In the 20th year of economic reform, the UPA has checked a box it would wish it hadn’t. It has given reform its first martyr. That distinction (please note that the fact that I have chosen not to qualify this as an “unfortunate” distinction is very deliberate) would have been Dinesh Trivedi’s even if he hadn’t reminded us by invoking Shahid Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh was given a court trial and then hanged. Trivedi has had to go without being given any hearing by his judge-executioner. But for those who observe, analyse and chronicle the history of Indian reform, he is now a hero and a martyr. And a deserving — and likely — case for political resurrection, sooner than we, rattled by the ongoing maelstrom, would imagine.

His fate will also be a black mark on the CVs of the reformers of 1991 who continue to lead this government. There is no alibi in compulsions of coalition politics. The rail budget was not just Trivedi's budget, it was of the Government. And having “bitten the bullet”, the UPA should have collectively risen to defend a minister who only followed its agenda. So, why did it not do it in 2012, when some of the people in this Government are the very ones who put their heads on the line in 1991? Why does the UPA think its risks are higher today? Or, that it has more to lose, than even in 1991 when it was a minority government? Has the reformers’ will weakened? Has the economic success of these two heady decades made us lazy and smug? Or, most worrying of all, have we become cowardly?

What Dinesh Trivedi’s fate tells you is not about the Indian Railways, about how such a crucial — and once marvellous — element in our national infrastructure has been destroyed under serial populists. Or about the fate of one man who tried to pull it back, literally from its excreta-laden tracks, to some kind of dignity. It is about how his leaders in this government, or those leading this coalition, failed to even utter a word in his defence. It really is as if they tried this bit of reform by stealth, hiding behind poor Trivedi, and dumped him the moment they were caught out. Where would India be today, if Narasimha Rao, so reviled and disparaged by his own partymen in his post-power years, had dumped Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram when market-linked controversies erupted in their tenure?

The most pathetic thing now is the way the leaders of the UPA are running from the issue. As if it was entirely the TMC’s internal affair. Not being able to defend a cabinet colleague doing the right thing on the alibi of coalition compulsions is no different from overlooking the venality of another (namely one Mr Raja) on the same excuse. That act of cowardice is blighting your government now, and will continue to do so until the elections of 2014, if not earlier. And this new pusillanimity will similarly blight your economy, and haunt your conscience for even longer. Howsoever you may finesse this now, in terms of Trivedi’s foolhardiness in daring to poke his finger in his Supremo’s eye, the fact is, nobody senior from this government has shown the courage to defend a mildly reformist rail budget they had not just collectively passed, but demanded.

We should have all seen it coming. There was every signal that this political formulation was incapable — and even unwilling to pursue any more reform. We did not see this, either because of the reputation of these leaders, or because the momentum of the earlier reform years was still propelling us. But in nearly eight years so far, the UPA has completely changed the reformist mood to a dark, negative povertarian discourse of the seventies. Just what we thought we had left behind the day we elected Rajiv Gandhi, on a promise of computers, of his determination to not let India miss the second industrial revolution (read his speech to the US Congress on June 13, 1985) and the idea of a 21st century lit by lasers and more. It was his modernist instinct that changed the national discourse at the height of the licence-quota raj and paved the way for more dramatic changes later. His legatees — it would be a stretch to call UPA that — have now spent eight years putting the clock back. For eight years, nobody of consequence has gone out to sell, explain, or even defend the idea of the reform that is required. They talk vaguely of a grand platitude called second generation reforms. But nobody takes a step in that direction. You bring back the worst of the mai-baap Bharat sarkar theme in your politics, and you are guaranteed the return of the worst of the statist instincts of New Delhi’s Bhavans. If you have any doubts, check out the sectors of our economy being destroyed by disastrous government policies: power, civil aviation, mining and, going ahead, even pharmaceuticals. You still need more evidence, read the latest national budget. North Block is back, in full statist glory of yore even as South Block simmers with tensions with its own military brass of the kind we hadn’t seen since 1960-62. The truth is, you have to be much braver than in 1991 to reform now. Because this phase of reform cannot be carried out by stealth. You have to persuade your coalition partners, for sure. But before that, you have to build public opinion. You cannot talk sheer cynical populism for eight years, slip in some reform by subterfuge, and then blame your smaller allies for blocking hard decisions.

Dinesh Trivedi is merely a pawn. He got caught in this chaotic retreat from reform economics by the champions of 1991. He has blundered in taking them at their word and in relying on their reputations. He will be hailed as the first Indian who sacrificed his job for his commitment to reform so virtuous even his unions are backing it. He is a political lightweight for sure. I remember meeting him many years ago on a Kolkata-Delhi flight lovingly hand-carrying Mamata Banerjee’s “paintings” he had just bought (obviously out of total admiration for her creative talent!) from her exhibition. He was rewarded by her with high public office and she can take it away. But people will note that he is the first Union minister to be fired for doing something good, selfless and risky in a system where no minister ever loses his job either for stealing, or for being asleep on it. That is why I avoided the usual journalistic curse of qualifying his temporary political martyrdom as a “dubious” or “unfortunate” distinction.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief with The Indian Express