Debating India

I rescued Railways: Lalu

Thursday 28 December 2006, by BHARDWAJ*P.K.

Harvard, Wharton management students grill `Guruji’

NEW DELHI: The encounter began on a chirpy note at the Rail Auditorium here on Wednesday. Attired in a fawn-coloured sweater and in his trademark white kurta-pyjama, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad spoke at length to international students on the turnaround in the Railways from the verge of bankruptcy - a managerial dexterity that earned him handsome praise from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Lalu Prasad greets a Pakistani student, Asim, of the Harvard and Wharton Business School in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Addressing in Hindi in his customary style and claiming credit for the feat, Mr. Prasad said he had broken the ``Western Model" myth that an enterprise which proved a `liability’ should be privatised and its employees given the golden handshake.

But the students from various countries including an Indian Kunal Singh, with vermillion in the forehead and garlands round the neck, grilled him on the very sustainability of his model. The Indian at Harvard told correspondents later: "We asked him if his model was sustainable. What will happen when he exits as Railway Minister?"

The difficult one came when Mr. Singh asked Mr. Prasad why he could not achieve the turnaround in Bihar during the 15-year Rashtriya Janata Dal rule, considering the transformation of the Railways within 30 months.

Mr Prasad said Bihar needed an outside push. "It had too many problems, while the Railways had a lot of potential. It is like an empire."

The Minister, in his hour-long lecture which was translated, referred to the students as achcha bachcha log (good kids) and exhorted them to be honest and hard working.

"I told the cream of society [the students] that I did not follow what the think tanks and experts say in the West about loss-making ventures," he said to reporters after the closed-door session. The media were kept out as the students wanted to maintain the sanctity of a classroom.

The Minister said he had put a "skeletal framework" in place to transform the Railways, and it would not be difficult for anyone to emulate the model. However, one of the few students who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said, "I wish he hadn’t taken all credit for the success. I wish he’d given some credit to the Railway Board."

If his recent interaction with students from the Indian Institutes of Management in Ahmedabad and Bangalore was a success, the ease seen on that occasion was missing in the Minister’s encounter with students from the elite Harvard and Wharton Business Schools of the U.S.

The queries from the 100-odd students from the world’s best-known business institutions made the difference. They were unsparing in putting difficult questions to Mr. Prasad, who introduced himself as `Guruji.’

See online : The Hindu

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