Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Are prime minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee shooting at Mamata Banerjee over Dinesh Trivedi’s shoulder?

Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi indulged in bravado when he told a post-railway budget press conference at Parliament House on Wednesday afternoon that he did not consult Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on measures like hike in passenger fares because she was a chief minister of a state and he would not consult her on railway matters. Either Mr Trivedi a Don Quixote in politics or he wants the public to believe that he is one. He has dared Mamata Banerjee for the good the railways and for the good of the country, and as he summed it up with the help of the Urdu word, “barkat (fortune)”, when said that the “barkat” of the railways is the “barkat” of the country. Given Trivedi’s political credentials, this is quixotic talk at its suicidal high.

But there are other hidden aspects to the infantile drama that Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress are playing out before the country. Trivedi may not have consulted Banerjee, but he has certainly consulted finance minister and Congress’crisis manager Pranab Mukherjee about the main contours of the railway budget he was presenting, and he has also kept prime minister Manmohan Singh in the loop. Mukherjee cannot pretend that he did not foresee the problems arising out of a railway budget that would give Banerjee a handle to arm-twist Mukherjee and the Congress and the UPA. Mukherjee and Singh must have assured Trivedi that his railway budget was alright and that they would take care of angry Banerjee and find ways of pacifying her populist stance. It is hard not to believe that Mukherjee and Singh were shooting at Banerjee over Trivedi’s shoulder.

Trivedi might be a market-oriented politician but this railway budget reflects Singh’s penchant for reforms and hard decisions. This is not a budget that Trivedi could have pulled off on his own. He needed the assurance and backing of Singh and of Mukherjee.

Now, did Mukherjee and Singh keep the Congress party – that is, party president Sonia Gandhi – in the loop? Did they discuss the predictable response of Banerjee and how the situation is to be tackled? Or, did Singh and Mukherjee and others in the government go their own merry way and told themselves that economic imperatives must rule and political compulsions can wait?

The government had mishandled Anna Hazare and Ramdev last summer and created a political crisis for the government. What saved UPA2 was not its own crisis management skills, which were extremely poor and on shameless display, but the stupidity and ineptness of Anna Hazare and his overweening teammates and the erratic and uncouth Ramdev. Banerjee may turn out to be a more difficult person to handle than Hazare and Ramdev because for all her impetuousness, she understands the political sentiment much better than members of the Singh government. Of course, she is instinctive and she lacks caution and tact

Banerjee is no fake populist and that could be her real problem. She may have to learn the hard way that to run a government, and that too at a time of economic and financial constraints, is not an easy thing to do. Politicians can get votes for their populism, but populism lands the people for whom it is meant in a greater mess than ever.

The Congress calculation could be that Banerjee would be the immediate lose if she walks out of UPA2 because she would lose whatever clout that she has to get things done for West Bengal at the central government level. But she could be looking ahead and hoping to garner all the seats she can in the next Lok Sabha elections. It is of course a gamble but that is what politics is at its best.

Congress too must be hoping that it would get in Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav on board and let go Banerjee and the TMC. Banerjee and Congress are both playing a high stakes game. What they cannot pretend is that they are surprised by the turn of events. Banerjee must have had a hint about the Trivedi defection, and Mukherjee-Singh must have factored in angry Banerjee.

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