So, the curtain on this year’s “saal ka kharcha” was raised with Railway Minister Pawan Bawan presenting the Rail Budget. As expected, our news channels went into a frenzy getting the reactions of people from across the country. And also made sure that a plethora of experts were available in-studio to dissect Bansal’s labour of love – which was delivered with a couple of poetic phrases.
How did our channels fair in getting the “big picture”, “complete analysis”, “larger implications” of the budget? Well, if you were to watch them simultaneously barring a few flash in the pan moments, all appeared clones of one another.
Mr Bansal couldn’t have had it easier. He hopped from one channel to other, repeated the same lines, repeated the same phrases and even the same facial expressions.
The NDTV 24X7 interview with him stood out, though. Not for its pertinent questions. But because Sunetra Chaudhury was so taken up with the Railway Minister and his budget that you could imagine him gifting her a Ride-for-Life Anubhuti train ticket at the end of the shoot. If you listened to just NDTV, you would have been convinced that Congress has played its cards well and the party had taken all the right steps in the run-up to the elections. What Sunetra didn’t do was to raise uncomfortable and difficult questions about passenger safety– or mention the two children who got run over by a train as the security measures were being read out by Bansal, the lack of hygiene on trains or long waiting lists. Sunetra, in fact, gave Bansal the perfect opening to deliver his key messages – “how many jobs are you giving in railways this time?”. Which gave a very satisfied Bansal the opportunity to gloat about some numbers in millions or billions (It’s actually 1.52 lakh new jobs, but why split hairs). Nodding, giggling, agreeing through the interview and enjoying avuncular lessons from Bansal, this seemed more like an Oprah feel-good interview than that conducted by a news reporter.
According to Maria Shakeel on CNN-IBN, “Bansal had diagnosed all the problems of the railways”. She did question him on why despite knowing the financial burden on the department, he had introduced 100 new trains. Bansal in his answer went on and on about the philanthropic approach of his government and how the new trains were not populist measures but a step towards development. She seemed so absorbed in looking at her notes, that it didn’t strike her to question Bansal on how he planned on fixing the deplorable condition of the current lot of trains. She seemed too bothered about the Railway’s fiscal consolidation, only helping Bansal’s cause, while not putting the spotlight on poor crowd management in stations especially the death of 36 people due to a stampede at Allahabad Station during the Kumbh. Bansal might have pitched it as a budget for the aam aadmi, but the programme wasn’t answering the questions of the aam aadmi for sure.
Arnab Goswami on News Hour asked the predictable questions and got rid of Bansal within 5 minutes, in a rush to call in his army of panelists. His “qualified” panel included Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam, BJP’s Piyush Goyal, TMC’s Derek O Brien and RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha. As expected, not giving much scope for explanation to Nirupam, Arnab came to the conclusion that as alleged by the Opposition the Congress is indeed “guilty of being insensitive to the common man” by hiking fares in a “camouflaged manner”. But one panelist beat Arnab at his game. It seems TMC is still nursing the wounds of a broken relationship with the UPA. So, Derek O Brien hijacked the debate and decided to play the persecution card and claim that this was an anti-Bengal budget. He kept throwing phrases such as “Bengal treated with vengeance”, “Bengal has been killed”, “it is a family club budget” and “Bengal will give the Congress an answer”. Only to suddenly realise that it was not just Bengal’s railway budget but the entire country’s. “Why just Bengal, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, everybody will give them an answer”, he hurriedly added at the end.
Rajdeep Sardesai on India At 9 played naysayer and rued the fact that the Rail Minister had nothing new to offer. The most interesting moment was when he reprimanded former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi for appearing late on his show, only for Trivedi to remind Rajdeep that CNN-IBN was lower in the pecking order as he had been giving interviews to other channels. Not nice to be told that on camera. For some reason, and we feel some heads in research must have rolled as a result, Rajdeep kept quoting an incorrect figure on passenger safety from the Kakodkar Committee – till Akhileshwar Sahay, a Railways expert corrected him not once but twice.
The only breath of fresh air was Headline Today’s Rahul Kanwal. He did a spot-on job of cornering Bansal and questioned him on paying obeisance to Sonia Gandhi and showering so many goodies on Rae Bareilly. Having had a rather smooth trundle till now, Pawan Bansal was visibly caught off-guard by Kanwal and a volley of difficult questions almost derailed his composure.
Channeling Pawan Bansal’s poetic avatar, as he sped along from channel station to station, we were reminded of his favourite poem (tweaked with due deference to Christine Weatherly) – “But later on the Journey…Pawan’s singing still. If you listen very quietly, You will hear this little song, ‘I thought I could…I could!’, And so he speeds along”.
Image by: Abhishek Verma