In the long history of Cabinet Government in India, perhaps only a handful of Ministers shall be remembered for having carried out programmes that radically reshaped the lives of their people. As Home Minister between 1947 and 1950, Vallabhbhai Patel integrated the princely states, thus altering the politics and geography of modern India. As Finance Minister between 1991 and 1996, Manmohan Singh dismantled the license-permit-quota-raj, thus altering the economy and society of modern India.

In this very short list also appears the name of Madhu Dandavate. When Dandavate passed away recently, the newspapers noted his stewardship of the Finance Ministry in the National Front Government of the late 1980s. That was a job he did honourably and well, but far more significant (though unmentioned by the obituarists) was his stewardship of the Railway Ministry in the Janata Government of the late 1970s. It was Dandavate who first introduced the computerisation of railway reservations, an innovation that greatly reduced corruption and made life less intolerable for commuters.

Dandavate’s second innovation was more far-reaching still. This was to put two inches of foam on what passed for ‘reserved sleeper berths’ in the second-class sections of trains. Many readers of this column know only these new berths; but many others would remember the bad old ones too. Before 1977 (the year Dandavate became Railway Minister), there was an enormous difference between the first-class, where the berths were padded, and the second-class, where they were made of hard and bare wood. If you were lucky enough to travel up front, you slept well; otherwise you woke up with a painful back and (were it winter) a cold in the head as well.

When introducing the change, Dandavate said that ‘what I want to do is not degrade the first class, but elevate the second class’. These were the words of a true socialist, whose socialism consisted not of hot rhetoric against the wealthy but of practical action to help the poor. In the two years that Dandavate was Railway Minister those two inches of foam were in place in the major trunk lines. Once the process was begun it could scarcely be stopped. By the end of the 1980s, all trains of the Indian Railways had these padded berths in their second-class compartments. By now the change has helped hundreds of millions of people. If a social history of the Indian Railways is ever written, it might be divided into two parts, these entitled ‘Life before Dandavate’ and ‘Life after Dandavate’.

Dandavate was a remarkable product of a remarkable political tradition. This was the socialist movement, from whose ranks came some of the most talented, and certainly the most honest, politicians of modern India. Many of the best socialists were from Maharashtra, as for example S. M. Joshi, N. G. Goray, and Dandavate’s own wife Pramila, a doughty and most effective fighter for women’s rights. Tragically, this is a tradition that is now on its last legs. Some of Dandavate’s old comrades predeceased him; others have thrown in their lot with the reactionary forces of the right. The last lamp still alight is that of Mrinal Gore, still working, serving the poor, in her native Mumbai.

The integrity of these old socialists was legendary; indeed, in this particular case I can testify to it myself. In February 1979, I was in Ahmedabad, visiting a friend at the National Institute of Design. I went to the railway station to buy my return ticket to Delhi; also in the queue, and a few places behind me, was my friend’s NID classmate, who happened to be the son of the Railway Minister. This was characteristic, not just of this particular family, but of their political tradition as a whole. The sons and daughters of the Maharashtra socialists never took advantage of their parents’ political position; and always followed a career different from theirs.

Twelve years after standing ahead of Uday Dandavate in a railway queue, I met his father for the first and last time. I was at the Delhi airport, waiting for my wife. Her flight was delayed; while I waited, a succession of politicians passed by. A General Election was around the corner, so naturally there was much high-powered traffic to the capital from the mofussil. I saw N. T. Rama Rao and N. D. Tewari come and go, each met by a set of grovelling minions. Then came Dandavate, who was met by no one. He had simply picked up his suitcase from the belt and walked out with it. I stopped him before he got into a bus, stammered some words of praise for his honesty, and wished him well for the elections.

The praise turned out to be a curse. For in those polls Dandavate lost his seat in Rajapur for the first time in twenty years. But by then he had done enough to earn a place of honour in the minds (and backs) of every Indian who had ever taken a second-class sleeper at any time or on any route after the year 1977. Add the numbers up, and one might just conclude that those two inches of foam have brought more succour to more people than any other initiative by an Indian politician.