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Every time they feel a Mamata migraine coming on, Congress leaders look back at UPA I with nostalgia. A hardboiled Communist leader like Prakash Karat was easier to handle than the mercurial chief of the Trinamool Congress. The remark, made with wry humour in a private conversation, came from one of the Congress party's chief political managers.
How do you solve a problem like Mamata Banerjee? As her star rises in West Bengal, the enfant terrible of UPA II couldn't care less about Delhi and its stuffy expectations. Mamata is on a roll and she's not about to be tamed, not by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, not even by Sonia Gandhi. Sitting in a room full of files in Delhi's Rail Bhavan is no match for the heady excitement of shrieking populist slogans to a mammoth crowd, like the one that filled Kolkata's Esplanade on July 21 for the Trinamool's annual martyr's day rally.
In the 14 months since UPA II assumed office, relations between the Congress and Mamata have grown increasingly fractious. Once indulged as the giant killer of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls for her stunning victories in Left-dominated Bengal, Mamata is now regarded with suspicion and irritation. She's the recalcitrant ally, unpredictable, untrustworthy and a law unto herself. Is she with the Congress or against the Congress? The party can't seem to decide as it grapples with the aggressive and demanding nature of Mamata's politics. Sheer pragmatism demands that they stay together because they are poised to make history when Bengal votes next year. Yet the Congress cannot shake off apprehensions that Mamata may be a cross too heavy to bear.
There are four main pressure points in the Congress-Mamata relationship. One is the growing gulf between the Manmohan Singh government's expectations from its railways minister and Mamata's perception of her role in the Union cabinet. The gap widened some more after the recent train accident at Sainthia, which fetched Mamata (and the government) damaging headlines about an "absentee" minister, 16 rail disasters in 14 months and 269 deaths.
The second is the clashes that occur with annoying regularity on policy issues. If the government managed to sneak in decisions to decontrol petrol prices and divest 10 percent of its stakes in two public sector undertakings, Hindustan Copper and Coal India, it was only because Mamata decided she could afford to make a magnanimous gesture to the Congress after she captured yet another CPI(M) citadel in the Kolkata municipal polls in June this year.
This third is her flirtation with suspected Naxalite sympathisers. She has clashed with home minister P Chidambaram on this dalliance several times and another one is looming on the horizon after her vow at the martyr's day rally to get the Union government to call off its anti-Naxal operations in Lalgarh.
The fourth, and perhaps the most worrying for the Congress, is the prospect of being devoured by Mamata in Bengal as she plots with single-minded determination to wipe out the CPI(M). The exodus from the Congress to the Trinamool is turning into a flood as assembly polls draw nearer with anxious Congress MLAs ready to negotiate any terms with Mamata to secure their political future in the next dispensation. Virtually every local leader of note is now with her. The Congress is left with just two, trade union leader Pradip Bhattacharya and state unit president Manas Bhunia. Perhaps the biggest blow was the exit of Mohua Moitra, handpicked by Rahul Gandhi to lead his aam aadmi ka sipahi team in the state.
The Congress is bracing itself for relations to reach a flashpoint when negotiations on seat sharing begin closer to the assembly elections. Mamata has made no bones about her ambition to lead a Trinamool only government in Bengal, not a coalition arrangement with the Congress, and has already stated that she will not concede more than 40-45 of Bengal's 294 assembly seats for the Congress to contest.
Party leaders are haunted by fears that the Congress in Bengal will go the way of Uttar Pradesh where the decline began after former prime minister Narasimha Rao sealed an asymmetrical pre-poll arrangement with the BSP for the 1996 assembly elections. The BSP contested 300 seats;the Congress fought just 100 and has remained on the margins of UP politics since. Mamata may prove to be a meaner negotiator than the BSP's Kanshi Ram and the Congress fully expects her to leverage her position in the Union cabinet to get the best bargain possible in Bengal. If the party gives in to Mamata, it will be a blow to Rahul Gandhi's plans for a nation-wide resurgence of the Congress. If it doesn't, the alliance could move perilously close to breaking point and give the CPI(M) an advantage.
Mamata's mercurial moods make it impossible to predict what's in store for the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress in the coming months. She blows hot and cold, leaving Congress managers with an annoying feeling of being bested by a mere woman. Mamata seems to revel in being stereotyped and her handlers in the Congress respond with typical patriarchal condescension.
Congress circles are full of anecdotes about Mamata's erratic behaviour. Like the time she rang up the cabinet secretary at midnight to demand the last-minute inclusion of 10 new projects for West Bengal in the railways budget papers to be approved by the Union cabinet in the morning. She was so insistent that the cabinet secretary gave in. But there was hell to pay at the cabinet meeting with finance minister Pranab Mukherjee ticking her off as if she were a naughty schoolgirl. She burst into tears and one of the ministers kindly offered her a handkerchief to wipe her face. But Mukherjee was unmoved. He told her sternly that he would allow her to announce the projects when she presented the railways budget in Parliament but he could not sanction money for any of them at gunpoint. All 10 projects remain Mamata's pipedream.
Unfortunately, Mamata lends herself to the kind of criticism coming her way as a non-performing railways minister. She barely spends a week every month in Delhi and although her aides shuttle between the capital and Kolkata with files, they only carry papers that need immediate attention. So while routine work has not suffered, there's very little strategic planning on burning issues like safety, upgradation of tracks and equipment, staff recruitment to fill the 95, 000-odd vacancies, expansion and raising resources through fare hikes. Senior officials complain that they hardly get to meet her for discussions because even if she is in office, she is preoccupied with political work.
Her list of demands for the Union government is endless. She wants the CPI(M) government in Kolkata dismissed. She wants the assembly polls advanced to November this year. She doesn't want Union ministers to entertain West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. She has refused to allow the government to pass the Land Acquisition Amendment Bill, thus holding up a slew of projects, including the prime minister's flagship Dedicated Freight Corridor. She wants the women's reservation bill amended to include a quota for women from backward castes and minority communities. And her latest salvo is a demand to call off the anti-Naxal operations in West Bengal.
For a reform-minded prime minister like Manmohan Singh, Mamata's nonchalant handling of her railways portfolio must be frustrating. It's been left to Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia to let off steam on the PM's behalf. He has written three letters to Mamata already expressing concern on various issues connected to her ministry. In one, he reminded her to pay more attention to safety upgradation measures and advised her to raise passenger fares to meet rising costs. In another, he rapped her for the delay in the Dedicated Freight Corridor project, which has pushed up costs from Rs 43, 000 crore to Rs 80, 000 crore. Mamata has not replied to any of Ahluwalia's missives.
But there may, after all, be a method to her seeming madness. Perhaps it needs a streetfighter like Mamata, with almost fanatical devotion to her cause to the exclusion of everything else, to batter the CPI(M)'s Bengal fortress. The Congress failed for 30 years. Mamata, on the other hand, seems poised to succeed. Unfortunately, the Manmohan Singh government may have to pay the price in terms of governance to help release years of pent up anger and frustration in Bengal.
OFF HER RAILS
Mamata Banerjee's over-the-top populist politics and her obsession with West Bengal often bring her into conflict with the demands of being a member of the Manmohan Singh government and a partner of the UPA. Some instances: While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described Naxalism as the biggest threat to internal security, Mamata Banerjee told a mammoth rally in Kolkata last week that she will put pressure on the Union government to call off anti-Naxal operations in Lalgarh The government is keen to pass the land acquisition amendment bill to facilitate the purchase of land for infrastructure, industrial and other projects. But Mamata has refused to even consider supporting the bill till the Bengal polls are over next year and almost walked out of a cabinet meeting to underline the point. The PM, through Planning Commission chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia, advised Mamata to hike passenger fares in this year's railways budget and close down non-profitable lines. Fares have not been raised for 10 years. Mamata turned a deaf ear on the plea that she has a social responsibility to the people of India. After supporting the women's reservation bill in the Union cabinet, Mamata suddenly changed her mind when the proposed legislation was introduced in the Rajya Sabha. She embarrassed the government by instructing her MPs to absent themselves from Parliament, prompting Sonia Gandhi to wonder aloud in a television interview about Mamata's volte face. She further embarrassed the government by inviting the main opponents of the bill, the Yadav trio, for lunch to make common cause with them. Mamata has consistently ignored reminders to get the flagship Dedicated Freight Corridor project rolling, resulting in a huge cost overrun. The estimated completed cost of the project is now Rs 80, 000 crore, almost double the original estimate of Rs 43, 000 crore. Mamata has declined to make Indian Railways pay service tax for two financial years, 2009-10 and 2010-11. Her excuse is lack of funds. The exasperated finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, tried hard to persuade her and even offered to take payment in installments. But Mamata stuck to her stand. Ultimately, Mukherjee was forced to waive the tax for last financial year but is still hopeful of getting her to pay up this year. Despite a phone call from Sonia Gandhi's political advisor Ahmed Patel requesting Mamata on his boss' behalf to attend the UPA premonsoon session coordination meeting, she flew to Bengal following the train disaster at Sainthia. That was understandable. What upset the Congress was her failure to send a representative, considering another missing ally, Sharad Pawar, was represented at the meeting by Praful Patel.
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