All his professional life, Elattuvapil Sreedharan was seen as apolitical, a quality that made him acceptable to various parties and political leaders. So it is a surprise that he is entering politics at the age of 88 as a member of the BJP.
Those who expected him to use his stature to shore up the constitutional value of brotherhood among citizens that is under attack will be disappointed that he has chosen as his platform a party with illiberal tendencies and a divisive social agenda.
But a long-term associate from Bihar, who does not wish to be named and risk souring his relationship, said Sreedharan was an “RSS boy,” and the childhood affinity has likely stayed with him. This friend says he too grew up in the RSS but shed his Muslim hate “legacy” after befriending people from that community.
From his interview to NDTV, it is hard to discern whether Sreedharan nurses latent anti-Muslim feelings. His comments on ‘love jihad’ do not clarify whether he sees it as a secular act of male guile or a propensity that uniquely afflicts Muslim males. “Love Jihad, yes, I see what’s happened in Kerala. How Hindus are being tricked in a marriage and how they suffer… not only Hindus, Muslim, the Christian girls are being tricked in marriage. Now that sort of thing I certainly will oppose,” Sreedharan said.
Playing on a sobriquet that Sreedharan earned on account of his stewardship of the Delhi Metro, former ambassador KC Singh tweeted: “Peel a layer & Metro-Man turn(s) out to be a Retro-Man.”
“Sreedharan has proved that age is just a number,” says Ved Mani Tiwari. Having interacted with Sreedharan as general manager of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, as full-time director in the Indian Railways and as Director (Systems) in Kochi Metro Rail, Tiwari says Sreedharan’s “actions are driven by the (Bhagwat) Gita” and he brings “nobility” to whatever he does.
Tiwari has had professional disagreements at Kochi Metro with Sreedharan, especially over the choice of trains (Korea’s Rotem or the French Alstom), but that has not diminished his admiration for the man’s “pace of execution,” and aspiration to be world-class in whatever he does.
Bharat Salhotra says Sreedharan follows a “strict regimen,” is a “disciplinarian” and a “great practitioner of yoga,” which can indeed make 88 just another number. As executive assistant to the financial adviser in the late 1980s, Salhotra used to be with Sreedharan in meetings when the latter was general manager, Western Railways.
Salhotra’s association with Sreedharan continued between 2013 and 2019 when he was managing director (India-South Asia) for Alstom and supplied signalling equipment and rolling stock to the Kochi Metro. For Salhotra, Sreedharan is a “saintly man” with superlative project execution skills. These include “empathy” for contractors and suppliers: ensuring that they got paid on time so that projects were not held up for want of working capital.
It is true that Sreedharan brought a new culture to project execution. He ensured that the construction of the Delhi Metro was minimally invasive and did not needlessly inconvenience the public. It had a good safety record despite incidents like a pillar collapse in 2009 near Lady Shriram College due to a design fault in which eight people died. The tyres of lorries that left the work sites were washed so that roads were not caked in mud. There was not a whiff of scandal. Even after 20 years of operation it is very well maintained.
Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit gave Sreedharan a carte blanche because of which Delhi Metro had little difficulty in acquiring land or obtaining clearances — a bane of most infrastructure projects in India. Before that, in 1980, Railway Minister George Fernandes gave him the responsibility of executing the 740-km Konkan Railway between Roha and Mangalore. He was put in charge just as he was on the verge of retirement as a member of the Railway Board. Unlike the Indian Railways, which are a by-word for delays, Sreedhan executed the engineering feat despite tough opposition from environmentalists in less than five years.
But Delhi’s Airport Express Line has dented Sreedharan image as a financial manager. Anil Ambani’s group won the concession but it was not a draw with airline passengers. The group terminated the contract citing flaws in construction. A ₹5,000 crore arbitration award went in favour of the concessionaire, attributed by some commentators to a flawed agreement that, according to them, enabled inflated costs and claims. But in 2019, the Delhi High Court set the award aside.
Sreedharan has dreams of being Kerala’s Chief Minister though the BJP has only one seat in the 140-seat assembly. He thinks of himself as a deliverer. But politics requires a different set of attributes. At Konkan and Delhi Metros Sreedharan was looked up to. He is unlikely to be indulged in politics.
The example of retired army general B C Khanduri is salutary. He won applause for his execution of the Golden Quadrilateral highway project as road transport minister under Vajpayee. In 2007, he was made Chief Minister of Uttarakhand but got caught in caste-faction fights. His tough no-nonsense approach did not help. Under his watch, the BJP lost the 2012 assembly elections badly. Sreedharan might end up sullying his image.
(The writer is a journalist and blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)