In a move that threatens to upturn George Bernard Shaw’s quip “politics is the last resort for the scoundrel”, revered technocrat Padma Vibhushan E Sreedharan entered politics, throwing his weight behind the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He will contest the forthcoming assembly elections from Kerala’s Palakkad constituency as a BJP candidate. Palakkad is the largest among the state’s 14 districts and also known as the rice bowl of Kerala.
Whether the party chose him or he chose the party is not clear, but Sreedharan has since publicly acknowledged “I’ve always been a BJP sympathiser for long which became even more pronounced since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014“.
A bit of irony here. At 88, Sreedharan is well above PM Narendra Modi’s stated upper limit of 75 years for a party position. Sreedharan’s mature years also diminishes his own initial pitch as BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in the (unlikely) event of BJP coming to power in Kerala. Even so, the Metroman’s entry into politics comes across as a timely coincidence of wants.
The BJP has never been able to make serious inroads into the southern state of Kerala, where a duopoly alternating between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Party (LDF) has held power for decades. Alongwith West Bengal, Kerala is one of the last few Left bastions in India. The state, marketed as ‘God’s Own Country’, has been living on the drip-feed of communism since the time i remember. My father (like many others of his time) left the state as a young 20-year old, not out of choice but due to the abject lack of employment opportunities. In the 40+ years he spent in Bombay raising a family, both parties back home failed to turn around the fortunes of the state.
Change has been incremental in Kerala. Labour costs kept soaring; political slugfests and trade unionism is rampant. Successive governments kept doling out goodies, engaging the semi-skilled and unskilled with low-yield employment. Take the MNREGA scheme, for instance. During a recent visit, I was delighted to see an army of workers clearing bushes to create what looked like step-cultivation along the shoulders of Kottayi-Peringottukurissi road only to see all the plantation disappear during another visit a month later. “How does it matter if it provides meaningful employment and food on the table for the poor”, one may argue. “All that one needs to do to understand the pathetic condition of the Kerala model of governance is to just drive on our roads or visit an office for the documentation required to start a new business venture”, Sreedharan tweeted 23 March.
He should know. Road Builders Malaysia (RBM), one of the first global investors to bid for big infrastructure projects in Kerala — the Palakkad-Kulapully road project — had to run from pillar to post against monumental government apathy to get encumbrance-free land and stage payments for work completed. Then LDF government abruptly terminated the flawlessly-executed project in Dec 2006 while miles of pothole-ridden highways continue to plague the state even today. Another relic from the past — the crumbling Palakkad KSRTC bus terminus — stands as an abominable example of state apathy and self-serving unions failing to improve either themselves or the state. In 2006, another Malaysian company PATI-BEL had its contract terminated after 60% of work on the 128-km project connecting Muvattupuzha, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram was completed. PATI-BEL’s Chief Project Manager Lee See Ben died of suicide soon after. Non-payment of dues amounting to about INR 13 Crores by the state government was cited as one of the reasons.
The state boasts of highest literacy rate, with a high density of population, but most of its educated and enterprising youth migrate to distant shores. The ‘Kerala model’, with high human development but low per-capita income, and its breakthroughs in education and healthcare, though laudable, has failed to attract large investors. Peace and calm on the surface is often broken by violent, bloody clashes — usually between the BJP and CPI(M) cadres in the northern regions bordering Karnataka. Kerala residents and small traders have grown used to frequent calls for ‘samaram‘ (‘hartal‘, strike or ‘bandh‘). The cost of doing business depends on your allegiance to unions; no LDF or UDF has either surmounted or eschewed the ‘hartal’ culture’. Here is a state where head load workers used to demand ‘nokku kooli‘ — gawking wages for watching over people loading or unloading cargo. It is a condemned practice that despite being banned continues to flourish. I once had to do a ‘zero-dark-thirty’ just to move my aged parents’ household belongings from one place to another within Palakkad. Young students from a nearby polytechnic, harnessed by a local entrepreneur, executed the task between midnight and 4AM with typical Keralite precision, away from prying eyes of the ‘union’. Every resident Keralite will recall similar stories with regret. Non-resident Keralites will continue to romanticize.
It doesn’t end there. Daunting odds, policies and practices that keep industries and big businesses out of Kerala has driven hordes from this state to Arabian shores, giving rise to a cottage industry of ‘gulf migration’ — seen as the ultimate panacea. This situation is beautifully picturised in the 1987 Malayalam satirical movie ‘Nadodikattu’ (written by Sreenivasan, directed by Sathyan Anthikad). Starring Mohanlal and Sreenivasan, the comic plot builds around the unemployed duo — one of whom (Mohanlal) pleads repeatedly that he is ‘BCom first class’ at every opportunity — handing over all their money to a con man “Gaffoorka” (a brilliant cameo by actor Mamukkoya). They fall for Gaffoorka’s fictional scheme that a California-bound dhow will route via Dubai to drop them off to Arabian dreams and dinar showers. Soon, they take the ‘plunge’ only to surface overnight in white Arabian robes and headgear on the pristine Marina Beach of Madras (Chennai) while Gaffoorka disappears with their money!
Millions of Keralites may well have benefitted from legitimate Gulf voyages, but today a different scene obtains in rural Kerala. Thanks to the pandemic, downturn in oil and job losses, lakhs have again washed-up ashore from the Middle East. The LDF that led the fight against Covid in the opening months of 2020 today faces a double whammy of ‘welfare state’ policies versus creating meaningful, long-term employment for the returnees, some of whom are used to high-quality work and foreign currency. Pinarayi Vijayan is walking a precarious balancing act. His iron-fisted ruling technique with complete centralisation of decision-making may well earn him an epithet of “Penury Vijayan” if the economy and Covid management is not put back on track quickly. It is a ‘all hands on deck’ situation, but the disciplined, literate Malayali goes along with the belief that the government will never let them sleep on an empty stomach. That hope (& admin mechanisms) has seen the state weather many storms without help from big industries, businessmen or philanthropy. But this stupor has also stemmed economic growth in real terms. Is an economic model running on expatriated money sustainable? Is ‘high human development with low per-capita income’ the best model for development of Kerala? These are moot questions Metroman Sreedharan must address with his punctilious ‘reverse clock’ project management technique.
Sreedharan is a revered Padma Vibhushan awardee, ace technocrat and a man of impeccable integrity. The ‘Metroman’ was instrumental in executing complex technological marvels cutting across the geographical and socio-political landscape of India. Beginning his career with the Indian Railways, Sreedharan has left lasting impressions on every department or office he attended. As a young executive engineer with the railways back in 1964, he restored the Pamban Bridge (connecting the island of Rameshwaram with Mandapam town in mainland Tamil Nadu) after it was washed away in a Tsunami, in a record 46 days as against the railways’ own estimation of six months. Handpicked by then railway minister George Fernandes a day after he retired from Indian Railways, Sreedharan set up a special-purpose vehicle Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRCL) for an audacious project that many said would never see the light of day. KRCL bored tunnels and laid railway tracks across three Indian states through unimaginably difficult terrain in record time of seven years — bringing down travel between Mumbai and Kerala by almost 650 kms.
Following KRCL’s stupendous engineering & financial success, Sreedharan was handpicked for projects that would have meandered in the bylanes of bureaucracy if not for his leadership. He went on to complete another mega infrastructure project, the Delhi Metro, through another SPV — Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). Kolkata was the first city in India to get its own metro in early 1960s, but at such a cost and time overrun that the term metro became anathema. As against 22 years for a 11-km long Kolkata metro executed by Indian Railways, Sreedharan-led DMRC built over 180 kilometers of Delhi metro in less than 12 years. DMRC delivered the last line (Line 6) of Delhi metro as Delhi woke up to a shambolic, corruption-ridden Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Sreedharan holds a high opinion about then Chief Minister of Delhi, late Sheila Dikshit from Congress for her quick decision-making and CEO-like leadership.
Today, travel in Delhi is well-nigh unimaginable without the labyrinthine network of Delhi Metro. The resounding success of Metroman Shreedharan’s clockwork precision, civil engineering acumen, administrative heft and attention to detail drew him into the fickle embrace of Kerala leaders like Oomen Chandy (UDF) and Pinarayi Vijayan (LDF) for infrastructure projects in his home state. A significant detail of Metroman’s resounding success with Delhi Metro was the high degree of autonomy and authority enjoyed by him under Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Sreedharan works best in that mode — a fact that admittedly figured in his fallout with both UDF & LDF leaders of Kerala who in his opinion were either seized with decision paralysis or micro-management.
As I write this, Metroman E Sreedharan is 88 years and 82 tweets old. His verified Twitter account that opened in Mar 2021 has quickly garnered over 30,000 followers. His Mar 28 bio reads “Engineer by profession. Padma Vibhushan and Padma Shri awardee. BJP candidate, Palakkad Assembly constituency.” In many of his tweets, he raises the lack of development and big industry in Kerala and promises to use his experience and associations to change that.
It’s a tough ask. Sreedharan will compete with two-time Congress MLA Shafi Parambil, less than half his age, with a formidable following in Palakkad. Winning Palakkad constituency may not change the political landscape of Kerala. Sreedharan’s clarion call for development and better economic opportunities will be pitted against deep-rooted leftist leanings of the state. Profligacy of right wing politics by itself may not lift the state’s fortunes. Keralites are slow but diligent in selecting their heroes. Even wordsmith and three-time Congress MP Shashi Tharoor hasn’t made a huge dent in Kerala politics yet. But karmayogi Metroman Shreedharan brings a different, more relatable skill-set to the table.
At a time when other younger office-holders of BJP are tripping over holy cows and ripped jeans, E Sreedharan at 88 has hit the campaign trail even as the mercury in Palakkad blazes north. That must surely provide some motivation for Palakkad and the state at large. Even if he doesn’t belong to a party they like.
An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint as an op-ed. You can access it here.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Dr. E Sreedharan’s Twitter account.