Dangerous power play in
Delhi By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's ruling United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) is in serious trouble.
Differences between the Congress party, which
heads the alliance, and a key partner, the
Trinamool Congress, have exploded in an ugly and
public spat in recent weeks.
Trinamool founder-leader and West Bengal chief
minister Mamata Banerjee challenged the Congress
to walk out of the alliance in the state. While
the Trinamool heads the alliance in West Bengal,
it is the Congress' junior partner at the federal
level. Upping the ante further on Monday,
Trinamool leader Subrata Mukherjee described the
Congress as "shameless" and mocked
it for not leaving the
alliance in Bengal despite the "door" being "open"
for it to get out.
relationship has often been described as a
marriage of convenience. That marriage is now
So far, the Congress has
been desperate to save the union and has sought to
downplay the stinging remarks emanating from the
Trinamool and even extending it an olive branch.
Should a peeved Congress quit the alliance
in Bengal, it can expect the Trinamool to pull the
plug from the UPA government in Delhi. With 19
seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of
parliament, the Trinamool is the second-largest
constituent of the UPA. Its exit would bring down
the government unless the UPA was able to find new
allies. A worried Congress is reportedly fishing
for new friends to shore up support.
for her simple lifestyle but also her
temperamental and unpredictable ways, Banerjee's
clout increased exponentially in May last year
when the Trinamool routed the Left Front in
elections to the West Bengal assembly, bringing to
an end 34 years of uninterrupted communist rule in
The Trinamool has a two-thirds
majority on its own in the West Bengal assembly.
Should the Congress withdraw support to the
Trinamool, Banerjee's government would not fall.
Banerjee has always been a difficult
partner. Her former friends in the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) would vouch for that. The
Trinamool joined the BJP-led National Democratic
Alliance (NDA) government (1999-2004) but quit and
joined hands with the Congress, only to return to
the NDA subsequently. Banerjee kept the BJP on
It is the turn of the
Congress now to suffer her imperious ways.
Banerjee joined the UPA's second innings
in power in 2009 and became the federal minister
of railways. Over the past two-and-a-half years
she hasn't hesitated to speak her mind even if it
embarrassed her alliance partner. The Trinamool,
not the Congress, calls the shots both at the
state and the federal level, Congress politicians
Congress politicians say that
following her landslide electoral victory in May,
Banerjee has turned even more demanding and
arrogant in her relations with the Congress.
The two parties have been at loggerheads
over a number of issues in recent months and it is
the Congress that has given in every time. Her
opposition to a petrol price hike, foreign direct
investment (FDI) in the retail sector, the
creation of lokayuktas (anti-corruption
watchdogs) in the states and a pension bill forced
the government to put decisions on these on hold.
Banerjee has embarrassed the government
In September, for
instance, she forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
to call off the signing of an agreement with
Bangladesh over sharing of the waters of the River
Teesta. The government made an embarrassing
eleventh-hour about-turn on the issue.
Banerjee even pulled out of the prime
minister's entourage for a visit to Dhaka,
refusing to relent even after national Security
Advisor Shivshankar Menon rushed to Kolkata to
make her change her mind. She is reported to have
repeatedly snubbed the prime minister at that time
by not taking his calls.
The current war
of words between the Congress and the Trinamool
has erupted over the latter deciding to rename the
Indira Bhavan building that was originally named
after former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The
calculated slight has angered Congress politicians
in Bengal. They have launched agitations to
protest the move.
argue that the Trinamool's "posturing" on various
issues is simply aimed at wringing concessions out
of the Congress. While this might be true, it is a
fact too that her opposition to FDI in retail and
the pension bill has a direct bearing on her
political constituency. Renaming Indira Bhavan
after a noted Bengali-Muslim poet is aimed at
consolidating Muslim support in the state.
Banerjee's "posturing" is with an eye on local
elections due in West Bengal later this year.
There is little incentive for the
Trinamool to keep the UPA government alive. It is
among a handful of parties that will gain if
general elections were held soon. Six months after
her party swept to power, mass support remains
with the Trinamool in West Bengal. The party is
aware that anti-incumbency sentiment could kick in
if polls were held as scheduled in mid-2014.
The Congress is understandably frustrated
with the Trinamool's repeated targeting of the
government. It is "behaving like an opposition
party", Congress politicians say of their
Yet the Congress wants the
marriage to continue even if only on paper. It
cannot afford a general election at the moment.
Its credibility with voters is at an all-time low
thanks to massive corruption scandals that have
come to the fore over the past two years. It will
lose heavily in the event of immediate general
The Congress is also
preoccupied with upcoming elections in five
states, most importantly Uttar Pradesh (UP). It
would prefer to deal with the souring relations
with the Trinamool after the UP elections.
Congress strategists are calculating that
if the center-left Samajwadi Party emerges the
largest party in UP, the Congress could extend it
support to form a government in the state in
return for the Samajwadi joining the UPA. The SP
currently supports the UPA government from the
outside. With 22 seats in the Lok Sabha, it could
offset the loss of seats should the Trinamool walk
out of the UPA.
Congress politicians warn
that Banerjee's repeated provocation of the grand
old party could boomerang. Her government's
survival might not hinge on Congress support, but
she needs it on her side to win the polls for
local bodies. Should the Congress and Trinamool
contest separately, it would result in a division
of the anti-left vote. The left could recover
ground if she persists with baiting the Congress.
Since coming to power, Banerjee's
performance in Bengal has been rather dismal. The
state has been in the news for all the wrong
reasons - 40 children died in a government
hospital, an illicit liquor tragedy claimed 143
lives and a fire in a leading private hospital
left 91 dead. The government has not been able to
shake off its industry-unfriendly image; it has
failed to draw in investment.
problem is that she is more at home engaging in
street politics than wielding power in government.
Confrontationist politics is second nature to her.
She is in power today, yet cannot shake herself
free of a style of politics that revolves around
conflict and agitation.
"The role change,
from that of an opposition leader to one of a
decision-maker, has not yet sunk into her fiery
persona," observes an editorial in Deccan Herald,
warning that the "permanent state of political
confrontation that she appears to have made a
habit of will no longer help her deliver on tall
The past year was
disastrous for the Congress. It was unable to
control rising prices and came under relentless
pressure from civil society activists on the
corruption issue. It ended the year looking
ineffectual and weary.
And now the new
year has not started well. With the
Congress-Trinamool marriage of convenience
unraveling, the opposition BJP is fishing in
troubled waters and is reported to be reaching out
to its former ally.
But Banerjee is
unlikely to join forces with the BJP at the moment
as it would cost her the support of Muslims.
Besides, she has other plans. She is
reported to be eyeing a larger role for her party,
not as a junior ally of either the Congress or the
BJP but as a key constituent of a possible
non-Congress, non-BJP third front.
would require Banerjee to acquire skills in
reaching compromise and building coalitions.
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at
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