Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.FILE Photo | AFP

Vaishnaw, a minister for all seasons and reasons

He is playing tenor to Environment Minister Bhupinder Yadav’s bass, in charge of the Maharashtra assembly election orchestra.

As every Indian political traveller knows, the bullet train of success whizzes through the hallowed terminals of Harvard and Wharton. The whiz kid of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s transition from titled technocrat to multi-tiered mantri could be a case study for Ivy League business schools.

The 54-year-old bureaucrat-turned-politician’s mastery over political and administrative management has seen him retained as the 39th railway minister, the 35th information and broadcasting minister since independence, and the second minister of electronics and IT since 2016.

He is a two-term Rajya Sabha member from Odisha, representing the BJP since 2019. His transformation from a bureaucrat in a suit and a tie to a politician in a white cotton pyjama and a light-coloured kurta is a saga of enviable success in contemporary politics.

Delhi durbaris found their chins hitting the floor earlier this month when Modi made him railway and IT minister once again, because, except for the last decade of BJP dominance, the post of railway minister has mostly belonged to an ally in an NDA government since 1996. But Modi knows the importance of Vaishnaw. He is playing tenor to Environment Minister Bhupinder Yadav’s bass, in charge of the Maharashtra assembly election orchestra.

Vaishnaw is a paradox in popular politics since he is the only BJP Upper House MP who has been elected twice, not by his party but by the munificence of Naveen Patnaik of the BJD, which it recently trounced. He has the distinction of being the first newly-distilled politician who entered the Rajya Sabha after Modi and Amit Shah spoke to Patnaik on his behalf, first in June 2019 and then in 2024. Vaishnaw had worked in the state for less than a decade as an IAS officer, and his data collection role for the 1999 super cyclone was more than a storm in a teacup.

From 2003, he worked with Atal Bihari Vajpayee both in the PMO and after the former PM’s retirement. Modi sees the ministries of railways and IT as his best engines for Destination Viksit Bharat. And a media-shy Vaishnaw as information minister shall also faithfully disseminate an undiluted 'Modi Message' to the mass media in India and abroad. 

Vajpayee’s former infra expert has launched over 80 freshly-gleaming Vande Bharat trains covering more than 250 districts that had already ferried more than 2.15 crore passengers till March. Vaishnaw has successfully applied his business model to varnish the railways’ moribund image. Over 100 stations have been redeveloped and given modern facilities, such as fully furnished guest rooms. On Vaishnaw’s drawing board is the modernisation of about 1,300 railway stations out of the total of almost 7,400. Just a month before the elections were announced, Modi laid the foundation stone for the redevelopment of 553 railway stations on February 26.

Nevertheless, the rejuvenated opposition has charged the minister with ignoring passenger safety and organisational infirmities. Out of all the vacancies in railway jobs till March, over 1.7 lakh were safety-related. The number of rail accidents plummeted sharply during the past decade, but perversely, the fatalities rose just as sharply. India’s worst-ever triple train accident happened last year in Balasore, Odisha, killing 291 people. It’s a bizarre coincidence that Vaishnaw was once a collector at Balasore, too.

However, Vaishnaw’s mission is to fulfil Modi’s numerous ambitions, including the yet-to-be-completed Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. The ever-innovative PM feels that Indian Railways’ 23-million-plus daily passengers are a massive permanent vote bank in itself. Also, since the maximum use of technology for efficient governance is a favourite maxim of Modi’s, Vaishnaw is the blue-eyed boy to pull off a super-efficient ecosystem with proper regulatory mechanism to manifest Digital India. Vaishnaw is an integral part of Modi’s innovative governance model in which technocrats and professionals are playing an emphatic role in defining its contours and architecture. Induction of outsiders like Vaishnaw also signals the plummeting participation of politicians. 

For his peer group, Vaishnaw is perhaps the perfect symbol of an ideal babu—an efficacious entrepreneur and an anodyne politician. The 1994-batch IAS officer’s administrative acumen was first apparent when he handled the 1999 cyclone efficiently and restored normalcy in record time. It was during that time he came in touch with Ashok Saikia, a trusted joint secretary in Vajpayee’s PMO. Saikia’s task was disaster management. Impressed by Vaishnaw’s rehabilitation plans, Saikia brought him to the PMO as a deputy secretary in 2003. When BJP lost power in 2004, Vajpayee kept him on as his private secretary till 2006. During this period, the inscrutable mandarin developed an equation with Modi. Subsequently, Vaishnaw went to Wharton in 2008 for an MBA.

Soon after his return from the US, he took voluntary retirement from IAS and parachuted into India’s glittering corporate class, admittedly to repay his huge student loan. An engineer by education, an IITian by training and a management guru by practice, he surfed many turfs between 2010 and 2019. He worked for GE Transportation, and then as a head of the locomotives and urban infrastructure strategy department at Siemens. He earned managerial experience on the board of directors of Thriveni Earthmovers, one of India’s largest mine developers. He turned entrepreneur in 2012 by founding a couple of companies of his own. Most of them deal with steel and pallets, and operate out of Odisha in partnership with a famous southern entrepreneur. He reportedly started his auto components business from Gujarat and bought a house in Ahmedabad in September 2018, barely eight months before he became a Rajya Sabha member. Asked why he chose Gujarat, the suave politicopreneur quipped, “I went to Gujarat and built my units while living in a container for 7 months, as I wanted that factory to come up in record time.” His ministerial Lutyens’ residence aside, Vaishnaw’s real home is the container of Modinomics and Modipolitics.

The low-key Modi maven is known for talking less and working discreetly. Modi may consider Vaishnaw good at governance, but he is equally equipped to handle politics. Vaishnaw is one of the 25 BJP ministers in Modi’s cabinet, and 20th in the pecking order. Yet, he is Modi’s man of the moment to handle complicated political and financial issues.

Chosen by Amit Shah to handle the Madhya Pradesh state elections last year, Vaishnaw did not live in a container in Bhopal, although he did contain the Congress in the state. He lived in Bhopal for two months in a rented accommodation and managed BJP’s complicated booth management strategy. He is ubiquitous at all the BJP strategy meetings. Most importantly, he was one of the top rainmakers of the BJP before the Lok Sabha elections. Though Vaishnaw is not a core member of the original Sangh parivar, he is at the core of Modi’s political and administrative mega mission. In that matter alone, the multifaceted minister has a one-track mind with multitasking mastery.

Prabhu chawla

prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com

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