For most of the time during the coalition era, the railway ministry has been held by the chieftain of some regional party supporting the main party in power. Thus it went to the likes of Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) during the NDA regime, or Lalu Prasad (Rashtriya Janata Dal ) and Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress) during the UPA's rule. Pawan Kumar Bansal is the first Congress minister to present a railway Budget after 17 years. The presentation in Parliament thus lacked the colour and entertainment a Lalu Prasad or a Mamata Banerjee had provided in previous years. Even the Trinamool Congress's Dinesh Trivedi created more of a stir last year, especially when he announced a fare hike and lost his job within a day as a result.
"When Lalu Prasad presented his railway budgets, we would not realise how that one hour passed by," confides a Cabinet Minister. This time hung heavy. There was unusual silence during most of Bansal's nearly 75-minute long speech, but for the last 10 minutes when some Opposition MPs created a ruckus in the well of the House. The master entertainer, Lalu Prasad, himself seemed bored and was seen nodding off many times as Bansal read his speech.
Journalists had wondered if, with his elevation as Congress Vice President, Rahul Gandhi would be seated in the front row of the treasury benches, which are reserved for senior ministers and seniormost party leaders from the coalition. But he was not, preferring to take his regular seat in the fourth row from the back. Interestingly, once the railway Budget had been read and the Lok Sabha was adjourned, Gandhi advanced into the well of the House to specifically speak to Prasad. Considering the Congress and the RJD had fought the last general elections separately in Bihar, was it an indication that they could just fight the forthcoming one in 2014 together?
Railway Minister Bansal seemed to have put the Opposition in a difficult position. Members appeared to run out of ideas while attacking his Budget proposals. Increase in passenger fares could have been an emotive issue, but Bansal had already hiked passenger fares in January and avoided doing so in the Budget. Both the CPI(M) and the BJP in their post railway Budget press conferences attacked the minister for not doing enough to modernise the Railways. However, since both are opposed to hiking fares, they were stumped when reporters asked how they expected the government to raise funds for any modernisation.