Mamata Banerjee is hardly known for her ground-breaking work in the railway ministry. She doesn't attend Parliament, is absent from her office on most days and the country has seen some of the worst train accidents in her tenure.
Why then is she so assiduously clinging on to a chair in which she clearly has no interest? The answer, perhaps, lies in the bottomless depths of the railways' coffers and the ample publicity opportunities the ministry offers.
It seems Mamata has managed to turn the ministry into a personal publicity tool to help boost her image in West Bengal as she eyes the chief minister's chair.
So what does she do? She flags off new trains, inaugurates computerised ticketing centres and lays foundation stones of new railway projects.
In the process, she turns all such apparently innocuous events into a platform for political campaign for the next assembly elections in West Bengal, just a few months away.
It is at this point that railway ministry funds come in handy. She unabashedly commissions full-page colour display advertisements in the major English and regional language newspapers, courtesy the railway ministry, to publicise her dos.
All the commercials invariably show Mamata as a model minister for railways and are usually printed on weekends, when the minister is generally in Kolkata.
"What do people gain by knowing that the railway ministry is beginning to lay additional lines? The advertising funds should instead be used for developing amenities at stations," Ardhendu Choudhury, a West Bengal-based professor, said.
A scan of the past three months' major newspapers in Kolkata showed that the Eastern Railway and the South Eastern Railway, on an average, have been inserting two display colour advertisements every week to publicise Mamata's programmes.
This even led to allegations that the Eastern Railway and the South Eastern Railway - both headquartered in Kolkata - had turned into "an extension of (Mamata's) Trinamool".
Eastern Railway's general manager V.N. Tripathi and general manager of South Eastern Railway A.P. Mishra were not available for comment.
The advertised railway functions are always attended by Trinamool Congress leaders in full force. Be it party MPs, Union ministers, MLAs or councillors of civic bodies, all find time to attend "Didi's" function.
Interestingly, though, none of the state government representatives, ministers or chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, ever get an invite.
State PWD minister Kshiti Goswami was perhaps the only exception to this "rule". The Left Front leader was invited by the Eastern Railway to attend a flagging- off ceremony of three local trains on July 11 at the Dhakuria railway station in Kolkata.
However, Goswami refused to attend the programme as a sign of loyalty to his party.
"She (Mamata) is using the railway programmes for her electoral gains," Goswami said.
Echoing Goswami's feelings, state urban affairs minister Asok Bhattacharjee also complained that if Mamata did not rise above narrow regional politics, she would be paid back in her own coin.
Indeed, Mamata seems to be doing little to dispel this notion.
When she presented the Union railway budget this year, she snatched away huge funds from several states and allocated them to West Bengal instead.
Ten out of the total 24 proposed major projects were for her state.
On Tuesday, Left Front leaders bayed for Mamata's blood after the Sainthia train accident which killed 66 people.
Mamata had announced exgratia of Rs 5 lakh and jobs to the family members of those killed in the accident, Rs 1 lakh for the grievously injured and Rs 25,000 for those who sustained minor injuries.
To this, CPM leader Shyamal Chakraborty said: "Can monetary compensation bring back the lives of the people killed? She is trying to use the railway ministry for Trinamool Congress's electoral gains."
Courtesy: Mail Today