Vande Bharat Express train | Photo: PP Binoj, Mathrubhumi
An unforgettable scene in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s masterly "Kodiyettam," immortalized by Gopi and KPAC Lalitha, is a truck zipping past the slow-witted Sankaran Kutty and his wife Santhamma, who are out for a function in their Sunday best. The speeding vehicle drenches them in street sludge and Santhamma is devastated. But a dazed Sankaran Kutty admires the passing truck and exclaims gleefully, “What a speed!”. The paroxysm of hysteria Kerala and its media displayed over the new Vande Bharat Express train makes one wonder if we have become a society of Sankarankuttys.
Certainly, a high-speed train like Vande Bharat (VB) connecting the state’s two ends was essential. Particularly so since Kerala has never received its due in the field of railways -as in many other fields too- from the centre. This has been so, not only when the BJP -which has no MP or an MLA from Kerala- is in power but even during Congress-led governments which had many representatives from the state. The second Manmohan Singh ministry had as many as eight members from Kerala. It could be the reason for the present hyperventilation.
But, do we need to eulogize so much as if we are seeing a train for the first time in life like Ray's Durga and Apu, watching wide-eyed the hurtling, smoke-spewing beast at Nischindipur? A TV news channel reverentially interviewed a lucky family who could see and even touch Vande Bharat! Even Modi’s comparing Kerala a few years ago to impoverished Somalia rang true when we swooned over a train like a famished flock going into a frenzy over crumbs of bread.
Congress shot itself in the foot when its workers vandalised Vande Bharat by posting Palakkad MP VK Sreekantan’s pictures on the train at Shornur station. Indeed, it was a pathetic attempt to grab a share in the pie being devoured by BJP all by itself. But the angry reaction to it -even from Congress- looked disproportionate given that the BJP was trying to make even more political capital from the train. Though BJP didn’t paste posters on the train, wasn’t Modi beaming from huge cutouts throughout the train's route?
Now about the high ticket fares. Surely, the fare goes up with higher speed and facilities. Does anyone question air fares citing lower rail fares? But are VB fares proportional to its claimed difference in speed with other Indian speed trains? A report says its maximum speed of 160 km is only 10 km more than of Shatabdi Express, launched 35 years ago, or 20-30 km than of Rajdhani, Duronto, or Garib Rath. But the difference in fares is mind-boggling. Also, wonder why Indira Gandhi didn't find it an occasion to celebrate on a similar scale when she launched India's first superfast train -Rajdhani- half a century ago between Delhi and Kolkata or Rajiv Gandhi when the next one -Satabdi- was flagged off 35 years ago? Garib Rath and Duronto were launched during Manmohan Singh's time.
Trains have been used as metaphors and symbols by writers, artists, and filmmakers worldwide to convey emotions of nostalgia, parting, grief, etc. But it hasn’t been used and misused to score political brownie points like in India. If Lal Bahadur Shastri was India’s first Railway Minister who resigned in 1956 to uphold political morality after two successive train accidents within three months that killed 256 persons, most of his successors used the railways mainly for making political capital. It was Congress’s ABA Ghanikhan Choudhury as Union Railways Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet of 1982-84 who first made it into a fine art by nursing his constituency of Malda in West Bengal with abundant railway projects. When coalition ministries became common, with even tiny regional outfits assuming inflated political clout, they began to bargain for Railways portfolio or projects more than anything else. When Mamata Banerjee was Railway Minister in the Manmohan Singh government during 2009-11, Bengal received a bonanza. Lalu Prasad Yadav before her and Nitish Kumar after her did the same for Bihar.
As mentioned earlier, the railway ministry -whichever party ran it- has always been a stepmother to states like Kerala, even when MPs from the state had a decisive stay as in the United Front or UPA governments. Even while going overboard about the new Vande Bharat, Malayala Manorama hesitantly reported that Kerala has never received even 1% of the annual rail budget allocations in any year. If Kerala's share was 0.86% last year, it was barely 0.34% in 2013-14 when UPA was in power. According to Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnav, the annual allocation for railway development in Kerala rose by five times to cross Rs 2000 crores from less than Rs 400 crores during 2009-14 under the UPA. The ongoing projects in the state at a total cost of more than Rs 10,000 crore in Kerala include modernisation of 34 railway stations to international standards, doubling lines, electrification, gauge conversion, etc.
So, will the Vande Bharat be BJP’s gravy train to power in Kerala? Indeed it could be one of the sure steps if the euphoria is any indication. Had the BJP tried out such carrots in the past, it could have already won the hearts of a growing middle-class constituency that is apolitical in perspective and neoliberal in values. The spreading disillusionment with the two dominant political fronts, too, would have considerably helped the “third option.” But the BJP’s central leadership never found it worthwhile to show Kerala that it truly cared for its development. Kerala’s demand for an AIIMS hangs fire even after almost every other state has been granted one. Look at the much-hyped Modi visit to launch Vande Bharat. Everybody expected Modi to announce more projects to please Kerala in the run-up to the 2024 elections, particularly when BJP reaped a rich harvest in the northeastern states after its grand gift packages to the region. More so because Modi announced in its aftermath that Kerala was BJP’s next target. Yet, his meetings in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram drew a blank regarding promises. Even the promised interaction with the youth ended a damp squib. Hamstrung by inept state leadership, BJP’s Operation Kerala needs much more than a fast train, hype, or an opportunistic alliance with Church leaders to take off.
Before concluding, let me quote a perceptive observation made by writer Basheer Vallikkunnu. Even the BJP needs an express train to try and catch Kerala's imagination. Not Ram temple, Aurangzeb or cancellation of Muslim reservation. That owes much to Kerala's cultural ethos built up over time and one that wouldn't die soon either. Though I am not as optimistic as Basheer about the last part, it's a reassuring thought, nevertheless.
PS: A few hours after Modi launched Kerala's first Vande Bharat, a news channel reports that the state gets not even one of the 157 nursing colleges allotted by the central government to various states.