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Didi's dadagiri backfires
It must be evident to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, after the face-off over the recent petrol price hike, that the Manmohan Singh government no longer seems inclined to humour her. When she threatened to pull the plug unless the hike was rolled back, she fully expected the government to cave in to her demand. Instead, the centre turned inexplicably obdurate. First, the PM hinted at further deregulation of prices. Then, when Trinamool Congress MPs met him to press for a rollback, he silenced them with a 45-minute lecture on economics. Mamata was left with no option but to back down and push the withdrawal threat to another day. "One more hike and we will not stay with this government, " she told a Kolkata TV channel after the meeting with the PM.
The flip flop was typically Mamata. At the same time, it reflects her dilemma. The moment is not ripe to sever ties with the UPA. But there's increasingly less traction in staying with the ruling coalition. She was always a headache for the PM and his men. But today, Mamata doesn't even have the comfort of turning to Sonia Gandhi for help in dealing with the government. Sonia's ill health has shut that option and left Mamata to fend for herself. And the message was driven home recently when she sought and was denied an appointment with the Congress president. Ironically, the next day, DMK chief M Karunanidhi got an audience at 10 Janpath. It has unnerved Mamata and raised doubts about her importance as the largest alliance partner of the Congress.
Mamata is feeling the chill of a government in disarray. With the Congress beset by internal leadership problems, the UPA's political coherence is fraying. There is no clear-cut policy for dealing with state governments run by alliance partners. It has been left to individual ministers to do as they please. So, while rural development minister Jairam Ramesh is courting Mamata with a flourish because he wants to get his proposed Land Acquisition bill through, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has refused to cater to her demand for a special bail out package for West Bengal.
Mukherjee's argument is simple. There is no constitutional provision for state-specific economic packages unless the state declares a fiscal emergency and allows the centre to take over. On the other hand, since the 13th finance commission has recommended that the centre step in to help the country's three most cash-strapped states - Bengal, Kerala and Punjab - the finance ministry is ready to offer a financial package to help them tide over the crisis.
Unfortunately, the package will come with stringent riders for fiscal economy which includes measures like imposing additional taxes, reducing government expenditure, raising power tariffs, etc. These are anathema for a leader wedded to populist politics as Mamata is. In fact, Mamata has already clashed several times with Pranab on various issues. For instance, her government has still to present the year's budget in the state assembly. In the six months that it has been in power, it has run its finances on a vote-onaccount despite reminders from the finance ministry for a fiscal roadmap. Mukherjee also suggested that the state government raise power tariffs to meet part of her revenue shortfall. Mamata has refused. On the other hand, she reduced taxes on petrol to make it cheaper the last time the centre raised the prices of petroleum products.
For Mamata, it is imperative that she persuade the centre to dole out money. Local assembly elections are looming. They are due in January-February 2012. She hopes to ride a popularity wave backed by a generous financial package from Delhi to capture the zilla parishads that are still under Left control. It would complete her dominance of Bengal. Mukherjee's refusal to play ball to help her is a huge setback to her political ambitions.
Mamata has responded in the only way she knows. She went into a deep sulk and refused to communicate with Mukherjee. But there is obviously a streak of pragmatism running through her. Realising that she needs the centre's help, she reached out to Mukherjee in a most unusual manner. The West Bengal governor, MK Narayanan, invited Mukherjee to the Raj Bhavan for an ice-breaker chat with the chief minister. Even as her MPs were meeting the PM to press for a rollback of the petrol price hike, she was sitting with Mukherjee in the governor's residence, hoping to persuade the finance minister to open his purse strings.
From all accounts, that meeting, like the one her MPs had with the PM, did not yield much. Mukherjee refused to discuss specifics in front of the governor and left Kolkata without committing himself. Cold shouldered by both the PM and Mukherjee, Mamata gave vent to her annoyance on television later that evening and challenged the UPA to search for other alliance partners to replace her Trinamool Congress.
So, is Mamata preparing to pull the plug? Those who know her do not put it past her. Mamata has reacted emotionally in the past to withdraw from the Vajpayee-led NDA government after the Tehelka expose broke. But she has also paid a price for her whimsical decisions. She lost the state elections that followed after she pulled out of the Vajpayee government and was forced to trek back to the NDA to remain politically relevant.
Today, she realises that there are several out-ofwork parties like Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and the Left Front that would be willing to step in to prop up the Manmohan Singh government from outside, if only to avoid a mid-term general election. But that may not be reason enough for her to stay with the UPA, especially if the much-awaited 2012 UP polls prove unfavourable for the Congress.
HER TRACK RECORD
Amore calculated and less emotional politician than Mamata would use the political brahmastra - of withdrawing support - carefully. But Mamata has let her heart rule her head on at least two occasions in the past. The first was when she was sports minister in the Narasimha Rao government in 1991. She quit in a huff in 1993 after Rao declined to concede her demand to dismiss the Left Front government in West Bengal over the rape of a deaf and dumb girl by a CPM worker. Mamata had stormed Writer's Building in Kolkata, dragging the rape victim with her, and sat on dharna in front of then chief minister Jyoti Basu's office. She was bodily lifted by the police and thrown out. Enraged, she refused to return to Delhi until President's Rule was imposed in West Bengal. The war of nerves with Rao ended in Mamata resigning from the ministry, "to be with the oppressed people of Bengal".
In 2001, the Vajpayee government was at the receiving end. The issue this time was the Tehelka expose on the nexus between arms dealers and some members of the NDA government. The BJP went all out to persuade her not to walk out but an emotional Mamata dashed off a letter to the then PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee, saying she did not want to be a part of a corrupt government. Three years later, after losing the state assembly elections which she fought in alliance with the Congress, she rejoined the Vajpayee government as coal minister. Given her record, Mamata-baiters in the Congress fully expect her to make good her threat to withdraw support from the Manmohan Singh government sooner than later.
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