The fact that Railway Minister
Dinesh Trivedi survived for more than 24 hours after Mamata
Banerjee sent a "communication" to the prime minister saying 'off
with his head' - like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland -
suggested that the Congress had finally decided that it could not
succumb to her pressure tactics without some show of resistance.
Having been pushed around by the mercurial West Bengal chief
minister on issues as wide-ranging as fuel price hikes, the Teesta
waters treaty, foreign investment in the retail sector and the
National Counter-Terrorism Centre, the central government has
apparently come to the conclusion that an immediate acceptance of
her peremptory demand will be hugely damaging to its already low
Although the Congress simply could not brush aside an ally with 19
MPs, the slight display of spine showed that it had realized the
mistakes it made in the name of coalition dharma, of which the
most egregious example was giving Andimuthu Raja a free rein as
telecom minister. In the game of bluff between the first party and
others in a coalition, the first party now has its nose marginally
What is more, in standing by Trivedi's forward-looking budget,
which had earned the prime minister's praise for raising the fares
after nearly a decade, the government and the party have sent the
right signal - that their commitment to reforms remains firm.
It is not unlikely that the electoral reverses in Uttar Pradesh,
Punjab and Goa played a role in stiffening the government's
response to Mamata's serial obstinacy because of the realisation
that it cannot allow the impression of being a wimp to spread any
further. The belief that the Samajwadi Party (SP) will stand by
the centre and so will a weakened Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)
evidently helped the government to decide to call Mamata's bluff.
Ironically, it was the SP which bailed the government out on the
nuclear deal in 2008 after the Left withdrew its support. Now, it
is expected to stand by the government again when it is facing the
ire of the Left's inveterate enemy, Mamata.
For the latter too, the rebuff, which she probably did not expect
from a usually diffident centre, is a moment of truth. Accustomed
till now to having her way with a show of petulance, Mamata will
not find it easy to swallow the snub of Trivedi not being shown
the door immediately, not least because it will give considerable
satisfaction to the West Bengal Congress, which has been
repeatedly humiliated by Mamata. For an uncompromising street
fighter, who brought the Left down despite its huge majority, a
retreat tends to cut the ground from under the feet.
Mamata's discomfiture will be all the greater for two reasons. One
is that she had to backtrack in the face of defiance by a party
member - something unthinkable in a one-person outfit. She can
ignore the rebellious Trinamool Congress MP, Kabir Suman, but not
someone like Trivedi, who is well regarded. The other reason is
that she had to beat a retreat over her pet obsession with
populism which cocks a snook at fiscal discipline.
For instance, her latest diktat in West Bengal is against
penalising farmers for defaulting on bank loans. It means that she
does not care if the banks go bankrupt, just as she apparently
does not care if the railways go bankrupt, as Trivedi feared when
he said he cannot allow the railways to "go the Air India's way".
But, for Mamata, these customary economic preoccupations with
monetary prudence do not matter as long as she is able to peddle
her populist brand of politics with its focus on farmers, which
has made her rule out Special Economic Zones and a nuclear power
station in West Bengal.
Temperamental as she is, Mamata may have toyed with the idea of
withdrawing support to the Manmohan Singh government, but
refrained from taking the fateful step for two reasons. First, she
cannot be unaware of a slight dip in her popularity following her
callous references to at least two cases of rape and to a brutal
murder in which Trinamool Congress activists were allegedly
involved. Earlier, her indifference to a number of deaths of
children in government hospitals did not help her image.
Secondly, her promise to the Muslim community to set up hundreds
of madrassas rules out any immediate possibility of the Trinamool
Congress reviving its earlier alliance with the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP). As a result, she will have to remain in the Congress'
company both at the centre and in the state despite the fraught
relations between the two parties.
As for the government, a show of resolve, or a compromise with
Mamata which will enable Trivedi to leave with dignity, will
dispel fears of early elections because of the belief that the
government may be getting its act together. In any event, it is
clear that no party wants a mid-term poll, least of all the BJP,
for all of Venkaiah Naidu's bravado in the Rajya Sabha, for the
party will face huge difficulties in choosing a prime ministerial
Amulya Ganguli is a
political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org