The Unusual Trajectory of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s Career

New Delhi/Bhubaneswar: When India’s premier police investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), started a probe into the June 2 Balasore train tragedy, it was termed as an attempt by the Narendra Modi government to find a “political solution” to the inherent technical shortcomings in the country’s railway system that had caused the man-made disaster.

Less than 48 hours after the accident, which left at least 275 people dead and 1,000 injured, Union Minister of Railways Ashwini Kumar Vaishnaw hinted at a possible “criminal” angle behind the triple train collision. Speaking to journalists in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, he said that the Railway Board had recommended a probe by the CBI which investigates criminal cases.

“Keeping in mind the circumstances and administrative information received so far, the Railway Board is recommending a CBI enquiry for further investigation into the incident,” said Vaishnaw.

Earlier that day, the Board had clearly stated that “signaling interference” was the main cause of the accident, that the guilty had been identified and that the “possibility of sabotage” had not been ruled out.

Less than 24 hours after the accident, Modi had referred to the tragedy as an “incident” – not as an accident – and asserted that those found “guilty will be punished strictly.”

In claiming that a CBI investigation was being initiated to unearth the “possibility of sabotage,” was Vaishnaw not justifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speculative remarks?

The regime’s spin doctors have already attempted to give a communal colour to the tragedy, a standard response to events that are too overwhelming for the ruling political dispensation.

The Balasore train tragedy is the first instance wherein Vaishnaw has come under intense public pressure ever since he took charge of the Ministry of Railways in July 2021. Given the number of the dead and the injured in the tragedy – the accident has been described as the deadliest in the country in nearly three decades – it was not surprising that Vaishnaw rushed to the site of the accident near the Bahanaga Bazar railway station in Balasore. It was also unsurprising that on social media, where pictures of him overseeing rescue work were publicised, he was also accused of resorting to gimmickry and optics instead of owning up responsibility for the accident and resigning from his post.

Neither Vaishnaw, nor anyone in the Union government, including the Prime Minister, have responded to the many allegations levelled by the Opposition, including the Congress party, about the ‘glaring lapses’ in the administration of the Indian Railways that led to the accident. Among the concerns raised by the Congress and the Left is the lack of adequate manpower with one of the world’s most extensive railway networks.

Several Opposition politicians and independent commentators have pointed out how the safety and the operational efficiency of the Indian Railways had been constrained and compromised due to insufficient human resources.

Staff Shortage, Poor Maintenance in Indian Railways

At least 3,11,000 vacancies exist for “Group C” personnel while 3,081 out of 18,881 gazetted cadre posts remain vacant across the 39 railway zones in the country. At the same time, only 2% of India’s railway network, that is, 1,450 kilometres out of 68,000 km, is covered by the Train Collision Avoidance System (popularly called KAVACH).

Under Vaishnaw, the Indian Railways, once a major employer, has cut down on new recruitments. In January 2022, roughly six months after Vaishnaw took charge of the ministry, riots broke out in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh over delays in recruitment in the Railways. Opposition political parties not only attacked the ruling BJP government at the Centre over lack of jobs in the public sector but also over the issue of how the police handled the unrest. This was one of the earliest challenges faced by Vaishnaw as a Cabinet minister. The unrest was soon overshadowed in the national news cycle by the controversy surrounding the hijab row in Karnataka.

Ignoring the CAG’s Recommendations

References have been made to a report of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India tabled in Parliament in December 2022 that has documented the decline in spending on maintenance of railway tracks, which is a major cause of accidents between 2017-18 and 2020-21.

The CAG report further said that spending targets set for the Rashtriya Rail Suraksha Kosh (RRSK), a corpus fund for financing critical safety-related works, have not been met; Rs.5,000 crore was to be contributed annually by Indian Railways annually from internal resources to RRSK complementing Rs.15,000 crore annually as gross budgetary support. However, the CAG report points out, Railways delivered only Rs.4,225 crore in four years (2017-18 to 2020-21) leaving a shortfall of 79% in its contribution. The share of capital expenditure in total expenditure of the Railways has consistently increased in recent years.

Focus on Luxury Trains

Vaishnaw had not responded to a detailed questionnaire e-mailed by the authors of this article on June 7. Among the questions asked was whether funds meant for the safety of train passengers had been diverted to other projects. The Modi government has been criticised by various political parties for cutting down expenditure for improving facilities meant for ordinary passengers in favour of “luxury” trains that have been inaugurated with much fanfare by the Prime Minister in the recent past.

As many as 18 luxury trains, called the Vande Bharat Express, have been put on tracks since Modi flagged off the first one in February 2019. Vaishnaw appears to be micro-managing this project. A couple of weeks before the Balasore accident, the first Vande Bharat Express of Odisha had been flagged off by the Prime Minister. After the Balasore accident, questions are being more frequently raised about the government’s lopsided priorities.

The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to shield Vaishnaw from criticism by indulging in whataboutery, by pointing out the failures of former Railway Ministers, notably Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress and Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

That Vaishnaw enjoys the confidence of Modi is all-too apparent. Besides the Indian Railways, he has been given charge of two more important portfolios, Communications, and Electronics & Information Technology.

“Union Ministers of Railways have historically been political heavyweights who win Lok Sabha elections after serving their terms in Rail Bhavan because they can ‘nurture’ their constituencies by spending on employment-generating projects,” said a source in an Opposition political party, on condition of anonymity, adding: “Lightweight Vaishnaw’s appointment was a significant departure from the past.”

Why Was Vaishnaw Favoured by BJD?

It is not merely unusual for a political novice to be handling important ministerial portfolios, including that of the Railways. Vaishnaw is, after all, a first-time member of Parliament (MP) not from the Lok Sabha. He was elected to the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, thanks to the BJP and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik coming together to back his candidature in June 2019.

Vaishnaw’s Cabinet colleague from Odisha and BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan (who is currently Union Education Minister and a former Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas in the Central government) has said that the understanding between BJP and BJD to field Vaishnaw as a common candidate for a post of Rajya Sabha MP was not a secret.

“This [the understanding] was done through open discussion. The move will be in Odisha’s interests. In democracies, such agreements happen,” Pradhan remarked.

Nevertheless, the announcement of Vaishnaw’s name as a candidate for the post of Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha was dramatic and contentious. In June 2019, minutes after BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik announced Vaishnaw as a candidate for one of the three Rajya Sabha seats that had fallen vacant, he made an about-turn and declared that Vaishnaw has been fielded by BJP and that his own party, BJD, would back his candidature.

The Odisha Chief Minister sought to clarify himself: “I think there was some confusion about Mr Ashwini Vaishnaw. The Prime Minister spoke to me as did the Home Minister (Amit Shah). We will support the candidature of Mr Ashwini Vaishnaw, who was the private secretary of Mr Vajpayee when he was the Prime Minister.”

Congress Opposed Vaishnaw’s Candidature as RS MP

As soon as Vaishnaw’s name was cleared for the post of Rajya Sabha MP, representatives of Opposition political parties, led by the Congress, disrupted proceedings in the Odisha legislative Assembly alleging a nexus between BJP and BJD. Congress legislature party leader in the Vidhan Sabha, Narasingha Mishra, demanded a statement from Chief Minister Patnaik about Vaishnaw’s alleged links with the mining mafia in the state. “Those who loot the mineral resources of the state are sent to represent us in the Rajya Sabha,” he reportedly said, adding that this was “very unfortunate.”

It was a surprise that the ruling party in Odisha “sacrificed” a seat in the Rajya Sabha despite having the numbers. Vaishnaw was elected unopposed.

One of the authors of this article met Mishra at his official bungalow in Bhubaneswar and asked him about Vaishnaw’s alleged links with the mining mafia. Mishra refused to comment any further on the issue: “Whatever I have said is on record of the legislative Assembly already,” he said.

More on this a little later in the article.

An Unusual Career Trajectory

Vaishnaw’s career has seen many controversies, his former bureaucrat colleagues and top political leaders of Odisha told the writers. All agreed that his rise – from an officer of the 1994 batch of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) belonging to the Odisha cadre – to holding three important portfolios in the Union government, has been meteoric.

“In the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, he maintained a low profile,” says Amitabh Kumar Das, former officer of the Indian Police Service who, was his contemporary in the academy. 

In 2003, he was sent on Central deputation where he joined as a deputy secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

A retired civil servant of Odisha cadre, who had worked closely with Vaishnaw in the past, told the authors of this article that he was generally considered a good and efficient officer but “power went to his head” at a later stage.

“During his stint in Odisha, Vaishnaw came in touch with Ashok Saikia when the latter was a joint secretary in Vajpayee’s PMO. It was Saikia who would take him into the PMO as a deputy secretary. Vaishnaw went on to become Vajpayee’s private secretary,” said the retired IAS officer.

Interestingly, Vaishnaw continued to serve as Vajpayee’s private secretary even after the former Prime Minister demitted office in 2004. From 2006, Vaishnaw would serve as the Chairman of the Mormugao Port Trust in Goa for two years before proceeding on study leave to the United States for pursuing an MBA from the reputed Wharton Business School. Upon his return to India, he quit the civil service. Said one of his contemporaries “There are some who believe he took voluntary retirement. But this was not so in Ashwini’s case. One can take voluntary retirement only after 20 years of service. In his case, since he left the service, he would not have got retirement benefits.”

What he did forego presumably didn’t matter to Vaishnaw, who took up senior management positions in multinational corporations, including General Electric (GE) and Siemens (in their transportation and mobility divisions, respectively). In 2012, he quit the corporate sector to become an entrepreneur by setting up a couple of auto-component manufacturing units in Modi’s home state, Gujarat

Alleged Links with Odisha’s Mining Lobby

More than a few eyebrows were raised in July 2021 when Vaishnaw, who had no experience whatsoever of heading a government ministry, was chosen by Modi to handle three important portfolios, including that of the Railways, in a Cabinet reshuffle. Several others who considered themselves more experienced and, therefore, eligible for a ministerial position, lost the race.

This is what was stated in an article in the news-magazine Outlook: “It is this rare combination of experience in both public and private sectors that is believed to have tilted the scales in his (favour)… when PM Modi finalized the names of ministers to be inducted in today’s reshuffle. While his efficiency and varied experience are beyond question, Vaishnaw has been dogged by controversy, primarily because of his association with B Prabhakaran, who was named in the MB Shah Commission report on the massive mining scam in Odisha in 2013.”

Prabhakaran was arrested over his role in the scandal that reportedly took place between 2004 and 2012.

In November 2017, Vaishnaw and Prabhakaran came together to incorporate a firm for manufacturing pellets from iron ore dust in the mineral rich district of Keonjhar in northern Odisha. Vaishnaw served as a director in this firm, Thriveni Pellets Private Limited, until June 2019.

In February 2018, Vaishnaw became a director of another iron pellet-manufacturing company, Brahmani River Pellets Limited, along with Prabhakaran. Billionaire businessman, Sajjan Jindal, who has several business interests in Odisha, including the controversial integrated steel-manufacturing unit in Dhinkia area of Jagatsinghpur, would also join Vaishnaw and Prabhakaran as one of the directors of this company in February 2018. Vaishnaw would continue being associated with this company as its managing director till three days before he was named as a Cabinet minister by Modi in July 2021.

“Prabhakaran is a wily businessman from Chennai whose family has roots in Sri Lanka. He operates between Chennai, Delhi and Bhubaneswar. It is believed that Prabhakaran firmly supports Naveen Patnaik’s government in Odisha because of his mining interests. He is known to be close to Naveen Patnaik, Amit Shah and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa,” said the former Lok Sabha MP from Odisha quoted earlier. Former IPS officer Amitabh Das said: “I believe Vaishnaw is close to businessman Gautam Adani who, in turn, is perceived to be close to the Prime Minister.”

Political Connections

Vaishnaw was quoted by the Hindustan Times saying: “I feel let down when people target my integrity. I have lived a transparent life. I never had a fascination for politics. I was indeed surprised when the offer to contest came. But once elected as an MP, I will do that with full public spirit.”

On his relations with Thriveni River Pellets, he added: “My goal was to create an enterprise that can sustain 1,500 families. In the Kalinga Nagar plant, we are giving subsidised food even to our contractual employees. I was happy achieving my target and working towards a goal of sustaining 5,000 families till the offer of a Rajya Sabha MP came.”

A former MP alleged one of the companies in which Vaishnaw had an interest had successfully bid for a mining block in Jharkhand but chose to give it up in favour of a Gujarat-based businessman who allegedly has close links with Home Minister Amit Shah. “That was how Vaishnaw won Shah’s trust,” the former MP alleged, without disclosing details. The authors of this article have not been able to verify this independently. Vaishnaw’s response on this issue too is awaited.

The former MP also harped upon Prabhakaran’s alleged links with Naveen Patnaik’s Man Friday, V Karthikeyan Pandian, an IAS officer who holds considerable clout in the BJD government in Odisha.

Controversy Over Land Ownership

One controversy that is out in the open and has evidently dogged Vaishnaw during his career as a bureaucrat in Odisha relates to the allotment of a 2,400 square metre plot of land in a rapidly developing area of Bhubaneswar. Vaishnaw was one of the beneficiaries of the plot which he had purchased in 2003 through a “discretionary quota scheme” launched by the Odisha government. He continues to be the owner of the plot of land as per his affidavit filed with the Election Commission of India.

An inquiry had been initiated into the allegedly discretionary land allotment scam by the Odisha government through Taradatt (he uses one name), the then Additional Chief Secretary, Revenue & Disaster Management Department. Subsequently, the allotments were cancelled by the state government in December 2014.

In this case, a first information report (FIR) was lodged by the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Vigilance, Vigilance Cell Unit Office, Bhubaneswar, before the Superintendent of Police, Vigilance, Bhubaneswar Division, alleging that on the basis of a preliminary enquiry it was found that certain public servants occupying crucial positions in the Bhubaneswar Development Authority (BDA) and in the Housing and Urban Development Department, Government of Odisha had “surreptitiously” distributed prime plots in Commercial Complex District Centre, Chandrasekharpur, Bhubaneswar.

Our questions on this controversial land allotment that were emailed to Vaishnaw had not been responded to at the time of publication.

Vaishnaw’s Family on Boards of Firms

Vaishnaw’s family members, including his wife Sunita Vaishnav, his son Rahul Vaishnav and his daughter Tanya Vaishnav continue to be on the boards of directors of the companies he was associated with after he resigned his positions in these firms before he was inducted into the Union Cabinet in July 2021. Two of these firms – 3T Industrial Solutions Private Limited and Adler Industrial Services Private Limited – are in Gurugram, Haryana, in the National Capital Region.

Pegasus Spyware on Mobile Phones of Vaishnaw and Wife

The Modi government was rocked by the alleged Pegasus scandal in July 2021 soon after Vaishnaw took charge of the Ministries of Communication, and Electronics & Information Technology along with the Ministry of Railways. Allegations that the Israeli spyware was misused to compromise the mobile phone data of several political opponents, journalists critical of the Modi government and others were made in a series of articles published in the Wire portal, as part of an international investigation.

On July 21, 2021, Vaishnaw, as head of the Ministries of Communication and Electronics & Information Technology, laid a statement in the Lok Sabha questioning the veracity of the reports that were published by the Wire. In a surprising turn, a few hours later, the website wrote that the newly appointed minister Vaishnaw and his wife Sunita were among those whose phones had allegedly been infected by the Pegasus spyware.

The Wire report stated: “He appears to have been targeted for possible surveillance back in 2017, when he had not yet taken the plunge in favour of the BJP. Another number, apparently listed in the name of his wife, also appears to have been selected.”

Subsequently, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court in the Pegasus controversy by certain individuals (including one of the authors of this article) whose mobile phone data were allegedly compromised by using the spyware.

A three-member expert panel was constituted by the Supreme Court to examine the allegations of snooping of mobile phones using the spyware. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said that the central government did “not cooperate” in the investigation. Vaishnaw did not depose before the expert panel. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court.

This article will be updated as and when Minister Vaishnaw responds to the detailed questionnaire we emailed him on June 7.

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