When legions of his fellow railwaymen and admirers heard of E. Sreedharan’s sudden decision to enter the electoral fray in Kerala at the over-ripe age of 88 years, they initially dismissed it as a bad joke. But the reality is that the almost nonagenarian “Metroman” has refused to go quietly into the sunset. While there is an element of truth in C.S. Lewis’s exhortation that one is never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream, Sreedharan’s plunge into politics is seen as nothing more than a pathetic yearning to stay in the limelight.
The fact that he has offered his services to the BJP, a party which has studiously ignored this accomplished engineer ever since coming to power in 2014, has come as a shock to most people who once believed that he was a man who would never compromise on principles or seek power at any cost.
Sreedharan’s latest move has people drawing parallels with Mr. T.N. Seshan who revolutionized and cleaned up the electoral process and the way elections are fought in India and was perhaps the only bureaucrat in documented Indian history to have taken on politicians, and lived to tell the tale. But then Seshan sullied his reputation by foolishly succumbing to political ambition. He threw his hat into the ring for President of India a year or so after his retirement in 1997, only to be ignored by all including the Opposition political parties, suffering a humiliating defeat and no small amount of egg on his face. Are we experiencing a sense of déjà vu?
Sreedharan is now having his “Seshan moment”, provoking a fair degree of derision and some embarrassment among his fans and mentees in the Indian Railway and Metro circles. Waking up on the wrong side of the bed one fine morning, he seems to have had a revelation that his state and country are desperately in need of his services. At his age, when getting up from bed is in itself an effort, this decision to contest polls smacked of juvenile recklessness.
In the days that followed, Sreedharan provided much unintended amusement. He announced to the Press that he was not interested in a governorship or some such gubernatorial sinecure but omitted to mention that he was never offered such a job. Much to the discomfiture of his well-wishers, he went on to add – suo moto - that he was willing not only to fight the Assembly elections on a BJP ticket but also be the BJP’s Chief Minister candidate! His brazen presumptuous-ness did not end there. He even pompously declared that only he, as a technocrat, had the ability to manage Kerala and take it out of the deep industrial recession that the state was in. Intimations of senility setting in?
The farce did not end there. Perhaps in deference to Sreedharan’s dotage, the Kerala state BJP chief K. Surendran quickly endorsed Sreedharan as their Chief Minister candidate, but he pulled back the next day and said that he had not actually made any announcement on the party's chief ministerial candidate, but only expressed a personal opinion that the people and party workers wanted E Sreedharan to "lead" them. The Union Minister V. Muraleedharan, an ex-Kerala BJP president himself, also tweeted the announcement, only to delete it soon thereafter, with an apologetic comment that this was a decision that could be taken by the party high command.
Visiting Kerala a few days later, defacto party boss Amit Shah did honour Sreedharan by accepting and donning the shawl proffered by him but Shah refrained from either endorsing him or anyone else as the BJP’s Chief Minister candidate. Considering the fact that the party had won just one MLA seat in the previous 2016 state elections, and drew a blank in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, although managing a 10% + vote share, it would have been foolhardy to announce a Chief Minister candidate when the best that the party can hope for are a handful of seats.
Of course, Amit Shah’s refusal to play along must have been a bit of a setback for the narcissistic old man who had himself first ventilated the idea in public. Amidst speculation in some quarters that he might not be given a ticket in view of the age-related criterion adopted by the BJP, it must have come as a huge relief for his supporters that he has been picked as the BJP candidate from Palakkad.
Mr. Sreedharan’s much publicised entry into active politics is unlikely to improve the prospects of the BJP in the coming elections. And by the time the next elections come, he would be well into his nineties. If only he had woken up on the wrong side of his bed a few years earlier, he would by now have built a reputation and base for himself in the hurly-burly of politics. And perhaps made a difference!
A recent article by Peter Ronald D’Souza, a Goa University professor and writer of some standing, was generous in its praise of Sreedharan’s achievements and abilities as an outstanding technocrat and bureaucrat but rightly questioned his credentials for the task he had decided to take on at an age when one is better off as observer than as participant. The article concludes rather sadly that “undiminished egos produce national problems”, a scathing indictment of a man who does not count humility as one of his virtues.
Being essentially self-opinionated and his own man, Sreedharan is bound to ruffle feathers and is doubtful if the BJP will countenance him as their voice and face for much longer. A few days after joining politics he gave a statement that he does not agree with the Centre’s new Metro policy, which mandates a compulsory element of private sector participation. Even more controversially, he expressed his disappointment at the somewhat directionless running of the Indian Railways. Such forthright views and opinions will not garner brownie points from any political dispensation, let alone the present one.
Many ex-bureaucrats, and wannabe politicians have learnt this lesson at great personal cost. But Sreedharan believes he is in a different league altogether. That’s what Kiran Bedi thought too! One does not have to be a soothsayer to know that it is only a matter of time before the cookie crumbles! For Railwaymen, it is hurtful to see one of their icons attempt something and not only fail but even worse, be humiliated.
(The writer is a retired bureaucrat, and writes mainly on Railway related subjects. Some of his blogs may be seen on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sushil-luthra-41390936).