He's in Charge of More Than a Million Jobs. Can He Handle It?

He's in Charge of More Than a Million Jobs. Can He Handle It?

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this is one of the largest employers in the world.

By Sanjena Sathian

When I finally meet one of India’s most beloved politicians, I find he’s not what I expected. This guy, lovingly selected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is respected by moderates and right-wingers and not despised by liberals. The 63-year-old is known for efficiency and being surprisingly with the times, displaying a Cory Booker–esque appeal with his social-media acumen. In his dimly lit office, reminiscent of the DMV, he claims, “We shunned all the populism.” But he seems, publicly, a man of the people.

He is not, however, a man of the press. 

Distracted and slightly hard of hearing, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu seems irked about our interview. A top aide confirms he’s not very keen on the media — even though he met his wife when she interviewed him as a reporter, she tells me over email. If I chalk his demeanor up to the workload of a politician who’d rather make policy than schmooze, and ignore his gaze trained on the televisions behind me, I can give his successes some nods. Prabhu is a longtime politico admired by the business community, with a record of dealing efficiently with the environment, toilets, water shortages, heavy industry, energy and more. He’s been elected to parliament six times (four times to the lower house; twice to the upper) and served as cabinet minister nine — yes, nine — times. He’s a wonk too, currently pursuing two Ph.D. programs.

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A train departs from a station on the outskirts of New Delhi.

Source Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Overseeing India’s railways is more important than it sounds. The train system here is one of the most expansive in the world, older than China’s or Japan’s. It was worth $22 billion in revenue in the 2014–2015 fiscal year, according to government figures. And Prabhu is essentially a CEO overseeing one of the top ten largest employers on the planet — up there with McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. With former senior McKinsey partner Hanish Yadav at his side, he’s tackling things like a private-sector shark.

Prabhu, with a populist flair, has made a gleaming reputation replying asap. He calls in the troops and blasts his superhero tactics to 1.1 million followers.

One focus, Yadav tells me, is finding alternate sources of funding to make up for limited government — which has meant planning first-class trains for those who’d pay more, for instance. And it means showing off efficiency — Yadav shares data demonstrating that project approvals that once took over two years to complete now happen in six months. Prabhu must also work with India’s polyglot hodgepodge of states; he’s so far built partnerships regionally sans nepotism, says Anand Sharma, former chair professor of railway finance at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Anant Swarup, one of Prabhu’s top aides, who’s worked in the ministry for 22 years, calls him a “clean minister; there’s no hanky-panky.” Proof? He cites the budgets, normally stacked with earmarks favoring a minister’s home state: “Looking at these budgets, you can’t tell where he’s from.”

Then there’s customer service, which anyone dealing with an Indian company can tell you is normally disastrous. Passengers can SMS a number to request cleanup at their seat or a toilet. And Prabhu himself, with a populist flair, has made a gleaming reputation on replying asap to ladies who are, say, getting harassed on a train, or boys who haven’t received their ordered food. In a flourish, he calls in the troops and Tweets his superhero tactics to 1.1 million followers.

Across his many lives, he’s whipped up controversy. His 2016 budget drew criticism from the leftist Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) for prioritizing middle-class passengers. Plus, he inherited a backward ministry, technologically and financially, bemoans railway expert G. Raghuram, professor at Indian Institutes of Management, Ahmedabad. Raghuram references the tension between catering to passengers — who contributed under a third of the revenue last year, according to the budget — and the freight cargo. Public reputation depends on services, while freight makes money. “They keep pricing themselves out,” Raghuram adds.

Before politics, Prabhu was an accountant. The son of a businessman, he grew up in the Mumbai suburb of Khar and, he claims, was “not a good student.” He seems bewildered by my interest in his personal life, as though he’s never been asked these questions by anyone, let alone a reporter. I nudge and learn that he used to, fittingly, cram for exams on the train into town, copping notes from a friend. He passed the tests; the friend failed. He managed and planned to head to the U.S. for an MBA when his accounting practice took off. Which adds to a narrative matching his party’s message — India doesn’t need the West to succeed. It can do it on its own!

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A view of India’s first semi-high-speed train, Gatimaan Express.

Source Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Prabhu’s first stint in office lasted just 13 days. He was tapped by Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee, a member of Modi’s party with an affinity for penning nationalist poems who failed to mount a majority. The government ended in a fortnight. But those weeks pushed Prabhu, then a member of the Maharashtran pride party Shiv Sena (often accused of anti-Muslim sentiment), into the national spotlight. Then came the slew of cabinet appointments: environment and forests, chemicals and fertilizers, power, etc. It’s been reported that Prabhu bickered with Sena colleagues, in part because he favored his time in Delhi over local meetings. Yadav writes OZY that Prabhu had a “difference of opinion” with the party during that time, which led to leadership requesting he step down. Months after Modi’s election, he made his egress from the Sainiks, joining the BJP ranks.

But it’s not India’s social identities motivating Prabhu. He dashes out of our meeting into the Parliament session, where he’s hoping a certain vote will come up. One never knows in Indian politics; debates make Mr. Smith’s American filibuster seem flimsy. The presiding officer is being chided by a Parliament member for calling someone a wrong name; someone else demands the proceedings take place in English rather than Hindi; the discourse descends into hysteria. Prabhu smirks, sitting near the back, apart from everyone else. The babbling goes on. He stands up. Nothing’s happening here. He bolts in a flash.