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Lalu comes to IIM-A with new image
Sheela Bhatt in Ahmedabad
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September 18, 2006

Union Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad Yadav wants to do something that even Amitabh Bachchan cannot do: an image makeover.

Lalu wants to cleverly manipulate the perception of him outside his home turf of Bihar.

The master tactician of Indian politics is embarking on a difficult assignment, of changing his brand-image, in the middle of his political career, but more interesting to note is that, so far, he has been somewhat successful.

No, this is no Lalu Joke, the railway minister is dead serious. He wants the media and the political class to leave behind the administrative mess he created within Bihar during his 15 years of rule. Lalu's confidants are requesting the media to stop equating him with a buffoon and take a fresh look at the latest statistics from the railway ministry under his leadership.

His PR advisors want the media to acknowledge him as Lalu Yadav, Master of Business Administration.

The new venture, starring Lalu Yadav, has been scripted by himself and produced by his political ambition.

After losing power in Bihar and humiliated and humbled, Lalu doesn't want to remain outside the public domain.

To keep getting attention from the rest of India, Lalu is participating in an institution where even a few months ago his presence would have been considered most unlikely: the premier Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Today, at 2 pm, in a class-room in IIM-A, 16 students of the post-graduate programme in management for executives (PGPX) will present a PowerPoint debating Lalu Yadav's various management decisions in the railway ministry.

Lalu is 'material for case study' because Indian Railways, which defaulted in paying dividends worth Rs 1823 crore in 2001, is today profitable with its treasury boasting of a Rs 12,140 crore turnover.

IIM-A students have examined the issue of "turnaround" of a monstrously big organization like Indian Railways under Lalu's leadership on the basis of a 120-page long document prepared by IIM' professor G Raghuram, chairman of PGPX.

Professor Raghuram told, "Lalu Yadav has energized Indian Railways. His consistency of direction has played a role, yet at the same time he is staying away from interfering at the operational level of decision-making."

In Lalu's presence, Professor Raghuram and his students will debate if the turning around of a loss-making Indian Railways into an impressive success story is for real or hype.

Professor Raghuram, who has studied the functioning of Indian Railways thoroughly, believes, "The railways' turnaround is not hype because the net revenues have increased from Rs 5000 crore to Rs 8000 crore.

"By increasing 'axle-loading' of wagons and combining it with a market-oriented approach, Lalu has contributed in the success of Indian Railways."

According to a member of the core group in the top railway management, "Lalu Yadav has so far believed that people don't care for development as much as they do for emotions. His voters told us, Swarg nahin swar diya (Lalu gave them voice to them if not heaven). But now Lalu thinks it's time for him to change and take up developmental politics."

The railway top brass are talking about how Lalu is shaping his leadership with a human touch. Recently, Lalu was presiding over the farewell function of a retiring senior railway employee, and found the officer a little depressed. He asked him why, and the employee said since he married a little late in life his financial responsibilities towards his family are not yet over and after his retirement there would be no income.

Lalu on the spot asked the chief of Railway Board J P Batra to give a job to the retiring employee's elder son. Needless to say, the event turned emotional and Lalu gained.

His senior officers claim that Lalu has for the first time changed the approach and mechanism of supervision of the regions by the head office.

Indian Railways is divided into 16 zones, each headed by a general manager. The 16 zonal headquarters have 67 divisions headed by a Division Regional Manager. In addition, it has nine production units.

Previously, railway ministers were close to the Board which is excessively powerful body. But Lalu is now making the head office closer to GMs and DRMs, thereby improving the supervision of GMs' performance, making them more responsible and accountable.

Another important factor is that Lalu Yadav's team is reclassifying the management of goods transport.

According to an IIM study, the railways have increased the freight volume but now the maximization of the use of wagons is making a huge difference to the bottom-line.

It may be difficult to believe, but Lalu as railway minister has changed wagon management entirely by reducing corruption with the help of new benchmarks in administration.

Since the last many years the goods wagons would carry a load of around 20 tonnes per pair of wheels. A wagon with, say, three pairs of wheels would thus be carrying 60 tonnes.

This gave scope to a multi-million rupee scam. Per wagon an excess of around 15 tonnes of unaccounted goods was being transported, and the money went to the dubious nexus of railway managers and private contractors. But Lalu took a decision to increase 'axle loading' (the permitted limit of weight carried by each wagon), which left no scope for excess goods.

In typical style, Lalu has popularized the delightful slogan to carry forward his message.

He says, "You have to milk the cow, otherwise she will become sick.

The railway wagons are giving profit but that's not enough, you have to maximize the use of wagons."

Lalu says railway wagons are like "a cow ready be milked."

Not only has he increased the permissible weight limit to 22.5 tonnes and bringing in more money, he has also forced more rounds of wagons every month. Previously unloading of goods at destinations was done only during office hours but now unloading is done round the clock. Previously each wagon used to travel four to five trips per month but now wagons make eight to 10 trips.

Also, Lalu has put more resources in geographical areas where more traffic and revenues are being generated.

However, Lalu cannot shed his political colours entirely.

He has ensured that his constituency Chapra in Bihar gets a big pie of the railways' development projects. A railway wheel factory and loco manufacturing projects are planned for Bihar.

Thus Lalu's road-show will not end at IIM-A. He has also been invited to lecture at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. A French think-tank wants to do 'research' on him, and Jeffrey R Immelt of GE and the Suzuki chief are seeking an audience with him.

Harvard University, reportedly, is planning a seminar in Delhi to hear Lalu's views on management and the economy.

And, his advisors tell the media that with the Congress not improving its grass-root infrastructure and the Bharatiya Janata Party facing an acute leadership crisis, who knows what would be the outcome of the next general election!

Who can rule out that Lalu Yadav, the great grass-root politician, has a lot of potential in the uncertain Indian political environment created by the weaknesses of the two major political parties?

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