Indian Railways was in trouble: in 2001, a report by the BJP—a government dominated by the Brahmins who are Lalu’s permanent foes—predicted it would hemorrhage cash at a rate of $12 billion annually by 2015. (The whole budget of the Indian government, by comparison, is $128 billion.) Indian Railways was barely managing to cover its daily operating costs, to say nothing of paying for the new equipment and strengthening bridges. The report concluded: “It is very likely that Indian Railways would be a heavily-loss-making entity—in fact one well on the path toward bankruptcy, if it were not state owned.” Outsiders whispered the word “privatization” but were hushed: Indian Railways has been a source of national pride since before independence, and statist sentimentalists could never let it fail.
Lalu’s term as railways minister has been shockingly successful. Instead of turning India’s most prized national institution into a basketcase and a ruin, Lalu has led one of most spectacular economic turnarounds in a country bursting with economic miracles. Indian Railways began raking in cash and posting surpluses in the billions. And the intelligentsia and technocracy, at first shocked and dismayed that a shameless populist had seized a fragile and unwieldy national institution, have largely come around to acknowledging that India Railways has been transformed into a respected institution—and so, possibly, has Lalu.
I have always wondered how exactly Lalu turned around the Railways but somehow never bothered to look it up. Turns out Lalu was smart enough to appoint a shrewd businessman (who idolized Jack Welch) as his deputy and getting out of his way. That sounds pretty similar to what Michael Dell had to say about leadership- identifying good leaders and letting them lead.
This is a very well researched and authored article on the Indian Railway King by Graeme Wood.