Metro Man: A train running too fast?

Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, ‘Metro Man’ to his legion of admirers, has deluded himself into believing that he is the magic bullet to pull the BJP out of stagnancy, and to victory, in Kerala, which goes to vote with West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in April-May. Sreedharan joined the BJP when it embarked on a “yatra” from Kasargod, the northern-most district of Kerala, on Sunday.

From all accounts – and his own interviews – the invite to come aboard came from Kerala BJP president K Surendran, although Sreedharan has to first fulfil the comme il faut of meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah. Of course that will happen soon, because going by the pecking order of civil servants who were inducted into the BJP, Sreedharan stands above others. In the back-to-back interviews he gave after announcing his political intention, he called himself a “model technocrat” and an “ideal technocrat” – a boast that few, except the churlish, will dispute. At 88, after putting in 60 years of exemplary service, whose apogee was the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation (DMRC), Sreedharan refused to reconcile with his superannuation and was involved with the Kochi Metro Rail project in his hometown of Ponnani, in Kerala.

The problem is that in India, the technocracy is not the bureaucracy and together, both the apparatuses are placed well below the political executive. In an interview in 2019, ostensibly before he considered politics as a life-changing choice, Sreedharan rued the secondary place that technocrats were consigned to in the system. “Proven technocrats must be posted in all fields. Sadly, politicians prefer generalists and they sideline technocrats,” he said, echoing a sentiment that the late Verghese Kurien, nicknamed ‘India’s Milkman’, might have shared. Modi was into his second term in 2019. Was Sreedharan’s remark food for thought for the PM? Elsewhere Sreedharan claimed he was offered a ministerial berth at the Centre at the start of Modi’s second tenure but he refused because he was over 75 — the BJP’s cut-off for appointing ministers at the Centre and the states. That cap was never followed, or else how could BS Yediyurappa continue to be Karnataka chief minister at 77?

In another recent conversation, Sreedharan couldn’t contain his excitement over embarking on his political innings. He declared himself as the BJP’s CM candidate in Kerala, emphasising that he would conduct the government like he ran the DMRC – without fear, favour or retribution. Announce my name and you will see a “landslide migration” to the BJP from the coalitions that alternatively ruled Kerala, he said. Even the consummate interviewer was momentarily stupefied because where is the BJP in God’s Own Country? It opened its account in the Assembly with just one seat in 2016. It contested 98 of 140 seats and secured a 10.53 vote percentage when compared to the Congress’ (sans the United Democratic Front allies) 23.70 per cent and the CPM’s 26. 52 per cent (excluding the share polled by the Left Democratic Front constituents).

Confronted with these realities, Sreedharan was unfazed. He quoted Arvind Kejriwal’s success against a seemingly invincible Sheila Dikshit in the Delhi elections as a precedent, and asserted that “the same will happen here”. Kejriwal was punched out of an impactful popular movement that caught the pulse of the day and cornered the UPA government on corruption, the Congress’s weakest spot – something the BJP, with its serial “dharna” and protest marches, couldn’t. The ruling LDF might be up against anti-incumbency as most incumbents are, but in Kerala, the BJP hasn’t yet got into the boxing ring. Shah is too deeply invested in West Bengal to gaze southward. He’s left electioneering to the state leaders. Kerala is not the happiest state for the BJP because its leaders are at war. The ‘too many leaders, too few cadre’ syndrome is at work, a surprise considering that the RSS has worked here for a long time and ought to have shepherded its progeny to some success by now.
Where does Sreedharan fit into this shaky structure? Aware that the BJP’s politics is underpinned on the Sangh’s ideology, he started by making the appropriate noises over ‘love jihad’ (a phrase coined in Kerala) and cow-killing and said as a kosher vegetarian who never ate eggs, he disapproved of meat consumption. Would his comments jell in a state where beef is sold openly and consumed by many Hindus? He harked back to his origin as an RSS “swayamsevak” and praised the Sangh for shaping his “foundational values”. Classically an over-reach that other BJP lateral entrants, including Smriti Irani, never resorted to. Back then, it was enough to endorse Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governance to prove one’s allegiance without going hyperbolic about nationalism and one’s dietary preferences.

But Sreedharan has also to defend a fastidiously cultivated image that won for him coveted awards in France and Japan, and recognition in India. He might have tipped excessively on the side of bigotry. That’s why he subsequently toned down his pronouncements on inter-faith relationships and meat eating. It wasn’t just about his image. Can he think of doing politics in Kerala that has a big minority population, where various religious denominations influence elections, and where the Indian Union Muslim League is a powerful player? Muslims and Christians are not about to vote for the BJP (though the party has courted church leaders), but someone fancying himself as the state’s potentate can scarcely start his innings by antagonising large communities.

The sad aspect is that his engagement with the BJP has detracted from the formidable opus Sreedharan has to his credit. On social media, habitual BJP traducers even questioned if he should walk away with the kudos for the Delhi Metro because they alleged it “rightfully” belonged to the Japanese, who put the nuts and bolts as well as the funding in place. One of them was reminded about the rah-rah pieces he wrote on Sreedharan before the BJP cast its shadow over him.

To generations of Delhi’s young people, especially women, the metro was a salvation. It was their ticket to secure and clean travel because the buses they used earlier were plain unsafe, what with the groping and sexist comments. It would be an exaggeration to conclude that Sreedharan has signed a Faustian bargain with the BJP. But in the twilight of his life, would he care to be remembered for his politics?

Radhika Ramaseshan keeps an eagle eye on all that’s hot in the corridors of power

(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own)

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