financial rhetoric, were undoubtedly the true forefathers of the present day breed of self styled comedy circuses. From his very first day in office as the Railway Minister, Laloo Yadav regarded the Indian Railways as the nation’s biggest IIM, The Indian Institute of Mismanagement, and set about to transform the way the average passenger sipped tea like liquids while being shipped from Talcher to Thirunelveli. The Hero Potter of Railways, Laloo hurled the humble earthen kulhar to dizzying heights, and in the process, reintroduced the ‘can-you-throw-your-kulhar-accurately-at-the-opposite-track’ as India’s foremost ‘online’ recreation. Fodder for thought for gaming entrepreneurs, no?
If only Mamata Banerjee could rise up to the challenge! All she professed in her accented budget speeches was trifling narrow gauge agenda. With a slew of Kolkata specials, her the-bongg ways were nothing but a loco motive for winning the battle of the Writers’. Even this year, as she is happily ensconced in the Chief Minister’s chair in Kolkata, Mamatadi is busy scripting a derail budget for the poor beleaguered UPA.
Needless to say, this year the honourable minister of railways has his work cut out. Having just met with an ‘accident’ in the UP polls, the UPA is undoubtedly keen to introduce a slew of safety measures aimed at keeping the government firmly on track till the next general elections. Mamatadi, on the other hand, would want to learn a few ‘seat sharing’ tricks with a view to accommodate her in any future political rearrangement. A section of Karnataka Assembly MLAs might ask for 36-22-32 inch screens to be put up inside railway coaches. Ram Vilas Paswan might demand caste based reservations in Tatkal bookings. And Omar Abdullah, in agreement with Akhilesh Yadav, might want to move a resolution to equip train toilets with satellite linked touch screens having Twitter and Face book.
This brings us to the larger, and almost always ignored, question. What does the common man want from the railway budget? A careful review of popular sentiment reveals that people simply want more ‘Fast’ trains to be introduced to keep corruption at bay. An Anna Hazare Super Fast between Mumbai and Delhi, in which passengers can pre-select between nimbu-pani and chhaas as a symbol of solidarity with the spirit of Anna’s movement, would go a long way in restoring the faith of the masses in our rickety political system. But till that happens, bon voyage.