Kolkata: It is quite unusual for an Indian railway minister to raise freight rates only eight days before presenting the rail budget. Dinesh Trivedi did so quietly, on the day votes were counted in five states and the media was busy making sense of the poll verdict.
Things went according to plan and the hike didn’t get much media attention—exactly what Trivedi wanted, according to a railways official, who declined to be identified. “He didn’t want it to become headline news for fear of being stopped in his tracks by (West Bengal chief minister) Mamata Banerjee,” this person said.
It was quite a steep hike—even politically sensitive foodgrains and fertilizers weren’t spared.
It seems Banerjee didn’t immediately take note of the hike, said a lawmaker at the Centre from her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, who too did not want to be named. “She would have very likely opposed it,” he said. “But Trivedi managed to hide it from didi’s (Banerjee’s) eyes for a while.”
Trivedi on Sunday said he would resign as railway minister. Banerjee has said he will be replaced by TMC leader and junior shipping minister Mukul Roy.
The path that Trivedi, a suave socialite close to Kolkata’s business community, took as rail minister surprised government officials. “There was a lot of speculation among bureaucrats about what he was up to,” said an officer in Kolkata, requesting anonymity. “It was clear from the pre-budget deliberations that he wasn’t keen to follow the beaten track.”
Though he is one of her oldest associates and was the TMC’s first general secretary, it is doubtful whether he can win an election on his own, said the officer cited above.
“And that is true for most Trinamool Congress legislators and lawmakers at the Centre—they win elections because they represent Mamata Banerjee,” he added. “There is only one word to describe our first reaction to what Trivedi did—disbelief.”
That explains why Banerjee has till now not had to deal with defiance, though people within her party have often had strong differences with her over policies, said the TMC leader cited above. Trivedi has indicated he will remain with the TMC.
West Bengal’s power minister Manish Gupta had to persuade Banerjee for months to raise tariff. He and the state’s power department had nearly given up when she finally yielded to his request, but not for once did Gupta make a public statement on this matter.
What’s more, the power department made sure the benign hike, which is linked to coal prices, didn’t get much media attention. “Nobody wants to cut her (Banerjee) up rough,” said the TMC leader.
Only Kabir Suman, who in 2009 won the Lok Sabha election as a TMC candidate, dared speak in public, first against the party and then against its leader. He was forced into a retirement of sorts from active politics almost immediately.
Suman, who hasn’t resigned as a member of Parliament (MP), continues to rail at the TMC—rooting for Trivedi, he said last week that the party shouldn’t treat the rail budget as its property.
It is only now that Banerjee is “learning” that she might not be able to control everything from Writers’ Buildings—West Bengal’s administrative headquarters, said the TMC leader. “It appears that she is fast losing control over the fringe elements, many of whom have moved to Delhi and do not want to get drawn into West Bengal’s politics.”
From what Trivedi drew courage to defy Banerjee—it peaked over the weekend when he demanded a written instruction from the TMC chief to resign—isn’t immediately clear. After announcing the rail budget, he said in interviews that he bit the bullet for the railways, which he was trying to rescue from terminal illness.
A commerce graduate from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College, Trivedi obtained training in managing businesses. In 1974, he completed a Master’s in business administration from a US university.
Trivedi is also a smart investor, according to a stockbroker who has known him for at least a decade. “He always had an eye for undervalued stocks,” said this person, who did not want to be named.
Trivedi said last week his experience as rail minister would dissuade self-respecting people from joining politics.
“Why should he put up with this? He isn’t trying to make a living out of politics,” said a Kolkata-based businessman and one of Trivedi’s close friends. He too wanted to remain anonymous.
Trivedi, who lives in Kolkata’s upscale Ballygunge neighbourhood, had Rs 13 lakh in cash deposits and investments in shares and bonds worth Rs 1.18 crore three years ago, show disclosures made by him to the Election Commission. That apart, he owned a 2.5-hectare plot of agricultural land in Bidda in Gujarat and a 2,800 sq. ft flat in Gandhinagar.