To quit or not to quit

It's tougher for rail ministers to stay on, and right the wrongs

Ever since that little big man Lal Bahadur Shastri quit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet after a train accident, it has become a fashion to ask for the rail minister’s scalp after every accident.

That is one of the several morality traps in public life—when a minister is asked to quit owning moral responsibility for something that had happened under his charge, but not directly caused by his action or inaction. This is distinct from legal responsibility wherein the person is liable to be penalised for the event.

Though some 40 men and women have loco-piloted the rail ministry through more than 250 major and minor accidents, only three have followed the Shastri example—Nitish Kumar in 1999, Mamata Banerjee in 2000, and Suresh Prabhu in 2016.

Strangely, the moral pressure is more on rail ministers. Planes have crashed but hardly anyone has asked aviation ministers to quit, though Madhavrao Scindia set an example in 1993 after a wet-leased aircraft crashed in Delhi, killing none.

Shastri’s and Scindia’s examples are exceptions. The rule is to stick on and face the odium. Most ministers simply ignore the calls for their scalps, and quietly sit down to right the things that may have gone wrong in their charge. Ashwini Vaishnaw falls in that category. When asked if he would quit, he said his job is to focus on rescue, relief and, one may assume, finding out what had gone wrong.

Lalu Prasad thought that quitting is cowardly. “People have elected us to take responsibility as ministers, not to run away from it,” he said when he refused to quit as rail minister after an accident in 2005.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Lalu and Ram Vilas Paswan had the gumption to offer such raw logic. Asked if he would quit, after two express trains collided at Faridabad during his rail reign in 1997, Paswan snapped back: “Do chief ministers resign after car accidents?" It is another matter that the same Paswan had no qualms about asking Nitish to quit after an accident.

Indeed, ministerial heads should roll if the accident had been caused by the minister’s administrative lapses. That is perhaps what Scindia thought, since it had been his idea to wet-lease planes from abroad so as to spite striking Indian pilots. But should a minister quit if the accident had been caused by a human error or sabotage? (Vaishnaw seems to suspect the latter.) As Paswan said, “If a driver crashes into another train, it's hardly the minister's fault.”

Quitting is often the easy way out. It needs only a sheet of paper and a media mike. Life after an offer to quit, accepted or otherwise, is one of adulation. If accepted, you leave with a halo; if asked to stay, you live with a halo.

None realised this better than V.P. Singh; he made quitting an art form. He built his entire career over a few sheets of resignation letters, quitting as UP CM after dacoits killed people, as a cabinet minister over Bofors, and offering to quit PM’s job at the drop of a critical word against him. Strangely, as PM he used to send his quit letters to his party president rather than to the Indian president. Needless to say, the former, S.R. Bommai, would simply trash them.

The loser in the game is often the one who accepts or rejects the quit offer, as it happened to Nehru in Shastri’s case. Shastri’s first offer to quit was made after an accident in Mahabubnagar. Nehru rejected it, and was criticised for allowing a ‘sinner’ to stay. So when Shastri offered to quit after the Ariyalur accident three months later, Nehru accepted it. Now he was censured for making Shastri a scapegoat.