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Accidents & Accountability: Lessons From the Past, Present, and for the Future

It is vital to encourage free & sharp 'questioning’ of the government and not frown upon with partisan attributions.

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Demands for the resignation of the Railway Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, following the devastating train collision in the Balasore district have reignited the debate on the merits of such demands. While resignation by itself can never be a quick fix solution to the creaky affairs of the Indian Railway infrastructure or even a legal mandate, it is still pertinent to examine arguments of its efficacy, both for, and against.

Let’s be upfront, the first, rote, and loudest criticism of the resignation demand is that it is a 'political demand’. It is. But that does not delegitimise it, or make it irrelevant as every criticism of governance is indeed political. In a democracy, the political 'voice’ of the opposition is as important as the dispensation of the day to hold the powers that be, to accountability, responsibility, and ultimately to corrective actions.

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Accountability of Government Officials

Since independence, all governments have wielded a variety of tools like muzzling details, sanctimonious optics, distractive news to even invoking the 'past’ (read, previous governments of opposing parties) to justify their own ineptitude and derelictions.

It is, therefore, vital to encourage free and sharp 'questioning’ of the current government, and not frown upon the same with partisan attributions. Whether seeking the resignation of the concerned authority is of any transformational/corrective utility is the moot question.

The second, and perhaps the most deployed defense in this specific case, is the supposed brilliance of the incumbent Railway Minister owing to his impressive educational qualifications. Indeed, as a former bureaucrat with an IIT degree to boot does merit respect in terms of educational accomplishments – however, those defending the Railway Minister suffer selective amnesia when it comes to their views on the Delhi Chief Minister, who too was a former bureaucrat with an IIT tag!

Worse, those selectively espousing the Railway Minister’s case based on educational qualification harbour a very different prism for the even higher position of authority i.e, Prime Ministership, when asked to contextualise between the current and former prime minister, towards fitment for governance. Educational accomplishments then become irrelevant.

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Is Educational Qualification a Benchmark of Efficiency in Governance?

The fact is, there can be no dispute that an educationally qualified Minister, like the incumbent Railway Minister should logically be more capable to run a Railway Ministry – the issue is of logical consistency and not its selective applicability. Secondly, there is also merit in the argument that educational accomplishments by themselves do not guarantee better governance as there are other issues of personal propriety, integrity, and assertiveness that may or may not accompany an educated or an ostensibly less-educated Minister. There is no silver bullet on this, but education should generally be welcomed.

Now, since the 'past’ is amongst the most bandied and deployed tactic to distract, it would be interesting to see how history judges those who owned up to their personal responsibility and resigned (even if it wasn’t legally or circumstantially warranted) and did so on their own volition, as opposed to those who didn’t (or were subsequently asked to resign, forcibly).

To keep the discussion unpartisan in today’s context, it would be useful to evaluate the examples exclusively from the house of opposition in the 'past’ i.e, Congress era. Both Lal Bahadur Shastri and VK Krishna Menon were senior Congress Ministers, though diametrically opposite in personalities, who nonetheless had Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s trust. Their first ministerial stints were in Railways and Defense, respectively.

Two serious back-to-back train accidents (1956) had led the then Railway Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to tender his resignation both times, immediately. It was rejected the first time and on his insistent plea for early acceptance the second time, finally accepted.

The accidents were obviously a technical issues and not one of Shastri’s personal doing, and many parliamentarians beseeched Nehru to pull up the concerned Railway staff instead, but the wise Shastri knew that for demonstration of accountability, the buck stopped with him personally. Nehru movingly acknowledged, "I thought of it again and I came to the conclusion that it would be better for me [to advise]… the President to accept his resignation, not because I hold the Railway Minister responsible— obviously not—and I have also spoken in high terms of his work and joint work we have done together… no man can wish for a better colleague in any undertaking… A man of the highest integrity, loyalty, devotion to the ideal, man of conscience, and a man of hard work. We can expect no better. It is because he is such a man of conscience that he [feels] deeply whenever there is any failing in the responsibility entrusted to his charge."

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Govt Action on Past Accidents: A Timeline

While a leadership standard was set by Shastri’s selfless act, it wasn’t to be the last of such Railway accidents, but suddenly and more importantly, the principle of governance responsibility got institutionalised in Indian politics like never before. Indian governance standards and expectations changed, even if temporarily, for the better.

The parallel example was one of the otherwise brilliant, though absolutely arrogant, abrasive, and acid-tongued VK Krishna Menon who roughshod over many people and issues (including the infamous 1948 Jeep Scandal) owing to his proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru. He played havoc with the Indian Armed Force’s norms, leadership, and morale – even a dispute with the thoroughly distinguished Chief of Army Staff, General KS Thimayya, who tendered his own resignation owing to a dispute with VK Krishna Menon, was overlooked.

Smug at his own intellect, experience, and decision-making skills that brook no counsel or contrarian opinion, led to the disaster of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. It is believed that the man with incurable hubris had remained unmoved and did not necessarily hold himself accountable for the situation that had ensued – but the shame of 1962 and its consequential pressures from all quarters led to the forcing of VK Krishna Menon’s 'resignation’ (not with the same spirit of Lal Bahadur Shastri).

Both Lal Bahadur Shastri and VK Krishna Menon instilled disparate instincts and templates into Indian politics, and history judges both accordingly and rather differently. VK Krishna Menon went on to quit the Congress when denied a ticket in the 1967 elections and fought from his former party (he lost in 1967, but won in 1969 from Midnapore, and in 1971 from Trivandrum, as an Independent candidate).

The same Defense Ministry was later to witness a milestone corruption scandal i.e, Bofors, that ultimately led to the resignation or expulsion of then Defense Minister, VP Singh. Did the realm of 'arms procurement’ get the necessary scrutiny by the activism and resignation/expulsion of VP Singh? Short answer, yes, it did. Though it can be argued there are still systemic issues that followed like 'Coffingate’, Tatra trucks, Rafale jets, etc., the important point is that while VP Singh’s resignation and accompanying bravado were wholly political too – the domain of Indian Politics (especially in arms procurement) came out introspecting, correcting, and acknowledging course correction, even if insufficiently.

Now, returning to the current issue of the Railway Minister and to the larger context of Kavach-like defense afforded onto any questioning of any governance decision like demonetisation, Chinese aggression, COVID handling, hate speeches by senior governmental functionaries, the protection afforded to tainted ministers, etc., by the government in recent times – has there ever been the requisite humility, grace, or dignity of accepting a misstep or mistake in any decision making in recent times? Would the idea of accountability in governance have been served better, had the said Railway Minister resigned or not? Would such a resignation have led to a domino effect on all other ministers to pull up their socks and put their own Ministries in order? Would morality, conscientiousness, and propriety in governance have been served better with resignation? More likely than not, it would have.

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Roadmap for Future

Incidentally, like the qualified acceptance of Shastri’s resignation by Nehru (absolving him of personal responsibility and later rehabilitating him in another Ministry) not have been more corrective, reasonable, and reassuring optics?

However, that perhaps necessitates a political culture of accepting human fallibility and the quest for constant improvement as opposed to dangerously misplaced notions of perfection. But, in an era where to simply 'question’ the dispensation is almost seditious, imagining or hoping for humility to tender resignation is a far cry.
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The days of gentility, civility, and personal integrity in politics are perhaps, behind us, as was once immortalised in the last words by an outgoing Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, "Power game will go on. Governments will come and go. Parties will be made and unmade. But this country and its democracy should flourish eternally”. There are clearly no Lal Bahadur Shastri's or Atal Bihari Vajpayee's across the political sphere, and therefore, expecting resignations from a can-never-do-any-wrong spirit that widely prevails, is to expect simply too much.

(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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